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Reclaim the ‘Ground Zero’ Mosque from the Extremists | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf attended a meeting held at the ‘Council on Foreign Relations’ in New York, the day before yesterday. He is the man who is behind the project to build an Islamic center near the site of the September 11th attacks, ‘Ground Zero’. After the meeting, Imam Feisal was asked [by a journalist], given that he had mentioned recently that if he knew the project would be so controversial, then he would not have gone through with it, would he now reconsider the whole matter? Imam Feisal replied by saying that he is exploring all options, and that all matters are on the table in order to find a way to contain the crisis.

This talk reflects an acknowledgement of a fact that many have discussed, namely that the uproar, which accompanied the announcement of this project, has caused great damage, and has presented the opportunity for extremists to fan the flames of hatred and feed ignorance. The organizers of the Islamic Center said they wanted it to be a center of tolerance and convergence, yet the project has transformed into a new wave of attacks on Islam, and has distorted the image of Muslims. As a result, we have seen an obscure pastor from a small church, disregarding the majority of Americans, and riding the wave in order to put himself in the spotlight, through his disgraceful plan to burn copies of the Quran in memory of the September 11th attacks. Then the man, who does not deserve to be described as a pastor, later reviewed his position, having announced that he was retracting his intention to burn copies of the Quran. This means that he merely exploited the issue and rode the media wave, gaining undue notoriety, by targeting Islam.

We have witnessed similar examples with other fanatics, such as the Dutch MP Geert Wilders, who found, amidst uproar, an opportunity to broadcast hatred, and fan the flames. Wilders, who has made anti-Islam his commercial and political brand, flew to New York to address a rally in opposition to the construction of the Islamic Centre near ‘Ground Zero’. He said, using provocative language, “We must draw the line. So that New York…will never become New Mecca”.

In such a climate, one would have wished that those in charge of the project, who were aware of the atmosphere in America, and of the intense emotions that accompany the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, had moved early to find a compromise, that would put an end to extremists hijacking the event, and transforming it into a new opportunity to attack Islam. Imam Feisal was on a tour of several Arab countries, whilst the commotion was growing and extremist voices were fuelling anti-sentiments towards the project, rendering it an opportunity to target Islam and Muslims. However, as it appears from his words the day before yesterday, Imam Feisal and the organizers of the ‘Cordoba Center’ did not expect the size of uproar that surrounded the project. However, as it has turned out, the damage repercussions have struck Muslims everywhere. Swift action is now required, in order to limit the damage, and the potential benefits for extremists.

Despite the fact that there are those who are enlightened and open-minded in the United States, and who defended the project, supporting the right of Muslims to establish a place of worship anywhere, in accordance with the U.S. constitution, which guarantees freedom of worship and belief, the vast majority of Americans are ignorant when it comes to Islam, their conception of it, and have a distorted image of Muslims. Therefore, the results of opinion polls revealed that the majority of Americans were opposed to building the Islamic Center near ‘Ground Zero’. Worse still, the polls showed that more than half of Americans have a very negative image of Muslims.

Such a situation does not merit the insistence to build the Center in a location that has aroused so many sentiments and emotions. It is worth noting that New York has more than 120 mosques, and the number of mosques in America exceeds 1,200, (including 227 mosques in the state of California alone). To improve the image of Islam, and Muslims, requires great effort, most importantly closing the door to extremists who advocate the ‘clash of civilizations’. We must acknowledge that there are extremists in the West; just there are extremists [in the Arab world], contributing insults to Islam, and distorting the image of Muslims, with their words and actions. Some of them look for any opportunity to feed extremism, to launch new waves of terrorism, which have damaged the Muslim world far more than the West.

The ‘Cordoba Center’ project may have many good intentions, but the choice of location and timing of the announcement were two unwise steps. The declaration came shortly before the ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, which only inflamed emotions, especially as the location was not far from the site which still bears the ‘fingerprints’ and impact of these attacks. Furthermore, the idea was proposed at a time when political campaigns had recently begun, in preparation for the midterm elections for the U.S. Congress. This transformed the matter into a political duel, in an attempt to try and win votes. Some took advantage of the uproar, to launch below-the-belt attacks upon President Obama, especially when he leapt to the defense of Muslims, and their right to establish places of worship anywhere in America. Note that he was merely performing a duty stipulated by his position, to defend the U.S. Constitution.

These matters are always measured in results, and the best thing for the organizers of the ‘Cordoba Center’ to do now is to move and remedy the situation. They must reclaim their idea from the hands of the extremists, who have exploited it in a manner that is detrimental to both Islam and Muslims.