Doing what feels right

by Brian Clarey

A church is more than a building — that’s what was hammered into us at St. Joe’s Catholic Church when I was a kid. It’s more than a building, more than the people who congregate there, more, even, than the deity for whom it was built. It’s a place where the spiritual meets the practical, housing things like fundraisers, AA meetings and classes. It’s a place of meditation, celebration and mourning. It’s a sanctuary from all the evils in the world, and also a place to speak out against them. But the mosque proposed for the Ground Zero neighborhood, where on Sept. 11, 2001 two hijacked planes took out our country’s most grand symbols of capitalism and ingenuity, is not just a church.

Or hadn’t you heard? It’s true, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, Americans, Muslims, recently had plans approved to build an Islamic cultural center — to include a mosque, among other amenities — in lower Manhattan, within spitting distance of the pit created where the two towers once stood, felled almost 10 years ago. By Muslims.

At first blush it seems ludicrous, akin to erecting an American flag store at the very spot where the atomic bomb hit in Hiroshima.

A mosque at Ground Zero? I remember thinking when I heard the news. Screw that. Screw that upright.

Maybe if you knew that I grew up in the long shadow cast by the Twin Towers, if you knew that I had lost people on 9-11, that dozens more friends and relatives were in Manhattan on that day and have been forever changed, you might forgive my emotional outburst.

But this is a serious matter, invoking issues like tolerance, freedom and, indeed, the American way of life, and it needs to be regarded with more than just visceral reaction — because my own initial retort was less than generous, certainly not in accordance with the spirit upon which this country was founded, and could possibly even be construed as criminal.

As an American, I can — and should — do better. So I’m digging on this from as many angles as I can think of.

First, a look at Rauf and Khan who, upon close examination do not seem to be frothing at the mouth, stockpiling weapons or doing that weird, piercing yalalala jihadist war yodel. In fact, they are at the fore front of the American Muslim movement, espousing values such as women’s rights, cross-cultural understanding and, yes, peace.

And the center they want to build is more than prayer mats and scripture — the couple told the New York Times they want to provide a place where Senegalese street vendors can stow their wares, where English can be taught, legal advice dispensed. It will have a performance space and fitness rooms. It’s worth mentioning that the couple has already been doing many of these things in this neighborhood for years.

But still… a mosque? At Ground Zero? I don’t know…. Then there’s the backlash, most of it by people whose opinions I don’t respect: the usual crew of broadcast loudmouths, the fear-mongering politicians looking to ride waves of panic into office, the lords of cognitive dissonance who practically fellate the Constitution one minute and then aggressively try to limit people’s civil liberties the next. I don’t want to be on the same side of an issue — any issue — as these people.

But man, a mosque at Ground Zero…. And then there’s this: Yes, the 9-11 attackers were certainly Muslim, but there are 1.5 billion of them in this world, and not all of them see Americans as infidels fit for beheading or casting into fiery pits. Some of them live right here in the United States, and quite a few of them died innocently as the towers fell in a mess of fire and blood.

Relevant, too, are the words of New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a Jew who has spent more time thinking about this controversy than perhaps anyone else.

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.”

So I’m with Bloomberg on this one. Because sometimes being an American — and a patriot — means that you must stand on principle, defending speech, ideas and doctrines that we may personally find… unsavory. It’s doing the right thing instead of what feels right.

And looking for an end-around to the established law of the land… well, that’s un-American, even if it means defending the rights of Muslims — American Muslims, I should add, who took their lumps along with the rest of us on 9-11.

So no, I am still not enthralled with the idea of Muslim community center within blocks of Ground Zero. But I like the alternative even less.