Truth & Reconciliation in Lower Manhattan

By now you’ve heard of Park 51 and the Cordoba House, but probably by another name. Today the Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York City voted 9 to 0 against granting historic protection to the building in lower Manhattan, thereby allowing the start of construction on the $100 million center dubbed by right wing opponents as the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

In an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, Dan Senor writes an open letter to Imam Feisel, the Cordoba House planner, expressing his concerns about the center. While there have been numerous vitriolic attacks on the proposed multi-faith center at the Ground Zero site, Senor has made an effort to state what he believes are the legitimate fears of New Yorkers and Americans:

To Imam Feisal: We write with an unshakable commitment to religious freedom, and to your right to exercise it in meaningful and concrete ways. We have great appreciation for the progressive and inclusive interpretation of Islam to which you speak. We have read with care your own words about the purpose of the Cordoba House. We take those words as our starting point for the issues we raise in this letter, as we appeal to your senses of decency, empathy and prudence—and to those of all Muslims of goodwill. 

Your stated goal of interfaith and cross-cultural understanding is a good one—one that we all share and have devoted considerable energy to furthering. It may well be that this goal would be furthered still by the building and operation of Cordoba House. However, while we will continue to stand with you and your right to proceed with this project, we see no reason why it must necessarily be located so close to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

Those attacks, as you well know, were committed in the name of Islam. We applaud and thank every Muslim throughout the world who has rejected and denounced this association. But the fact remains that in the minds of many who are swayed by the most radical interpretations of Islam, the Cordoba House will not be seen as a center for peace and reconciliation. It will rather be celebrated as a Muslim monument erected on the site of a great Muslim "military" victory—a milestone on the path to the further spread of Islam throughout the world (You can read the rest of his letter here).

While I understand these concerns, Senor’s plea is a concession to fear rather than a testament of understanding and tolerance. It is flawed in that it fails to hold people to a higher standard, allowing unsupported opinions like this one to pass for truth. He writes of his and his supporters’ unshakable commitment to religious freedom, but as is evident, only on terms that make them comfortable. Fear is never a good enough platform to stand upon, and Senor et al would be doing a greater service to the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and other religious communities by fostering a sense of respect and understanding among dissidents instead.

Senor could have used valuable Wall Street Journal space to explain that the Cordoba Initiative is an enemy of al Qaeda, and that “Bin Laden would sooner dispatch a truck bomb to destroy the Cordoba Initiative’s proposed community center than he would attack the ADL, for the simple reason that Osama’s most dire enemies are Muslims… al Qaeda’s goal is the purification of Islam… and apostates pose more of a threat to Bin Laden’s understanding of Islam than do infidels” (The Atlantic).

If those facts are unconvincing, he, along with politicians like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, and groups like the Anti-Defamation League, could turn to the peace and reconciliation tactics of South Africa's former President, Nelson Mandela. Instead of banishing Afrikaner faces from government offices and establishments and ridding the newly united country of its enduring white landmarks and institutions, Mandela concerned himself with reconciliation instead of revenge or sentimentality. No doubt many black constituents felt betrayed by their new President, but Mandela was too much of a visionary to fall into shortsighted traps. 

In this situation, we need Mandela-esque emotional détente. We need leaders committed to fact-based action rather than shameful fear mongering. Great tragedies befall every nation, but the wise ones face truths and reconcile.