Opposition to a
proposed mosque near Ground Zero swelled into a furor this week after its
planners on Aug. 3 passed the last municipal hurdle barring them from building
it. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg spoke passionately in defense of the
project. "Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and
that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans,"
Bloomberg said in a speech that day. "We would betray our values and play into
our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else."
Bloomberg's predecessor didn't agree. The former
mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, claimed that the project, which is
partially intended to be an interfaith community center, would be a
"desecration," adding that "decent" Muslims ought not object to his opinion.
Other GOP politicians and talking heads who have far less to do with the
events of 9/11 — or, for that matter, New York — have joined the chorus,
arguing in some instances that a mosque near Ground Zero would be a monument
Such Islamophobia is unsurprising in the
post–Cold War age of al-Qaeda and sleeper cells. And Islam, of course, has
long been a bogeyman for the West. For centuries, a more advanced, more
powerful Islamic world haunted the imagination of snow-bitten Christendom.
When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they brought the language of the
Reconquista with them, sometimes referring to Aztecs and Mayans as "Moors" and
to their ziggurats as "mosques." The Sultanate of Morocco was the first
government in the world to recognize the existence of an independent United
States, in 1778. But it was America's naval expeditions to North Africa — the
two early–19th century Barbary Wars — that first marked the U.S.'s arrival on
the global stage and crystallized a new American patriotism at home.
history of Muslims in the U.S. was a lonely one. While there are isolated
reports of "Moorish" sailors and even an Egyptian dwelling in corners of the
colonies, the first significant populations were slaves from West Africa.
Bilali Mohammed was born in Guinea in roughly 1770 and died in 1857 on a
plantation on Sapelo Island in Georgia, leaving behind a 13-sheaf document in
Arabic. It's a treatise of religious jurisprudence specific to the society of
Muslim West Africa and one of the earliest classic slave narratives.
Abdulrahman Ibraheem Ibn Sori, like the literary figure of Oroonoko in Aphra
Behn's famous 1688 novel of the same name, was royalty from a Guinean kingdom
before being abducted and whisked away to slavery in Mississippi. As word of a
lettered, regal "Prince of Slaves" spread across the country, Ibn Sori won
allies and friends and was eventually freed in 1828 by an order from President
John Quincy Adams. He left the U.S. for the former slave republic of Liberia
in Africa but died of fever soon thereafter, never to return to the land of
African slaves were far less lucky, and memory of their varied cultural
heritage dissipated over generations of enslavement. Black Islam would be
revived in the first half of the 20th century as a creed of empowerment and
redemption. The Nation of Islam, founded in 1933, sought to step away from the
indignity of the past with a wholesale rejection of the predominantly white,
Christian nation that surrounded them; to this day, the website of the now
much diminished group identifies black Americans as descendants of a "Lost
Nation of Asia." For prominent activists like Malcolm X, Islam was a badge of
otherness, of distinction and pride in the face of old injustices.
On the sidelines
of these struggles, other Muslims were more than happy to try to fit in. By
the end of the 19th century, immigrants from the Ottoman Empire began settling
in pockets across the U.S. Some of the first active Muslim congregations in
the country began in towns like Cedar Rapids, Iowa (led by Lebanese), and
Biddeford, Maine (led by Albanians). In 1926, Polish-speaking Tatars opened
one of the first mosques in Brooklyn. By the latter half of the 20th century,
the majority of Muslims moving to the U.S. were from South Asia and Arab
states. Today, there are an estimated 7 million Muslims living in the U.S.,
from myriad communities and all walks of life. To speak of them in
generalities would be pointless.
since 9/11, a spotlight has fallen on American Islam and the potential
extremists in our midst. There are villains: from Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the
blind Egyptian imprisoned for life for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade
Center bombings, to New Mexico–born Anwar al-Awlaki, an Islamist lecturer who
is thought to have preached to a few of the 9/11 hijackers and is now in
hiding in Yemen, the first U.S. citizen to wind up on a CIA targeted kill
list. Curiously, a conspicuous number of U.S. jihadists have come from
non-Muslim backgrounds, like the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, who
grew up in a prosperous San Francisco suburb, and David Headley, a half
Pakistani born in Washington who, before allegedly planning the Mumbai
terrorist attacks in November 2008, was running a bar in Philadelphia.
Concerted Homeland Security measures seem to rope in occasional terrorism
suspects — like the 14 arrests this week of U.S. residents allegedly linked to
the al-Shabab militant group in Somalia. But many Muslim communities have come
under siege, facing a barrage of media scrutiny and xenophobic bluster.
In this context,
figures like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf — the Arab-American cleric behind the
mosque project near Ground Zero — stand out. A consummate moderate who has
made a career preaching about the compatibility of Islamic and American
values, Rauf has been cast as a dangerous radical by the mosque's opponents.
Few of them are moved by the name of Rauf's proposed building: Cordoba House,
named for the city in Spanish Andalucia where Muslims, Jews and Christians
once co-existed for centuries in an extraordinary flourishing of culture and
science. In these times, the richness and diversity of Muslim experience, in
the U.S. and elsewhere, seem far from the minds of most Americans.
The last legal
hurdle to the proposed Islamic center near the site of the World Trade Center
has been removed, but ignorance, bigotry and politics are more formidable
obstacles. The unanimous vote Tuesday, Aug. 3, by the New York City Landmarks
Preservation Commission means the building that currently occupies 45-47 Park
Place can be torn down, clearing the way for Park51, a project known to its
critics as the "Ground Zero Mosque." Criticism spans the gamut, from the
ill-informed anguish of those who mistakenly view Islam as the malevolent
force that brought down the towers to the ill-considered opportunism of
right-wing politicians who see Islam as an easy target.
Islam's roots in New York City are in the area around the site of the World
Trade Center, and they predate the Twin Towers: in the late 19th century, a
portion of lower Manhattan was known as Little Syria and was inhabited by Arab
immigrants — Muslims and Christians — from the Ottoman Empire.)
authorities now out of the way, it is the people spearheading the project who
must bear the enormous pressure to give up their plans and scrap the building.
They are being accused of sympathizing with the men who crashed the planes on
9/11 and of designing the project as, in Newt Gingrich's reckoning, "an act of
And yet Park51's main movers, Imam Feisal Abdul
Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, are actually the kind of Muslim leaders
right-wing commentators fantasize about: modernists and moderates who openly
condemn the death cult of al-Qaeda and its adherents — ironically, just the
kind of "peaceful Muslims" whom Sarah Palin, in her now infamous tweet, asked
to "refudiate" the mosque. Rauf is a Sufi, which is Islam's most mystical and
The Kuwaiti-born Rauf, 52, is the imam of a
mosque in New York City's Tribeca district, has written extensively on Islam
and its place in modern society and often argues that American democracy is
the embodiment of Islam's ideal society. (One of his books is titled What's
Right with Islam Is What's Right with America.) He is a contributor to the
Washington Post's On Faith blog, and the stated aim of his
organization, the Cordoba Initiative, is "to achieve a tipping point in
Muslim-West relations within the next decade, steering the world back to the
course of mutual recognition and respect and away from heightened tensions."
His Indian-born wife is an architect and a recipient of the Interfaith Center
Award for Promoting Peace and Interfaith Understanding.
Since 9/11, Western "experts" have said
repeatedly that Muslim leaders who fit Rauf's description should be sought out
and empowered to fight the rising tide of extremism. In truth, such figures
abound in Muslim lands, even if their work goes unnoticed by armchair pundits
elsewhere. Their cause is not helped when someone like Rauf finds himself
being excoriated for some perceived reluctance to condemn Hamas and accused of
being an extremist himself. If anything, this browbeating of a moderate Muslim
empowers the narrative promoted by al-Qaeda: that the West loathes everything
about Islam and will stop at nothing to destroy it.
Rauf and Khan
have said Park51 — envisaged as a 15-story structure, including a mosque,
cultural center and auditorium — will promote greater interfaith dialogue. The
furor over the project only underlines how desperately it is needed.