The New York mosque is part of the American dream
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Some Americans believe that the planned Park51 Islamic Cultural Center two blocks north of Ground Zero is insensitive to the memory of the victims of 9/11 and their families.
"It is too soon," they say with solemn exasperation. "It is hallowed ground. It is selfish for Muslims to invoke the name of Allah where so many Americans were massacred."
Meanwhile, hundreds of our fellow Americans have been meeting and praying at the site of the old Burlington Coat Factory since last year. The store closed shortly after the landing gear from one of the doomed planes that slammed into the World Trade Center crashed through the roof.
It has been nearly a decade, but the Muslims who want to transform the dusty premises into a more dignified place to meet, eat, sweat and pray have been alone in seeing a use for the property. They have already hallowed the building with their prayers.
"It is not right for Muslims to pray near Ground Zero when the remains of so many Americans have yet to be accounted for," the opponents of Park51 say. "Their dust must not be swept away by a construction project that benefits the religion of those who attacked us on 9/11."
With the exception of a handful of politicians who cynically conflate the religion of American Muslims with the nihilism of the 9/11 terrorists, the right of worshippers to transform abandoned property in the middle of an economic dead zone into a cultural center is not in question.
The objection to an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero is rooted in metaphysical rather than constitutional arguments. Vague apprehensions about Muslims in general provide the accelerant of suspicion necessary to scare a majority of Americans into opposing the project.
There literally is no reasoning with those who make the mental leap from 19 jihadists on four planes to thousands of ecumenical-minded Muslims in New York.
If you point out that the Park51 project will consist of a culinary school, exercise and swimming facilities, public meeting halls, a 9/11 meditation hall and a mosque, they repeat that it is "too soon." If you ask them why their fear of Muslims meeting in this particular spot is so extreme, they have no logical response. They are simply overwhelmed by the symbolism and incapable of processing the benign reality behind their fear.
It may not disabuse them of their anxiety, but try asking an opponent of the Park51 project what he or she really thinks will happen once the cultural center is built. Do they imagine a domed structure surrounded by looming minarets casting sinister shadows from property where a modest, Italian Renaissance, palazzo-style building used to stand?
What do they imagine their fellow Americans will be doing inside New York's first cultural center for Muslims? What is there to fear about providing a quality space for Muslim youth to play basketball? What is so threatening about an interfaith speaker series? Why is it "too soon" for a swimming pool to open two blocks from Ground Zero? What is it about the presence of an official mosque on a property where Muslims have gathered to pray since last year that makes so many Americans agitated and fearful?
The answer is deceptively simple: A growing percentage of Americans believe the absolute worst about their fellow citizens who happen to be Muslim. That's why the fear of Park51, although inherently irrational, remains politically potent for opportunistic politicians.
Although even the most xenophobic don't think portraits of Osama bin Laden will line the halls of Park51, many believe Shariah law will finally have a foothold in lower Manhattan if the center is allowed to open.
While conceding that the Islamic center is likely to appear non-threatening to outsiders, there is a dark suspicion that, once hidden from infidel eyes, Muslims will resort to code embedded deep in their rituals to plot a multi-generational conquest of America.
It is less of a stretch for many opposed to the project to imagine courses on martyrdom and the stoning of adulterers at Park51 than to imagine the best-case scenario, which also happens to be the most likely: Muslims will play, pray, be exposed to Jews and Christians from all walks of life and be assimilated into the American experience at Park51.
There will be American flags at Park51. There will be reverence for the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in its halls. It will spur economic development in the area.
Those who worship and play there will be the greatest rebuke to those who perpetuated the horror of 9/11. They will be Americans who embrace both Allah and the American Dream.
First Published August 20, 2010 12:00 am