[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
There are many things I love about America – from maple-syrup-soaked pancakes to noisy rock bands. I even like its frantically air-conditioned spaces that almost freeze you to death, or its drinks that have more ice than liquid. But these days, I am a little put off by the hype that some Americans have raised around the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”
The real name of the project is the Cordoba House, a planned Islamic cultural center and mosque in downtown New York – and two blocks from Ground Zero, the place where once the World Trade Center stood. Since those twin towers were destroyed by lunatic Islamist terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, killing more than 3,000 thousand innocent people, some Americans has been irritated about Islam. And now they are passionately opposing the Cordoba House, saying it will hurt the memories of the 9/11 victims.
Enter Cordoba House
But making that connection between a peaceful mosque and the violent crime of 9/11 is exactly what both America and the world should avoid. The perpetrators of that crime, Osama bin Laden and his ilk, represent neither Islam nor more than a billion Muslims who would oppose any such indiscriminate killing. By confusing a tiny group of Muslim fanatics with Islam as a religion, Americans are only helping the former’s claims.
The irony is that the Cordoba House project represents exactly what many American politicians and opinion leaders have been praising as “moderate Islam.” The initiative is led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, whom I know personally. He is a Sufi-minded, gentle and tolerant Muslim, who argues that the founding principles of the United States – such as justice, pluralism and liberty – are also the values of Islam. He probably did not foresee such a reaction to his project, whose name evokes only an admirable heritage: Cordoba, “the ornament of the world” as a nun called it in the 10th century, was where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived and flourished together.
The arguments of the “anti-Ground-Zero-Mosque” camp are hardly convincing. They say Muslims did not speak out against 9/11 in its aftermath. But that is a big myth. Many Muslim leaders did denounce the crime. Many others probably just felt sad about it, but did not see the need to go out and make public statements, not imagining that their religion would soon be held responsible.
It is also said that such a Muslim presence near Ground Zero will be hurtful to the families of 9/11 victims. In fact, there are various views about this among those families. Some indeed oppose the project, but the right thing to do would be not to consolidate that prejudice, but to try help overcoming it.
In Turkey we similarly have more than 5,000 “martyr families,” whose sons have been killed by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the terrorist group that advocates Kurdish nationalism. I very much respect the pain of those families, but I would not be supportive if they extended their rightful aversion to the PKK to all Kurds, by, say, opposing a Kurdish cultural center. (We indeed have such fringe anti-Kurdish hate-mongers in Turkey, and I call them Turkish fascists. Now I now wonder what I should call the hate mongers in America.)
Another argument of the anti-mosque campaigners – not just in New York, but now also Temecula, California – is the lack of religious freedom in some Muslim countries.
“You can build a mosque at Ground Zero,” one of their posters read, “when we can build a synagogue in Mecca.” The total lack of freedom in Saudi Arabia for other faiths is indeed a shame. But why should those Saudi standards become a point of reference for the United States? The latter has been a beacon of religious liberty – a one that liberal-minded Muslims have been showing as an example to their more conservative co-religionists. Why take that argument from the Muslim liberal’s hands?
Need for Muslim self-criticism
The Americans who are under the influence of the post-9/11 anti-Islamic hype should reconsider all these. They, I believe, also need to recall some of the excessive reactions their country has given in the past in the face of foreign threats. There are really close parallels between what is happening now and the anti-Japanese agitation after Pearl Harbor, or the McCarthyism of the early Cold War.
Muslims, on the other hand, should not bow down to Islamophobia, but also see that this problem is created by not just prejudice on the other side, but real troubles on theirs. The “Islamic world” of today is indeed full of many unpleasant facts. Apostates can be threatened, punished, and sometimes even killed. Women can be forced to marry men they do not like, and conform to compulsory dress codes. Non-Muslims are often not fully free to evangelize their faith. And brutal medieval practices, such as stoning or “female circumcision,” ends or ruins lives.
Unless Muslims face these troubles more honestly and loudly, the biases against Islam will only deepen. And good-willed initiatives such as the Cordoba House will be the target of bigotry – as they are now.