The New York Times fleshes out the background of the folks behind the controversial "Cordoba House" (perhaps itself a poor choice as it harkens back, whatever planners' contemporary intentions, to Iberia's Islamic caliphate) and deconstructs their efforts as a case study in poor public relations.
"The organizers built support among some Jewish and Christian groups, and even among some families of 9/11 victims, but did little to engage with likely opponents. More strikingly, they did not seek the advice of established Muslim organizations experienced in volatile post-9/11 passions and politics.
"The organizers ... did not hire a public-relations firm until after the hostility exploded in May. They went ahead with their first public presentation of the project — a voluntary appearance at a community board meeting in Lower Manhattan — just after an American Muslim, Faisal Shahzad, was arrested for planting a car bomb in Times Square.
"'It never occurred to us,' Ms. Khan said. 'We have been bridge builders for years.'
"How Ms. Khan’s early brainstorming led to today’s combustible debate, one often characterized by powerful emotions and mistaken information, is a combination of arguable naïveté, public-relations missteps and a national political climate in which perhaps no preparation could have headed off controversy."
The Cordoba House is a planned $100 million, 13-story, glass and steel Islamic community center, which will include a mosque, a 500-seat auditorium, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and a bookstore. it will offer space for Friday prayers for 1,000–2,000 Muslims. The proposed construction will replace an existing 1850s Italianate building that was damaged in the September 11 attacks, about two blocks from the WTC site. The proposal has generated a lot of opposition in NY and it has become a political football around the country. The poor Landmark Committee had the unenviable task of clearing the final obstacle to the Islamic center—and endured a ton of abuse for doing its job properly, and, though I sympathize with folks who don't like the idea of the center being so close to the spot where Islamic extremists were hell-bent on killing as many people as possible, I can't for the life of me imagine a legal way to prevent its construction that remains true to the rule of law and our deepest civic ethics.
We know what Mayor Bloomberg thinks of the mosque near the WTC "Ground Zero" (another unfortunate choice, it seems to me) and those who have criticized it. Now Governor Patterson is getting involved, seeking to find a more palatable locale for the center. And faith leaders from around the country have jumped into the rhetorical fray, a thankless task no doubt. Faithful America, an ecumenical gathering of "100,000 people of faith" issued a strongly worded statement today in support of the construction of the Cordoba House, sharply rebuking political and civic leaders, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin by name, who are making rhetorical hay from the proposal and "condemning the 'xenophobia and religious bigotry' fueling the increasingly strident opposition to a proposed Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero."
In the statement Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, said: “We fail to honor those killed by terrorists when we betray the bedrock principle of religious freedom that has guided our democracy for centuries.”
“Christians who believe in the values of religious freedom and interfaith cooperation welcome plans for Cordoba House, a center of culture and dialogue that will honor our nation’s highest ideals,” said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, President of the National Council of Churches. “We are deeply saddened by those who denigrate a religion which in so many ways is a religion of compassion and peace by associating all Muslims with violent extremism. That’s like equating all Christians to Timothy McVeigh’s actions. This center will reflect not only the best of Islam, but the enduring hope that Christians, Jews and Muslims can together find common ground in addressing the most urgent challenges of our time.
“Back in the fall of 2001, when President George W. Bush assured the American people that the War on Terror was not a war against Islam, it would have been hard to imagine a more picture perfect example of Muslim Americans exercising their civic responsibilities than by building a thirteen-story YMCA-style community center,” said Rev. Chloe Breyer, Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of New York. “Cordoba House is exactly the kind of initiative that we need here in New York – it will serve people of all faith traditions and enrich the city, cultivating a society that lives up to our highest ideals, not our worse fears.”
“I’m proud to join so many leaders from diverse faith traditions who recognize that fear-mongering and scapegoating ‘the other’ has no rightful place in a nation that strives to be a beacon of hope for all those seeking opportunity or escaping persecution,” said Simon Greer, President and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice. “At a time when Americans deserve real solutions to profound challenges, I am hopeful that the shrill voices of division will be drowned out by a chorus of citizens dedicated to working across lines of race and faith to serve the common good.”
The full statement from Faithful America follows:
Interfaith Leaders Stand with Cordoba House, Denounce Hateful Rhetoric
As Catholic, evangelical, mainline Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders and scholars committed to religious freedom and inter-religious cooperation, we are deeply troubled by the xenophobia and religious bigotry that has characterized some of the opposition to a proposed Islamic center and mosque near where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, is the most recent prominent opponent to cast this debate in a way that demonizes all Muslims and exploits fear to divide Americans. "It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way," Gingrich, a Catholic, said in a statement. Sarah Palin, an evangelical Christian who frequently references her faith as an inspiration for her political beliefs, called plans for the center a “provocation.” Fox News has aired a steady stream of irresponsible commentary and biased coverage that reduces what should be a civil debate into starkly combative terms.
The profound tragedy of Sept. 11th revealed the horror that can unfold when a small minority of violent extremists manipulates religious language for political gain and falsely claims to represent one of the world’s great religions. We have witnessed this sinful corruption of religion across faith traditions throughout history and must condemn it without equivocation whenever or wherever it occurs. However, we fail to honor those murdered on that awful day – including Muslim Americans killed in the Twin Towers and Pentagon – by betraying our nation’s historic commitment to religious liberty, fueling ugly stereotypes about Islam and demeaning the vast majority of Muslims committed to peace. The proposed mosque would be part of Cordoba House, a center open to all Americans that will provide Islamic, interfaith and secular programs. The project aims to support “integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion through arts and culture,” according to the Cordoba Initiative, which promotes improved “Muslim-West relations.” These are exactly the kind of efforts that foster dialogue, break down barriers and begin to build a world where religiously inspired violent extremism is less likely.
Mr. Gingrich, Ms. Palin and other prominent voices privileged to have the ear of the media would make a more lasting contribution to our nation if they stopped issuing inflammatory statements and instead helped inspire a civil dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims committed to a future guided by the principles of compassion, justice and peace. Fear-mongering and hateful rhetoric only undermine treasured values at the heart of diverse faith traditions and our nation’s highest ideals.
The full statement with signatories is available online.