David Harris: Build the Cordoba Center?
For some, the Cordoba Center is a no-brainer.
There are those who can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Of course the Cordoba Center should be built two blocks from Ground Zero. Any opposition tramples on America’s tradition of religious freedom and smacks of Islamophobia. How could we possibly yield to bigotry? Isn’t the center meant to be an answer to intolerance?
For others, the opposite holds true. Allowing a Muslim facility to rise anywhere near the site where Islamist terrorists murdered thousands is sacrilegious and deeply offensive, especially to the victims and their families. How could we be so “politically correct” or gullible to allow this to happen? Does our tolerance also extend to intolerance?
For many of us, though, it’s a tough decision.
Yes, America, above all, stands for freedom of worship — for all, not for some. Religious bigotry has no place here. And, we desperately need greater dialogue and understanding, especially with Islam.
But in this vast country, why, of all places, does the center need to be there? Will it really serve as a place for healing, repentance, and interfaith cooperation? Or will that prove a facade, designed to get the project approved and divert attention from the fact that the 9/11 plotters all prayed in mosques and believed they were acting in the divine name?
To be sure, it is a difficult call, but that can’t be an excuse for indecision. This is an important national issue. For the American Jewish Committee (AJC), with a long involvement in this country’s social history, it is, above all, about the kind of society — and world — we aspire to build.
Indeed, the very first Supreme Court case for which AJC submitted an amicus brief, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, involved a fundamental question of religious freedom. At issue was an Oregon law designed to prevent parents from sending their children to Catholic schools. AJC grasped the stakes in the case and sided with the Catholic parents. In its 1925 decision, the Supreme Court agreed.
More recently, AJC helped rebuild the Gay’s Hill Baptist Church in Millen, Georgia, after a hate-inspired arson attack. We provided funds to repair St. Clement’s of Rome, a Catholic Church in New Orleans, after the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina. When Turkish Muslims were the object of a deadly hate crime in Germany, we traveled to a Cologne mosque to stand with the victims’ families at the funeral service. And when Muslims were in the crosshairs of Slobodan Milosevic’s policy of ethnic cleansing, AJC supported Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims against the deadly violence spawned by the Serb leader.
In this ecumenical spirit, AJC believes the Cordoba Center has a right to be built in the proposed location.
Unlike many Muslim countries, where it can be difficult, if not impossible, to get a building permit for non-Muslim houses of worship, in America we celebrate our tradition of freedom of worship and seek to set an example for others.
While intolerance is rapidly growing in some European countries — witness the recent referendum in Switzerland to ban the construction of minarets — we reject that kind of narrow-mindedness and the fear it bespeaks.
We hope the Cordoba Center will fulfill the lofty mission its founders have articulated. They have set the bar high, describing it as a Muslim-inspired institution similar to the 92nd Street Y. If so, it means a facility truly open to the entire community — and to a wide spectrum of ideas based on peace and coexistence.
Once up and running, it won’t be long before we know if the founders have delivered on their promise. If so, New York and America will be enriched. If not, the center should be shunned.
Presently, there are two legitimate concerns about the proposed center.
First, with a $100 million price tag, what are the exact sources of funding? The public has a right to know that the donors all subscribe to an open, inclusive and pluralistic vision of the center.
Second, do the center’s leaders reject unconditionally terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology? They must say so unequivocally. This is critical for the institution’s credibility. There is no room here for verbal acrobatics. Otherwise, the pall of suspicion around the leaders’ true attitudes toward groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah will grow — spelling the center’s doom.
If these concerns can be addressed, we will join in welcoming the Cordoba Center to New York. In doing so, we would wish to reaffirm the noble values for which our country stands — the very values so detested by the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks.