The New York Mosque Controversy shows Ugly Signs of Religious Intolerance

New York City is home to millions of people of all races and religions. It is probably the most ethnically diverse metropolis on earth. It is, therefore, not surprising that one will find one’s place of worship, whether it be a church, synagogue, mosque, temple or whatever in this most populous city in America.

I first visited New York City in July of 1980, almost 30 years ago, soon after defending my Masters thesis. In that summer my parents had come to visit North America. It was their first of many such visits to follow over the next three decades. After meeting me a few days before my defense they had left for Toronto and then New York City. I caught up with them in New York City (NYC). A senior friend of mine –” Zafar bhai –” came to the Greyhound bus terminal to take me to his apartment in Astoria in Queens, just a few miles from Manhattan, the heart of NYC.

New York felt hot and humid, especially inside a fifth-floor apartment in Astoria that did not have air conditioner. I remember having had to take showers two to three times a day to cool off. But the city was amazing. I say this not because of its many tourist attractions, and these are many, but because of its diversity of population. Nowhere else outside Bangladesh I had ever felt this close to my home (and after thirty years, I still have that feeling). I was a foreign student but in New York City I felt like as if I had belonged there for many years. There was no inquisitive looks that sometimes scan anyone looking different; because, everyone there actually looked different. The sense of being a minority or a foreigner quickly evaporates in that atmosphere. I saw people vending on streets, even begging inside the subway trains that transport people between the stations. (These days with all the video cameras in the subway stations and metro police roaming inside the trains you won’t see beggars any more. However, other characteristics of the city still remain.)

I had only a few days left before leaving for Bangladesh where I would be spending my summer vacation before returning to NYC and then going to Los Angeles, California, to pursue my Ph.D. degree. Zafar bhai had lately brought his family to New York City and was hard pressed to work long hours — outside his graduate studies — everyday at a gift store in a hotel in Manhattan. Still moving unaided was no problem inside the city, especially within Manhattan. All the blocks are more like squares and the numbering on streets is sequential, and thus, difficult to get lost. Zafar bhai cautioned me about mugging. But with so many people moving all day and night, the fear factor of being mugged or robbed never registered in me. I felt safe, in spite of the fact that in those days the city had a bad reputation as one of the most unsafe cities in America!

The city was different by all means. It was electrifying and simply breathtaking to watch the city skyline from the top visitor gallery of the Empire State Building at night. I visited the Bronx Zoo, the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC), the Liberty Statue in the Staten Island, the Time Square, the Rockefeller Center, the UN Building, the Broadway, and many museums. One’s tour of America is simply incomplete without a visit to this great metropolis.

In those days there were not too many mosques, but a sizable Muslim community, almost half comprising of Afro-Americans, existed in the city. One night I was waiting for a train in a subway station when a young Afro-American conveyed salam to me. I was surprised. I asked him how he could recognize that I was a Muslim, especially given the fact that the odds of someone looking like me being a Muslim were rather slim. After all, in those days, Muslims from south Asia, residing in New York, accounted for less than ten percent of its south Asian population. He simply answered, “We can tell.”

Well, in the last thirty years, NYC has become even more cosmopolitan and culturally diverse. There are massive pockets in Queens and Brooklyn where up to 20% of people who do not speak English at all or not very well. Many of them are from East Europe, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean islands, Latin America and China. Neighborhoods such as Flushing, Corona and Sunset Park are the least English speaking communities within the city. NYC is truly a melting pot! More than a third of its population of 8.4 million is foreign-born. While Jews make up two percent of American population, the New York City metropolitan area (or greater New York City) is home to the largest Jewish community outside Israel. Thirteen percent of its metropolitan population identifies them as Jewish. Like the Irish, the Jewish community has played an important role in New York City’s politics; Jewish voters traditionally vote in large numbers and have often supported politically liberal policies. The city’s mayor is Jewish. One of the two senators from the state of New York is also Jewish.

With new immigrants from Asia and Africa settling in the city (which is often their first choice), there are perhaps now more than half a million Muslims who either live or work in the metropolis. [According to Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies at Columbia University, “Numbering an estimated 600,000, Muslims now represent one of the fastest growing religious communities in New York City.”] While minarets don’t don or dot the skyline of the city yet, there are many mosques today in Queens, Brooklyn and Bronx to cater to the spiritual need of the growing Islamic community. One can also see ethnic stores, with joint non-English and English signs, catering to needs of the various ethnic communities. There are also many halal stores selling meats, slaughtered according to Islamic rules. All these are worthy signs of a city that has demonstrated to the world the true meaning of pluralism and multi-culture.

However, not everything is as rosy and fascinating in the NYC any more, since at least the days of Rudy Giuliani, a highly polarizing figure in New York politics. There is now a hue and cry brewing about a mosque to be built a couple of blocks away from what was once the WTC site, which is now called the Ground Zero. Many see the proposed mosque as an insult to the 3,000 victims who died on 9/11 in the attacks on the WTC.

As I noted elsewhere, 9/11 has been a traumatic experience for many Muslim Americans, especially those who live in the tri-state area, within and outside the NYC. Many of the victims of the tragic event were Muslims who worked in the WTC. As a matter of fact more Muslims died there that day than Jews. [Published reports suggest that while the number of Jews working in the WTC numbered a few thousands, less than a dozen Jews died there. Apparently, they were forewarned of the impending attack by an intelligence monitoring service, operating out of Israel. Whatever the fact may be, they were the lucky survivors. But most Muslims working in those twin towers were not that lucky. They perished in the inferno.] Some of the passengers, outside the hijackers, were also Muslims, who died that day. Many of the firefighters were Muslims, too. Many of the injured victims were also Muslims. Many ordinary Muslims sustained verbal abuses and physical harms following the sad event. Many Muslim homes, businesses and mosques were damaged as part of mob hysteria and hate crimes.

Amongst the most vehement opponents of the mosque project is Sarah Palin, the defeated vice presidential candidate from 2008 election. She has made the proposed mosque famous in "red America" with her tweets to New Yorkers, asking them to stop its construction near the site. Tweeting from her Blackberry, Palin implored, "Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate." Excuse her English, she likely meant "repudiate."

Palin is now joined by many racist and bigoted elements within and around the NYC who have held rallies opposing the proposed construction of the Islamic center in a plot owned by a Muslim developer who had bought the plot containing a building, which was damaged on 9/11, for nearly four million dollars. They say that Muslims should collectively feel guilty for the crimes of those hijackers, much like what the Germans and Japanese felt after World War II. If that be the case, these messengers of hatred ought to know that their argument is not different than those of the Muslim extremists who say that they are justified in attacking western interests. After all, the vast territories of Muslims continue to be terrorized by American and western powers for more than a century, let alone in places like Iraq where since the invasion of 2003 a million innocent civilians were butchered on a cooked-up charge of possessing the WMDs, which were never to be found. To this very day, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Palestine continue to bleed. Do Americans feel a collective sense of guilt for their savagery against Muslims? No, we won’t get answer to this question from these amnesic bigots.

Many of the opponents include Jews, while Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a Jew, supports the construction of the mosque. He led the counter-response, "Sarah Palin has a right to her opinions, but I could not disagree more. Everything the United States stands for and New York stands for is tolerance and openness."

As rightly noted by the mayor, the Muslim center project is actually intended to be a cultural center dedicated to interfaith tolerance, something which is missing from the bigots like Palin. They forget that the ability to practice one’s religion within its own home or property is a basic human right, and cannot be taken away by protests and hooligan-like behaviors or obscene slogans. This personal freedom is also enshrined in the First Amendment. Not surprisingly, despite such rowdy protests the local community board at Ground Zero approved the plan for the Islamic center by an overwhelming 29-1 vote. But the debate is still not over. The Landmarks Preservation Commission is yet to make a final decision on whether or not to allow the construction of the mosque on the Muslim owned property.

Whatever the fate of the planned mosque near Ground Zero may be, there is little doubt that the proponents of bigotry are wining; they are making a dent in America that once respected pluralism. Recently, the board of trustees of a Roman Catholic church on Staten Island rejected a proposal to sell a vacant convent to a Muslim group that planned to use it as a mosque.[1] Many other mosque construction plans across the country have faced similar opposition from such hate groups.

Sadly, many of the organizers of such anti-Muslim campaigns are Jews, the very people whose ancestors, if not they themselves, were once the victims of religious intolerance. Fortunately, many of the sanest voices opposing such bigotry against Muslims are also Jews. Steve Beckow is one such noble Jew who was a former Member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. He wrote an article “To Muslims of America, I Apologize." He believes that “9/11 was truly, as has been said, an "inside job." It was an engineered false-flag operation in which some Muslims played a role, but in the employ of primarily American agencies like the CIA and FBI. It featured not only some Muslims, but also some Israelis as well as nationals from many other countries.” In the column, he recently wrote, “Muslims deserve, and some day will receive, an apology from the American government for all that has been intentionally done to them from 9/11 onwards. And is still being done today.” [2] I hope that he is right.

America has been a land of immigrants. It is its religious tolerance that allowed many Jews and others to find a safe refuge here. There is no better symbol of America’s tolerance than a Muslim center near the Ground Zero. Denying such rights to Muslims who now are perhaps the second largest religious community will be a slap to that very American model, and would only strengthen the messengers of hatred and intolerance, something that no great nation can allow.