I had not planned on writing another post here at Via Meadia so soon, but Abraham Foxman’s well-meaning but patently incorrect statement about the proposed Islamic Center in downtown Manhattan has me so worked up that I am compelled to share my views.
I have residences both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom I have a German friend, perhaps my only German friend. One day she asked if I might like to visit her in Germany some day and I hesitated before giving a vague “not really” sort of answer. It told her that I thought I would be somewhat uncomfortable. I know that I am not alone among Jews, or even among Allied veterans and their offspring in feeling somewhat uncomfortable around Germans. I can imagine that seeing an Islamic Center so close to Ground Zero will provoke a similar unease in many American visitors to the site.
While none of these feelings are entirely rational, I know that my friend is not a Nazi and that I’d probably enjoy Berlin, I know I’d be quite uncomfortable there (and it would kill my parents). The unease that many would feel at seeing an Islamic Center at Ground Zero is perfectly natural, but again– it is not rational. It is not rational and, more importantly, it is our (those of us who feel this way) problem, not the institution’s or its future patrons.
The calls of so many on the Right (many of whom not only do not live in New York City, but do not consider it part of “real America”) to bar the construction of this building are only further evidence of ignorance and Islamophobia. Ignorance not only about Islam, but also about New York City and how here, unlike in much of America, Mosques and large (non-Christian) religious cultural centers are not much of a big deal.
Regardless of what any of us feel about the construction of this building, in the United States we do not allow the government to make zoning decisions based on religion. As the New York Times reported, Mayor Bloomberg rightly said, “government has no place dictating where a house of worship is located.” Not to mention the powerful message it sends to the Muslim world– that we can tolerate a mosque and Islamic Center in the shadow of no towers (to borrow Art Spiegelman’s phrase) because we do not have a problem with Islam. Any problems we have are with particular interpretations of Islam and with Islamic terrorism.
I should add, however, that if the planners and funders of the Islamic Center are surprised by any of this controversy then they are shockingly naïve. That they have the right to build there and that it actually suits American foreign policy goals does not mean that the choice of location does not contain a hint of provocation (imagine if Germany built its consulates in sight of Holocaust memorials).
It is totally understandable that some 9/11 families would oppose this building; but they do not have veto power over construction in one of the most heavily trafficked neighborhoods in America. It is a local issue for the people of downtown Manhattan to address. I am a great admirer of Dr. Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League, and I can forgive this lapse into the bigotry they fight so boldly against, I just hope it is an aberration and not a trend in the wrong direction.
I thank Anna Pycior for her comments on a draft of this post.