Monday, September 13, 2010

The non-existent mosque at Ground Zero

My response to Shobha Narayan's column in Mint Lounge:

I read with great interest your column “The Good Life” dated September 11, 2010, regarding the ‘mosque’ near Ground Zero. I claim to be no authority on the issue myself and having never stepped foot on the hallowed ground where this debate is raging, I don’t have first hand emotions about the subject. However, I have been reading extensively about the ‘mosque’ in the online media and blogosphere and I differ with your analysis.

I’ll begin with your closing comments - “But let’s not call it a mosque. Let’s call it a memorial; a cultural center...”

Why do you want to call it a ‘mosque’ at all? Ever since it was conceived, the Park51 project was always called an Islamic cultural center by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and the Cordoba community in the media releases, print, online and TV appearances. The proposal is to build a culinary school, gym and basketball court, swimming pool, a Sept. 11 memorial and contemplation space, and a prayer hall (mosque) intended to be run separately from Park51 but open to and accessible to all members, visitors and New York community.

Park51 project is to be “dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet.” Repeatedly calling it a ‘mosque’ (and just that) is only rousing the false notions of a victory monument for Islam right at the Ground Zero. Oh, but it isn’t at the Ground Zero too! It is two blocks away from the Ground Zero, which is a few hundred meters away from it. And there is already a full fledged mosque four blocks from Ground Zero. It would be wrong to assume that all mosques are symbols of radical Islam and terrorism.

Coming to Obama’s comments at the White House Iftar, he took the correct position required of the Chief Executive charged with defending the constitution of a country. He also clarified within a day that he never commented on the wisdom of building a mosque there, which he leaves to the local community. To insinuate from this all that he lost his ability to judge the pulse of people is carrying it a bit too far. People who are defending the Park51 project, over a million muslim Americans living in the tristate area and millions of muslim Americans elsewhere are also ‘people’ of America. If the President thinks that he should stand up for them, it isn’t sudden inexplicable alienation. Let us not forget that Obama is a Nobel laureate acknowledged for his efforts to bridge the Islam-West rift after Sept 11. It may be an unpopular thing to do, but not the wrong thing.

Mosque or not, the objectives of the founders of this Project appear crystal clear. They want to showcase moderate Islam as the mainstream to the world and remind the New Yorkers and the visitors to the Ground Zero that the enemy isn’t Islam; the enemy is the radical streak that still runs amok in each society, sometimes causing extensive damage to the very fabric that holds humanity together. In the current case, the radical streak is the bigoted Pastor who wanted to burn the Quran in retaliation. The radical streak is represented by the fearmongers who vilify Islam as a whole for actions of a few. Just because Adolf Hitler was Catholic, the Pope doesn’t become a Nazi.

If an Imam in India were to propose a Memorial in the Taj hotel, there will always be bigots who would want to oppose it just because the 26/11 terrorists were muslim. May be we will never see Hindus and Sikhs living happily in Pakistan in our life time. Saudi Arabia possibly will never allow for a Church in the Kingdom. But that is what differentiates democratic, plural societies from the rest. The day we let go of the tolerance that brings us together, we leave a hole in the society large enough for opportunists to push their selfish interest through.

It’s true the surveys have found that two thirds of New York wants the Park51 project elsewhere. But elaborate elections, and not just surveys, have also proved that an overwhelming majority of Gujarat supported Modi’s conduct through the riots. That never prevented level-headed people in India from condemning his deliberate inaction when people were getting butchered. The Central Government never stopped itself from trying to bring the culprits to book because half of them went on to win elections with record margins. Influenced by all the frenzy whipped up by opportunists and bigots, if Obama or Bloomberg too sing along the popular opinion, there will be no sane voice left to remind people of their core values.

I will quote Chalston Heston here, from his momentous speech at the NRA convention in 1997 at Denver. Denver, freshly scarred from the Columbine shootings, overwhelmingly demanded that NRA go away as it saw the gun lobby as the villain. Charlston Heston received personal messages asking him to get out and he responded with an appeal befitting a statesman:

“...This cycle of tragedy-driven hatred must stop. Because so much more connects us than that which divides us. And because tragedy has been and will always be with us. Somewhere right now evil people are planning evil things. All of us will do everything meaningful, everything we can do to prevent it. But each horrible act can't become an axe for opportunists to cleave the very bill of rights that binds us. America must stop this predictable pattern of reaction, when an isolated terrible event occurs, our phones ring demanding that the NRA explain the inexplicable. Why us? Because their story needs a villain. They want us to play the heavy in their drama of packaged grief. To provide riveting programming to run between commercials for cars and cat food. The dirty secret of this day and age is that political gain and media ratings all too often bloom on fresh graves....”

If you replace ‘NRA’ with ‘Muslims’ in the above paragraph, you will get my drift. It holds true not just for America but for India too.

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