In August 2010, I was living in Manhattan and had a front row seat to the highly emotional and impassioned debate over plans to build an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. To refresh your memory, Cordoba House was a proposed Islamic community center intended to promote an interfaith dialogue.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the founder of the project, described his intentions this way: “My ambition was to create a Muslim version of the 92nd Street Y in New York that would have cultural and educational programs, a prayer space, and a community center to promote a distinctively American Muslim identity, as well as a welcoming space for people of other faiths to build bridges and engage with each other.”
The vision was for the center to be “a beacon of transformative spirituality for the American Muslim community in New York and beyond. Grounded in the authentic essence of faith through worship of the One God, the purpose of the Cordoba House is to establish a compassionate forward thinking, moderate, pluralistic and inclusive Muslim community that applies a holistic approach to education, social services and activities, interfaith relations and cultural events.”
Sounds pretty cool, right? Except Cordoba House had a major issue: The location. Because the center was going to be built two blocks from the World Trade Center site it was super controversial, with many opponents of the project referring to it as the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
At the time, I remember thinking that this was an excellent opportunity for our president and congressional leaders to demonstrate domestic and international leadership. After all, the Pew Research Center estimates there are 3.45 million Muslims of all ages living in America. We desperately need the trust of these fellow neighbors as we fight homegrown violent extremists and terrorists abroad, and they already help tremendously with this effort every day.
Many Afghan- and Iraqi-Americans, for example, have graciously assisted our military with language translation skills and by providing cultural knowledge as civilians, and there are 5,896 self-identified Muslims who currently serve in the military (this number is probably much higher since 400,000 service members elect to not self-report their faith).
But with very few exceptions — NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg being one — most of our leaders chose to be puppets of politics and polls. It was so disappointing and depressing to watch how this all went down.
First let me say that, without question, for many Americans (myself included) the sorrow of 9/11 was then — and is now — as heartbreaking as it was the day it happened. It’s perfectly understandable that many Americans had strong feelings about an Islamic cultural center being built close to Ground Zero, especially as our soldiers still fought overseas and as acts of terror continued to occur in the name of Islam.
I must admit, my initial reaction after hearing about the proposed location was significant discomfort at best. However, in the face of terror, it is imperative that we not lose the very essence of who we are. We are the country that welcomes the poor, the tired, and the huddled masses. We are the country that celebrates life, liberty, and justice for all. We are the country that perfected the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, and the free exercise of religion.
Beyond anything else, the core question here is: Do we want to live in a country that prohibits private citizens from building places to worship and celebrate their religion?