Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A symbol of progress in Lower Manhattan

By Joshua M. Z. Stanton and Zeeshan Suhail

Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue

Muslim Consultative NetworkIn the rabbinic tradition, it is said that if you bring color to a person's face by upsetting them, it is as though you have physically struck him. If so, the Cordoba House and its leaders have endured a true assault.

This past month has seen a flurry of protests from extreme opponents of the Cordoba House, a proposed community center in Lower Manhattan that would be founded by Muslims but serve all New Yorkers. While dissenters comprise only a small minority of voices, they have drowned out the large and growing number of the center's supporters, as well as those who simply want to learn more about its overarching aims.

Individuals, like tea party leader Mark Williams, have mislabeled the Cordoba House a potential breeding ground for fundamentalism and tried to smear its sponsoring organizations, the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, both of which have a strong record of promoting interfaith dialogue and improving Muslim-Western relations.

Sadly, these protesters have failed to distinguish between the mainstream Muslim majority and the tiny minority of militant Muslims.

Opponents say that building a Muslim-led community center near Ground Zero, a site of profound American loss and pain, would be a "victory" for militant Muslims and a loss for Americans. In fact, it is the undermining of Cordoba House that would be a true loss for Americans. One need only look as far as its name - inspired by the medieval city in Spain, Cordoba, where Christians, Jews and Muslims co-existed and thrived for 800 years - to realize that these critics are misguided.

In fact, Cordoba House is poised to become a gathering place for the enemies of militant Muslims: mainstream Muslims. It will be a sign of internal resistance to the tyranny that a small group of terrorists has tried to impose on the broader community of Muslim believers, whose ultimate goal is peace.

We, a lay Muslim American and former New Yorker, and a future rabbi and current New Yorker, are proud to stand behind this initiative. It sends a clear and profound global message that Muslims will not tolerate extremism and instead seek to collaborate with followers of other faiths and work for the common good.

Global significance aside, just imagine the local impact of Cordoba House: the community center would provide, in its creators' words, a "cultural nexus" for New Yorkers to come together for education, performances, sports and person-to-person interaction.

New York is one of the most religiously diverse cities in the world. Where better to create a space where Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Hindu New Yorkers, among others, can learn from each other through art classes, poetry readings, film screenings and interfaith dialogue? By investing in the larger New York community, Cordoba House is poised to become an incubator of social progress and haven of tolerance.

In many respects, fringe opponents of the Cordoba House have already failed - even before they rallied in protest against it on June 6. New York's Community Board recently endorsed the community center with a vote of 29 to 1, with 10 abstentions, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed his support for its construction.

Yet for Cordoba House to achieve its true potential, particularly in the face of such radical critics, people of all backgrounds must support this initiative and others like it - politically, socially, financially and, most importantly, personally. For it to truly bring together people of all religions and even those of no particular faith, New Yorkers - and indeed all Americans - should voice their support for Cordoba House and speak up about what they would truly like to see within its walls.

By participating in this effort together, New Yorkers can reclaim Cordoba House from its detractors and help it come to fruition as a symbol of progress.