Christian-Muslim Kulturkampf comes to the neighborhood
When you live a few blocks from Ground Zero, the last thing you want to see is a knot of police officers cordoning off an area as you walk home from the train station. It didn’t look like a murder scene.
“What’s going on?” I asked, flashing a nervous grin.
“Mosque being built here, insulting the 9-11 victims, so the police think it’ll get dicey,” mumbles an older man, beckoning me to follow him inside the building as the cops built a barricade. “They’ll be having a community hall meeting. You should go in, get a seat.”
I walked into a hot and stuffy auditorium that was swarming with people, many of them carrying signs saying, “Don’t believe Taqiya” and “Islam is a cult.” The crowd packed the room to the seams as more protesters entered with signs in their hands and anger in their faces.
As I leafed through the meeting’s handouts, I got an idea of what was going on: a community group called the Cordoba Initiative wanted to build a thirteen-story Islamic community center. The problem was that the center would be at the former Burlington Coat Factory site, two blocks from Ground Zero. Some families of survivors felt that the idea of a mosque “looking down on the sacred ground of Ground Zero,” as one of them said, was insulting and disrespectful. The construction would continue regardless of what happened at this meeting, but a stamp of approval from the community board would be great publicity for the Cordoba Initiative, while a “no” vote would constitute somewhat of a rebuke from the community where the mosque was to stand.
After a slow discussion about a new theatre project, the board moved to the main event. I struggled to hear the speakers over the shouts of Pamela Geller, who manages the conservative blog Atlas Shrugs. She was sitting a few rows behind me with some sign-carriers who looked like they lived outside the neighborhood, and whenever a speaker from the Coroda Project spoke, shouts of “Fifth column!” and “No more Shariah!” erupted behind me.
Judging by the crowd’s reaction, the Cordoba Initiative may have scored a major victory without lifting a finger. Instead of guns, the right-wingers seemed to have brought “weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men,” as the “Twilight Zone” episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” puts it. Listening to conspiracy theories about Muslims wanting to destroy democracy, I wondered whether I was an insane person in a reasonable world or if the whole world had gone crazy.
It was painful to look in front of me and see the project’s embattled supporters, then look behind me and see the angry, indignant faces of the protesters. I understood their hatred; I felt the same way when a convent opened on the grounds of Auschwitz, the nuns residing on the only cemetery of the 14 fourteen members of my family who died there.
The protesters did not seem interested in empathy, though. When I heard one of them sound a shofar as a rallying cry, I asked why he chose a symbol of Jewish heritage to energize his cause.
“Well, I’m Christian so it’s my heritage now and I don’t care if Jews are insulted,” he replied.
“You lost that right when you rejected God,” his friend said. “It’s my religious heritage now, so why should I care what you think? Besides, Jews constantly don’t see what’s in front of them. They should have left Nazi Germany and gone to America. We’re a Christian nation.”
As the room grew hotter and smellier, and the protesters’ screams made my ears buzz, it was time to get some fresh air. Being around that many angry people wasn’t good for my blood pressure. A woman who had previously spoken up in favor in the mosque was also looking exhausted. “A bit intense in there,” I said.
“You’re telling me,” she said. “I almost died on 9-11. I was buried alive in the concrete twice and had to be rescued, because I was trying to do triage. I just don’t get it, I’m an American just like them. I have never felt such hatred against my faith in my life.”
As she hadn’t insulted my faith yet and wasn’t blowing a noisy instrument, I decided to stand near my new friend, which gave me the added benefit of watching Imam Faisal al Ruaf, the Cordoba Initiative’s leader, give interviews to various news organizations. He spoke of his wish to “revitalize lower Manhattan,” and make the Cordoba House a “place of healing.” He talked about taking back the name of Islam from the radicals, about making the center a place for all people, a place where people could come together and learn about each other instead of remaining “afraid and ignorant.” As another Cordoba supporter mentioned, it was their necks that were on the line. If terrorists came, the Cordoba House would be a primary target, as it aimed to marginalize the extremists.
When the vote came, I heard aye after aye and saw the Cordoba Initiative’s supporters hugging each other and crying. The motion had passed.
The area calmed down after the meeting and the police cordon was gone. Soon, nearby, more yellow tape would go up to demarcate a restricted zone, this time for construction workers to build the Cordoba House, blocks away from the gaping hole where the Twin Towers used to be.