I admit that it seems difficult to form a conclusive opinion on debate that is currently raging in the United States. It concerns a planned mosque and community center, to be constructed just two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Centre, which was destroyed in the September 11th attacks. Each side, especially within American society and the families of victims of the attacks, have points of view for and against the project, whilst the issue itself has specific sensitivities. It now has a political dimension, between America’s two main parties, the GOP and the Democrats, before the mid-term elections in November. Each side is keeping an eye on the indicators of public opinion polls.
So why this site in particular, which has an emotional resonance with the families of the victims, and Americans in general, who were traumatized by what happened there on the 11th of September? This is the question raised those who oppose the construction of the mosque, for they [Americans] have the right to this [ground zero], whereas a mosque can be built anywhere else. Generally speaking, Islam can be practiced anywhere.
However there is also the counter question; why not? Muslims are not responsible for what the terrorists did on September 11th, and there were also Muslim victims in these attacks. Barack Obama expressed such a view in his speech during an Iftaar dinner, highlighting the difference between Islam and ‘Al-Qaeda’, and that the latter do not represent Muslims. But Obama found himself in the midst of a political storm, and whilst he began his day in favor of building a mosque at this site, after the White House had remained silent for two weeks, he subsequently reviewed [his stance] and was obliged to alter his remarks the following day. He confirmed that he was not defending the particular site [ground zero], but defending the right of American Muslims to worship, and build places of worship like everyone else, as stipulated in the constitution, regarding respect for religious freedom.
A writer for the ‘New York Times’ has described the mosque debate as one that is taking place between ‘two Americas’. Firstly there are those who believe in the constitution, stating the right of everyone to religious freedom, whatever religion, and the rights of equal citizenship for citizens old and new, regardless of the language they speak. Secondly, there are those that view society from the perspective that people of a particular culture have the duty to assimilate with everyone else. This practice succeeded in incorporating large waves of migration in the 1920s, into American society. But today’s world is different from the 1920s; it has become entangled and inter-connected. There is considerable international interest surrounding the controversy associated with the mosque project, beyond a local framework, and the message that it [the final decision] will send is important in the outside world, especially in Islamic countries.
It was possible to avoid this controversy, which has rekindled an atmosphere similar to the Islamophobia that was apparent the period after the September 11th attacks, if sufficient studies and surveys were conducted before selecting the site. Polls suggest that 70 percent of Americans oppose the construction at this site.
The difficulty now is undoing the negative message that this would convey to Islamic groups, who wish to correct the misconceptions and likewise the suspicion that there is a relationship between Islam and the September 11th attacks. Yet the truth is that the attacks were carried out by a terrorist group that plagues almost all Islamic countries.
The solution? Perhaps the way out is to return the issue to its local framework, as a matter for the residents of New York to decide what they want, within the framework of their local laws. However, there is nothing wrong with taking into account the feelings raised, on the grounds that the project serves Muslim Americans who must be a part of the interactions of their local community.
*Published in the London-based ASHARQ ALAWSAT ON Aug. 17, 2010.