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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Not in my name: why we need the Park51 community center

"It is a great thing to know our vices." - Cicero

Forget for a moment, if you’ve even heard it, the name Feisal Abdul Rauf. Imagine instead an American-born Muslim by the name of William E. Robinson. Imagine that Mr. Robinson has been involved improving relations between Islam and the West for his entire career, has condemned acts of terrorism as being blatantly at odds with Islam, and has even written about how America is, in his view, more in line with Islamic ideals than many ‘Muslim nations.’

Now imagine that the opportunity arises for a non-profit run by Mr. Robinson to buy a building in lower Manhattan, a building which has been abandoned for years due to the heavy damage it sustained in the 9/11 attacks. When discussing the idea of buying the building and transforming it into an Islamic community center – similar to a YMCA or a JCC – so close to the site of the attacks, his wife, Daisy, notes that “only in New York City is this possible.”

The original plan is to name the center Cordoba House, after the period of Muslim rule in Spain when Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted peacefully. The name is changed to Park51, though, after certain politicians point out the fact that the name could also refer to the church that had been remodeled into a mosque following the Umayyad defeat of the Visigoths in 600 AD (and was later restructured back into a church in 1236).

Does this Mr. Robinson scare you? He certainly doesn’t scare me, but maybe that’s because the image I have is of a middle-aged, slightly overweight white man, glasses perched on top of his balding head. Yes, he’s made some comments that could be considered controversial, but he’s clearly on our side – the side of moderate Islam – in the very real war against religious fanaticism. Simply put, he is the best hope we have of preventing the events of 9/11 from ever happening again.

Let’s drop the ‘American-born’ part of the story, and call Mr. Robinson by his real name, Imam Rauf. Do you hesitate a moment longer before passing judgment on this man’s life and work? Does he suddenly seem like one of Them, instead of one of Us? Is the fact that his skin is brown and his name unfamiliar to my American ears make it easier to imagine that he was cheering rather than crying on the most terrifying day of my life? Yes, it does – and that is appalling.

There’s an often repeated quote that warns of the dangers of sitting idly by while they come for the Communists, the trade unionists, and the Jews – and it’s true, there is great danger in apathy. But there is even greater danger in justification: yes, Muslims have the right to practice their religion on private property as they see fit, but why there? Yes, freedom of expression is a core American value, but come on…

Because the argument that Muslims shouldn’t practice their religion near the site of the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history depends entirely on the premise that those Muslims bear responsibility for the actions of the extremists who look and sound like them. I lost a family member that day – a cousin, and I know my experience is nothing compared to those who lost a mother, a son, a spouse – and like all Americans, I lost a profound sense of security that I only now realize I possessed. But I reject the idea this somehow justifies my own racist fears, or absolves me from the responsibility of acknowledging and working to fix these failings.

While the politics of fear have always been a part of the world I live in, I get the sense that there is a shift occurring. I’m only 24 – racism, as I’ve seen it, has always been either the ‘institutional racism’ that seems more about economics and social class than skin color, or the angry ranting of a small group of madmen. But the kind of deep, quiet racism that creeps through the shadows, whispering that discrimination is necessary, that these fears are justified, and that we’re just being “careful” - this seems new to me. What seems most dangerous to me is how willingly we offer our consent: I’ve seen good people, family members and close friends, accept lies built on the most monstrous of assumptions, even when they stand in direct conflict with the facts. And I’m guilty of it myself.

Where do we go from here? While I hope that those among us who lived through McCarthyism or race riots can offer some advice, my own experience and my understanding of history offers only one solution: call out prejudice and racism wherever we find it, especially within ourselves. I have always loved the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King – although he died long before I was born, when I read his speeches and letters, I get the sense that I’m listening to a man who is intensely firm in his convictions because he has questioned them deeply.

Whatever your views on the Park51 Islamic community center, I ask you to question those views, and to understand the full implications of those views. Because I can’t say it any better, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

-- Marcus Tullius Tiro