"Mosque" ado about nothing

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 27 July 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

Published in: Khaleej Times (UAE), July 29, 2010.

Published in: Kuwait Times, Aug 4, 2010.

Jacksonville, Florida - The proposal for a Muslim community centre called the Cordoba House, two blocks from where the World Trade Centre stood, has unleashed a torrent of emotions. The New York Times described some of the speech emerging from debates in the media and during protests against the centre as "vitriolic commentary, pitting Muslims against Christians, Tea Partiers against staunch liberals, and Sept. 11 families against one another."

The proposed project is organised by the Cordoba Initiative, a New York City organisation focused on improving Muslim-Western relations. Organisers describe the Cordoba House as a "community centre with Islamic, interfaith and secular programming." Though frequently described as a mosque because it will have an Islamic prayer room, the Cordoba House will be more of a public space that will celebrate our common humanity and further community harmony.

Such a message seems to be the perfect antidote to the hate and anger that fuels fear and violence.

Several other mosque-construction projects across the country, including in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Dayton, Ohio, have encountered similar acerbic opposition in recent months. This suggests that something more is going on than just outrage over the proposed centre's proximity to Ground Zero.

Fears of terrorism and its erroneously perceived links to Islam are cited by detractors as their most common concerns. However, the detractors either ignore or are ignorant of the fact that those who perpetrate terrorism betray the teachings of Islam, which is why 9/11 has been unequivocally condemned by all major Islamic scholars, organisations and countries. One only needs to Google the phrases "Islamic statements against terrorism" or "Muslims condemn terrorism" to read a sampling of the many condemnations issued by Muslims worldwide.

Linking Islam, a faith practiced by over a billion people worldwide, to the terrorism being committed by a handful of fanatical and misguided Muslims is absurd. This absurdity is perhaps best exemplified in the signage on display at one of the protests near the Cordoba House site that read, "Building a mosque at Ground Zero is like building a memorial to Hitler at Auschwitz."

Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has only added fuel to the growing fire by asking "peace-seeking" Muslims to protest the building of this centre. Yet she fails to repudiate the hate of Mark Williams, former leader of the Tea Party Express, an umbrella organisation of several Tea Party groups, who angered Muslims nationwide when he claimed on his website that the centre would serve as a monument to the 9/11 terrorists, and be used for "the worship of the terrorists' monkey-god".

Certainly, we should preserve the memory of the Sept. 11 tragedy and be respectful of those who lost their loved ones. But this does not mean that as a nation we can succumb to fear mongering about Muslims. A commentary in the New York Post further stoked such fears by stating, "Where there are mosques, there are Muslims, and where there are Muslims, there are problems."

On NBC News, Pamela Geller, one of the Cordoba House's lead protesters, objected to the building of the 13-story community centre because they will then be able to look down at Ground Zero from the upper floors of the building. By Geller's logic then, building churches near the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City should not be allowed. After all Timothy McVeigh, a United States Army veteran who was convicted of detonating a truck bomb in front of the Murrah Building in 1995, was influenced by the Christian Identity movement.

The opposition to Cordoba House near Ground Zero is being led by some of the most intolerant elements in our society. Thankfully, well-reasoned voices, such as Rabbi Darren Levine of the Jewish Community Project Downtown, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, are consistently decrying such fears. But New York Mayor Michel Bloomberg summed it up best when he stated, "What is great about America, and particularly New York, is that we welcome everybody…. The ability to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded."

Such voices of reason are triumphing over the voices of discord. Despite orchestrated opposition, mosque projects are gaining regulatory approval. But overcoming misguided fears about Islam and Muslims requires gaining the trust of neighbors. Mosques and Muslim-run community centres ought to go beyond their usual religious functionality and undertake a leadership role by becoming sanctuaries for dialogue and understanding, which the Cordoba House aims to do. Only then will the voices of paranoia be relegated to the footnotes of history.

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* Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the Muslim American experience. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

A Mosque Near Ground Zero

by Parvez Ahmed
Also In Huffington Post.

A proposed mosque, two blocks from where the World Trade Center twin-towers stood, have unleashed emotions, which the New York Times described as, "vitriolic commentary, pitting Muslims against Christians, Tea Partiers against staunch liberals, and Sept. 11 families against one another." What began as a well intentioned project to promote interfaith understanding and to help American Muslims preserve their moderate Islamic identity has devolved into name-calling, mud-slinging and political grandstanding.
The proposed project is described by the organizers' Cordoba Initiative as a, "community center with Islamic, interfaith and secular programming." It is less of a mosque, in a commonly understood sense, and more of a public space aimed at celebrating our common humanity and increasing community harmony. Such a message seems to be the perfect anti-dote to the hate and anger that fuels violence and terrorism.

The fact that other mosque-construction projects across the country from Brooklyn and Staten Island in New York to Dayton in Ohio have also encountered similar acerbic opposition points to something more to than just outrage over the proposed mosque's proximity to ground zero. Fears of terrorism and its perceived links to Islam seem to be the most cited concern. Mistaken perceptions of Muslims having no more than six degrees of separation from terrorists have spread paranoia among detractors, obfuscating reality.

Take for example a basic fact that the so-called ground zero mosque is actually not on ground zero. This prompted commentator Chris Matthews on MSNBC to ask - what distance away from ground zero could any mosque be in order to be deemed appropriate? If building a house of worship two blocks away from where the worst terrorist attacks on American soil killed over three thousands innocent souls is sacrilegious then why has making money off the memory of this tragedy by souvenir and tourist gawking not evoked any similar protest?

The absurdity is further seen in the signage on display at a protest event. One sign read, "Building a Mosque at Ground Zero is Like building a memorial to Hitler at Auschwitz." Equating the building of a mosque, by Muslims who reject and condemn al-Qaeda and its violent ideology, to a memorial for Hitler at Auschwitz is fear-mongering and ignoring reality. No Ms. Palin, peaceful Muslims do not need to "refudiate" the building of this mosque. You need to repudiate people who harbor Islamophobic views such as Tea Party leader Mark Williams saying Muslims worship a "monkey god." You need to repudiate demagogues like Pamlea Geller who said that for Muslims to "pray next to" Ground Zero is "repugnant," and a "kick in the head" to Americans.

New York City is home to several thousand Muslims, many of whom work in Manhattan. They need a place to pray and are perfectly within their rights to seek a suitable space. By all accounts, their choice was not merely within their rights but their conception of the project is quite egalitarian. And yet detractors are upset and keep justifying their opposition based on Muslims flying airplanes into the twin towers on September 11, 2001. They either ignore or are ignorant of the fact that those who perpetrated this crime against humanity betrayed the teachings of Islam, which is why 9-11 has been unequivocally condemned by all major Islamic scholars, organization and countries.

We should preserve the memory of this tragedy and be respectful of those who lost their loved ones. But as a nation we cannot succumb to unfounded fears of everything Muslim. In a news segment on NBC News one of the lead protester's (Pamela Geller) main objection was that Muslims should not be allowed to build this 11-story mosque because then they will be able to look at ground zero from the upper floors of that building. Such frivolity would be comical if the issue was not this serious. Since Timothy McVeigh was influenced by the Christian Identity movement, should churches be inappropriate near the Murrah building in Oklahoma City?

The debate over the mosque near ground zero needs to be placed in the context of the protests over building other mosques now spreading across America. These protests are being led by the some of the most extremist elements in our society. Thankfully, well reasoned voices from Jewish Rabbis to Christian Pastors to a wide array of politicians and public servants have been consistently decrying such fears.

The voices of reason are triumphing over the voices of discord. Despite orchestrated opposition, mosque projects are gaining regulatory approval. While American Muslims are winning their rights they are not necessarily winning many hearts and minds. Overcoming misguided fears about Islam and Muslim will require gaining the trust of neighbors. More mosques, even those not seeking new expansion or new construction, will have to go beyond their usual religious functionality and undertake a leadership role in becoming a sanctuary for dialogue and understanding. Only then will the voices of paranoia be relegated to footnotes in history.

Thank those who serve our country


AltMuslim.com July 9, 2010
It is possible to be a good American and a good Muslim. More of one does not mean less of the other. Weaving American patriotic traditions into Muslim events will make this point loud and clear.

BY PARVEZ AHMED, JULY 9, 2010

Over the July 4th weekend I was one of the speakers at the 47th Annual Convention of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest gathering of Muslims in North America. At their Community Service Luncheon I was seated next to Lieutenant Colonel Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, the first Muslim chaplain in the US military. After some initial small talk I leaned over and thanked him for his service.

Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed with a wide grin accepted my thanks and then with sadness in his voice said that in his experience not too many Muslims extend such appreciation to our men and women in uniform. Some even question the Islamicity of being in the US army. This despite the fact that, according to American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, upwards of 15,000 Muslims serve in the US armed forces. Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed went on to say, “If America is worth being inhabited by Muslims, reaping her many benefits, then Muslims have a natural obligation to serve in her defense against those who choose to do harm to its citizens, property, or values.”

Extremists, both from within the Muslim community and outside, fail to grasp the importance and necessity of Muslims serving in the US armed forces. The American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, has published an article on its website calling for Muslims to be barred from military service. The radical Muslim cleric Anwar al Awlaki, who influenced the Maj. Nidal Hasan to go on a killing rampage at Fort Hood said that the only way a Muslim can justify serving in the U.S. military is if he intends to “follow in the footsteps of men like Nidal.” Awlaki went on to say that Hasan, “is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”

American Muslims are sickened by the views of radicals like Anwar al Awlaki as much as they are alarmed by the anti-Muslim rhetoric loudly reverberating among the extreme right of American politics. However, simply expressing outrage is not enough. Collectively and individually American Muslims need to take concrete and meaningful steps that marginalize the views of radicals like Awlaki and also win the hearts and minds of those who stay silent when powerful forces align to marginalize the Muslim community.

One useful step is making a conscience effort to make overt gestures of patriotism even when such gestures are symbolic. Regardless of whether the men and women in uniform are Muslims or people of other faiths they all deserve our gratitude and appreciation. Showing that gratitude is not symbolic and does not undermine any advocacy against current US foreign policy and armed conflicts.

American Muslim events generally begin with the recitation of the Holy Quran. This can easily be followed with a Pledge of Allegiance or the singing of the National Anthem. A few organizations have been doing this despite the cynicism of the misguided few. Flying the American flag on the premises of the Islamic centers will also be a step in the right direction. Several Islamic centers already do this. More need to follow their lead. Incorporating the "Changing of the Colors" flag ceremony could also be an appropriate fixture at American Muslim events.

In 2001 when the US was preparing to invade Afghanistan, Taha Jabir Alwani then president of an institute that trains Islamic military chaplains, issued a fatwa (religious decree) that allowed Muslims to fight for the United States in Afghanistan. The fatwa also gave Muslims the option of refusing to fight on grounds of religious conscience. With the gathering danger of radicalization looming over the American Muslim community, a case can be made for a more clearly worded fatwa that encourages, instead of merely allowing, Muslims to serve in the US army.

The presence of American Muslim soldiers can be beneficial on many fronts. Besides being appropriately reflecting of our national diversity the presence of American Muslim soldiers can mitigate abusive incidents such as the ones at Abu Ghraib that justifiably deserve our condemnation. At a time when the American mission in Afghanistan and Iraq is not merely to win a conflict but also to win hearts and minds, American Muslims in the U.S. military can be a valuable bridge between the U.S. military and the Muslim world.

It is possible to be a good American and a good Muslim. More of one does not mean less of the other. Weaving American patriotic traditions into Muslim events will make this point loud and clear. Thanking our men and women in uniform is not just keeping up with finest traditions of being American but it is also authentically Islamic. God loves people who express their gratitude towards those who serve us. The men and women in the armed forces volunteer to lay their lives so that we can live free. Undoubtedly they deserve our thanks.

Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the American Muslim experience.