Where is our sense of tolerance?

Reid Smith Contributor
Font Size:

I can understand the outrage.

The 9/11 hijackers turned the World Trade Center to rubble, killing thousands of innocent Americans, in a radical service to their faith. That a Lower Manhattan community board has now voted to approve construction of a $100 million Islamic center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero has led many to question whether nothing is sacred.

Like I said, I can empathize with the indignation – however, I must emphatically disagree with its inevitable, knee-jerk conclusions.

The project is incredibly controversial. I suppose it’s clear why some people feel that it’s being done in poor taste. But when we get down to brass tacks, the construction of the Cordoba House has about as much to do with fanatical Islam as my Catholic parish’s Sunday Mass does with quaffing Flavor Aid at Jonestown.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose Cordoba Initiative is managing the project, has said that the center will help “bridge the divide” between America, her Muslim citizens and the greater Muslim world. His organization’s tagline is “Improving Muslim-West Relations.” He’s a man who has devoted his life’s work to doing just that. Yes, he’s made some controversial statements in the past. But he’s done so in the spirit of open and honest dialogue. And what good is communication without candor?

Now, the community board’s approval of the project doesn’t guarantee that this project will become bricks and mortar. Rauf will still have to clear the requisite zoning obstacles and raise a considerable sum of money.

And if he succeeds? Well, he’ll have moved his base of operations precisely ten blocks south of its current location on West Broadway in the city’s TriBeCa neighborhood. He will also have expanded his spiritual venture from its current profile as a street level storefront to a multilevel Islamic community center that includes a space for worship. Not to mention a swimming pool, performing arts theater and a culinary school. Just to be clear, this is not some 15-story mega-mosque. But I digress.

The Cordoba House would stand as a powerful statement of our society’s strength and freedom. It makes mockery of the religious zealotry that brought the Towers down. If New York serves as America’s cultural bellwether, it must embrace its religious diversity to demonstrate our nation’s social harmony.

As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated, ”What is great about America, and particularly New York, is we welcome everybody, and if we are so afraid of something like this what does it say about us?”

The fact that this mosque can be built in the shadows of Ground Zero suggests that America has refused to be drawn into some epic, millenarian struggle with Islam. This is the vision and the objective of madmen such as Osama Bin Laden. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into this line of thinking. The proverbial clash of civilizations must be avoided and it’s up to us to see that it is.

Yet, those who object to the construction do not believe it will validate some grand display of interfaith reconciliation. Rather, they say this building will give testament to a brazen contempt for the dead. Of course, as the Times’ Clyde Haberman noted in his excellent column, our defilement-radar only seems to start pinging when Islam comes on the screen. As he states, “no one is known to have protested the fact that three blocks from ground zero, on Murray Street off Broadway, there is a strip joint.”

Of course, the First Amendment guarantees religious liberty for Christians and non-Christians, alike. Many of those who are most vocal in their opposition to the construction of this Islamic center have been telling us for years that we were attacked because “they hate our freedom.” Well, is it just me, or has that freedom just dealt them a double-bind worthy of Joseph Heller?

I’d like to think our sense of tolerance is stronger than this. If the Cordoba House project is derailed, I’ll spare you a flippant quip about whether “the terrorists have won,” but it would be a damn shame to see our liberties so cunningly skewered.

Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a political speechwriter. He will join the University of Delaware’s Department of Political Science and International Relations as a graduate associate and doctoral candidate in fall 2010.