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This Hallowed Ground | Political Waves

Read about the history of the Cordoba House in Salon magazine.

Have you hugged a Muslim today? Do you even know one? Here in America, Muslims make up only 0.6 percent of the population. It would be a boon if each of us had an actual representative of Islam handy, someone of flesh and blood and American sensibilities who could help us banish the murderous turban-wearing maniacs dancing in our imaginations, intent on our destruction. For the past decade, Islamophobic emails from conservatives have attacked Muslims with the same fanatical sentiment that drives the current 'Ground Zero Mosque' hysteria. In case you missed this, the proposed building of a Muslim cultural center one-tenth of a mile from the site where the Towers once stood has set the nation on its ear.

It is difficult to identify the actual jihadists in this wrangle -- those from the East devoted to the purity of the Prophet or those from the West demanding allegiance to corporate Jesus and tribal America. The evangelistas and the Taliban seem like clones of each other, especially in nationwide calls to eliminate mosques. Politico-religious extremists have again raised a mighty cloud of dust to obscure the pithier issues of economy, energy, environment and war. We met the extremists' attack on the Twin Towers with a zealot's response rather than the measured actions of a thoughtful nation. Reaction to a proposed cultural center in the canyons of Manhattan is redolent with the same tribal zealotry.  

Back in 2001, the fearful rhetoric of those emails raised the urgent question: do all Muslims believe this? Of the billion and more Muslims alive today, some form of Wahabi'ism is practiced by all of the Sunni, but not all Muslims are like the Taliban or al Qaeda. Muslim belief is regional and subject to degrees, just as our own religions include fundamentalists, progressives and moderates. There are real cultural differences between this religious form and those familiar to Americans, but these differences can be accommodated. The more we work together, the Imam of the proposed Ground Zero center suggests, the more commonalities we will recognize. Even George Bush the Younger did not paint all Muslims with the same brush, unlike Sarah Palin in her infamous tweet, "Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate."

President Obama finally weighed in on the topic. "Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," he said, adding, "and that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan." The right-wing howled that Obama had endorsed the Ground Zero Mosque proposal, revealing his hidden religious inclination. Really? By such logic, championing First Amendment rights for all is the same as agreeing with Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or -- yikes -- Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps. Obama was stating rights from our Constitution, not personal preference, but no speech is safe from right-wing distortion, which has become a viral load in 21st century politics. In an atmosphere of vitriol and spin, propaganda and misunderstanding bloom.

It's certainly legal for a religious group to buy and develop real estate, no matter where and no matter how displeased the neighbors. The Imam attempting this purchase is Feisal Abdul Rauf, a New York Sufi leader whom George Bush called upon shortly after 9-11 as an example of tolerant, moderate Islam. The proposed center is not designed specifically as a mosque, but rather a facility to promote culture and diversity. As Joshua Holland at AlterNet put it, "Park 51 (formerly known as Cordoba House) is an Islamic community center that will feature art spaces, a theater, a gym and pool, and a mosque, or prayer space. The Park 51 people are as different from bin Laden's crowd as a Christian extremist who blows up an abortion clinic is distinct from a good Unitarian." As part of this diverse neighborhood, Muslims already visit Ground Zero daily, to pray for their own who perished in the attack.

The proposed center has been decried as a coup for Islam, spit in the eye of America. The pissing contest exacerbates the wound al Qaeda dealt the nation. No matter how vitriolic the conservative rhetoric, however, there is no proof that Imam Rauf poses any threat to Manhattan, to the state of New York or to the nation. The property in question belongs to a Muslim, who may not take kindly to fundamentalist reverend Pat Robertson's lawsuit to stop the sale. And while conservatives call the Imam a radical and militant, Madeleine Albright considers him a humanitarian who has worked closely with the government as a proponent of religious diversity.

In 2001, the Imam told 60 Minutes, "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened." And in 2004, he told the Australian press, "The Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians. But it was Christians in World War II who bombed innocent civilians in Dresden and dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, neither of which were military targets." The Imam's words are radical or controversial only to those in denial of our own nation's history.

Is it moral for an Islamic community center to be built in this Manhattan neighborhood? Certainly as moral as the strip clubs, sex shops, bars, liquor stores and fast-food joints that surround the building site now. Ground Zero remains, ten years later, a hole in the skyline. Caught in a legal snarl, Ground Zero is an expensive, empty lot that was once home to the financial Mecca of the world. For those who nurse grievance, the 'hallowed ground' of the Twin Towers site remains an insult that can't be forgiven, a tragic talisman requiring vengeance. In short, this has become an iconic spot that lends itself well as a political football but, unlike Pearl Harbor, has yet to become a dignified memorial and medium for national healing. 

The crowning irony is that radical conservatives refuse to recognize Muslims as true Americans and wish to deny them the right to participate in democracy on the basis of their religion. Surely the question of morality falls not on those who seek to worship in this neighborhood, but on those who would deny them. Hallowed ground is that space in which old enemies lay down their arms, where the principles of democracy -- always more ambitious than their reality -- are hammered out with humility and humanity.

With Uranus slipping back into Pisces for several months, in mutual reception with Neptune in Aquarius, we have renewed access to spiritual awakening and deepening awareness, if we choose it. Perhaps this hallowed ground is where sacrifice can be redeemed by a new era in human relations. Perhaps Ground Zero is where we can get this right, at last.

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