New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo are locked into their position on the plan to build a mosque and Muslim community center—the Cordoba House—at Ground Zero. They maintain there are no security risks posed by the project and that this is simply an issue of religious expression. The Lower Manhattan Community Board, after holding hearings, recommended against halting the project.
But there is an additional message that politicians and business leaders could convey to Cordoba House planner Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf that does not contradict their argument about freedom of religious expression and private property. It could be in the form of an open letter that I suspect the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers would support:
To Imam Feisal: We write with an unshakable commitment to religious freedom, and to your right to exercise it in meaningful and concrete ways. We have great appreciation for the progressive and inclusive interpretation of Islam to which you speak. We have read with care your own words about the purpose of the Cordoba House. We take those words as our starting point for the issues we raise in this letter, as we appeal to your senses of decency, empathy and prudence—and to those of all Muslims of goodwill.
Your stated goal of interfaith and cross-cultural understanding is a good one—one that we all share and have devoted considerable energy to furthering. It may well be that this goal would be furthered still by the building and operation of Cordoba House. However, while we will continue to stand with you and your right to proceed with this project, we see no reason why it must necessarily be located so close to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Those attacks, as you well know, were committed in the name of Islam. We applaud and thank every Muslim throughout the world who has rejected and denounced this association. But the fact remains that in the minds of many who are swayed by the most radical interpretations of Islam, the Cordoba House will not be seen as a center for peace and reconciliation. It will rather be celebrated as a Muslim monument erected on the site of a great Muslim "military" victory—a milestone on the path to the further spread of Islam throughout the world.
Someone who rejects the link between Islam and the brand of radicalism and violence espoused by al Qaeda and like-minded groups should be wary of helping to further, even inadvertently, the rhetoric and propaganda of those groups. Indeed, we believe that such a person should take an active role in opposing any measure or message that might be seized upon by those whom he considers to be the blasphemers of his own faith.
Our deeper concern is what effect Cordoba House would have on the families of 9/11 victims, survivors of and first responders to the attacks, New Yorkers in general, and all Americans. As you have seen in the public reaction to the Cordoba House, 9/11 remains a deep wound for Americans—especially those who experienced it directly in some way. They understandably see the area as sacred ground. Nearly all of them also reject the equation of Islam with terrorism and do not blame the attacks on Muslims generally or on the Muslim faith. But many believe that Ground Zero should be reserved for memorials to the event itself and to its victims. They do not understand why of all possible locations in the city, Cordoba House must be sited so near to there.
Many New Yorkers and Americans will conclude that the radical interpretation of Cordoba House's purpose is correct. That belief will harm what you have articulated to be Cordoba House's core mission. Rather than furthering cross-cultural and interfaith understanding, a Cordoba House located near Ground Zero would undermine them. Rather that serving as a bridge between Muslim and non-Muslim peoples, it would function as a divide. Your expressed hopes for the center not only would never be realized, they would be contradicted from the start. Insisting on this particular site on Park Place can only reinforce this counterproductive dynamic.
Another site—not just away from Ground Zero but also closer to residential neighborhoods—would serve your institution and the city better. Worshipers would be closer and the communities that need help would also benefit from proximity. We stand ready to help you select and secure another site, to overcome regulatory hurdles, and to make up for any lost time.
The American people have shown themselves to be respectful of Muslim religious sensibilities—even in cases in which it was not clear to them why or how those sensibilities were being offended. We shall confine ourselves to one example among hundreds. The original name for the military operation against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan was "Operating Infinite Justice." Several leading Muslim scholars and clerics objected that the term was offensive to Muslims because "infinite justice" can come only from Allah. The American government immediately changed the name to "Operation Enduring Freedom," with the full support of the American people.
The name seemed to us to be immaterial to the mission—which is why we judged the change to be a worthy gesture to people whom we did not wish to offend but hoped to honor. Similarly, the exact street address of your cultural center cannot matter to the performance of its mission—but it very much does matter to the perceptions of your fellow Americans. We urge you to reconsider.
Mr. Senor is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a resident of lower Manhattan. He served as a senior adviser to the Coalition in Iraq and was based in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004.
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