There has been a lot of talk about the Park51 facility and the purportedly dark and Dr. No-ish intentions of its bankrollers and founders. The so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” is on the verge of becoming this election season’s rhetorical blackhole. It’s unclear what comes out the other side in November after Democratic and Republican wannabeinWashingtons pass its event horizon, but some Republican strategists are growing concerned that the party’s eager grilling of this particular red meat could backfire (which is fine because they could grill it at the end of that metaphor).
Park51, the “mosque,” in quotes here because it is not really a mosque but a large community center which would include a prayer facility of some kind (sort of a mosque in a box) was previously known as “Cordoba House”—its founders and funders apparently hoping to evoke old Cordoba’s reputation as a center of dialogue and cultural synthesis, and not, as it came to be perceived, the lost pride of Islamic Iberian dominance. It has become all anyone wants to talk about, maybe because everyone (and by that I mean everyone in the media) was getting tired of talking about Afghanistan, the sinking economy, Iraq, Moscow and climate change and all that other depressing stuff.
Anyhow, plenty of folks want us to be ascared of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, this would be Dr. No himself, but I’m having trouble finding anyone who appears in videos on BeliefNet all that scary. Plus the Iman is a Sufi, a mystical branch of the Muslim family tree that emphasizes spirituality and asceticism and is engaged in outreach to other faiths, as are many of the folks involved with this project. I don’t know why that fact has not generated more commentary, (I wrote this before noting William Dalrynmple in the NY Times: "The Muslims in the Middle") especially when you consider how much commentary this subject has generated in the last two weeks. Anyways, your standard Sufi is not exactly the 9/11 Islamic maximalist type. In fact, Sufis are frequently the target of oppression and terror from Sunni and Shite groups themselves. They know what it’s like to be in the crosshairs of hyperIslamicists, and I’m pretty sure they don’t like it. The Sufi history has some less than pleasant moments and plenty of Sufis globally are also proponents of Sharia law, so it’s unclear how definitively contemporary Sufism embraces the wider world, at least to me. I invite corrections from actual Islamic scholars. (And thank God I belong to a religious tradition free from internecine bloodshed and miscellaneous historical blemishes.)
But the folks who are proposing Park51 seem genuine to me in their intention to use the facility as a Muslim 92nd Street Y, to reach out to other communities and start a real dialogue that is altogether lacking and obviously necessary given the ignorant and un-American comments emerging during this controversy.
Here are a few of the intentions expressed in the Park51 mission statement: “Uphold respect for the diversity of expression and ideas between all people,” “Cultivate and embrace neighborly relations between all New Yorkers, fostering a spirit of civic participation and an awareness of common needs and opportunities,” “Encourage open discussion and dialogue on issues of relevance to New Yorkers, Americans and the international reality of our interconnected planet,” “Revive the historic Muslim tradition of education, engagement and service, becoming a resource for empowerment and advancement,” “Commit to social justice, dignified human development and spiritual growth for all . . .”
Isn’t this exactly the kind of active, engaging expression of the Islamic tradition folks in the West claim they are seeking to encourage and support wherever it rears its kindly, benevolent head? Isn’t the State Department spending more than a few bucks to promote this expression of Islam and build this bridge to the contemporary Islamic world?
I know this is an easy thing for me to say because I did not lose any loved ones on 9/11—and I say it with some trepidation because of the pain so many have suffered at the WTC—but seen in a different light than the pontificating Kliegs directed at it just now by political opportunists around the country, I would argue that the two-block proximity of this facility to the edge of the World Trade Center campus is not an offense or a triumphalist provocation but appropriate to the peaceable encounter we say we seeking with Islam. Whether or not that encounter is treated with reciprocity is irrelevant. If we truly want to promote the rule of law and tolerance, we need to practice it with enthusiasm and patience. But perhaps that’s all talk and we are just as set on this Clash of Civilizations winding down to an inevitably ugly conclusion as some on the other side. I hope not. I’ve already seen the Kingdom of Heaven (thanks Ridley!). I don’t want to be an uncompensated extra in its contemporary remake.
God doesn’t will this.