September 16, 2010

Park51: A Test of Principles

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The ninth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks passed this weekend with little apparent public attention from Cornell students. It was a Saturday and the sun was out, so we embraced our precious bubble here in Ithaca and avoided discussion of this year’s solemn anniversary. Yet only a bus ride away at Ground Zero, protests and division triumphed over mourning and unity, undermining a near decade-long effort to heal our nation.

Though the aftermath of 9/11 was certainly no fun and games for Muslims in America, the recent surge of Islamophobia in response to plans to build Park51 — an Islamic community center near Ground Zero — has reached an astounding level of bigotry and shame. In a recent New York Times op-ed, an Iranian-American, Porochista Khakpour, questions whether, in fact, it was better to be Muslim under the Bush administration. Just six days after 9/11, President Bush urged Americans to differentiate between Muslims and terrorists, stating, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam … Islam is peace.” Khakpour then asks: “Did that assurance mean more to white Americans coming from someone who looked like them?”

The rise of the “Stop the Islamization of America” campaign and the infamous threat of the Florida pastor to publically burn copies of the Qur’an suggest that Khakpour might be right. Over the past nine years, American security, in every sense of the word, has deteriorated dramatically. Two wars and an economic crisis later, Americans are perhaps more unsure of their safety than ever before. This profound sense of uncertainty has manifested itself as fear, chiefly, fear of the unknown. And this paralyzing fear has given rise to intolerance, fanaticism and utter irrationality.

The controversy surrounding Park51 is illustrative of this downward spiral. Politicians, religious leaders and Tea Party groupies have capitalized on Americans’ fear and manipulated it in a way that threatens Americans’ constitutional rights and the very ideals on which our country was founded. In this regard, the Park51 controversy is a test of our nation’s principles. To understand the debate and what’s really at stake here, some factual clarifications are needed:

1) Park51 (originally called Cordoba House) is a not a mosque and it is not at Ground Zero. It is a nonsectarian, cultural and interfaith community center to be located about two blocks from Ground Zero. It will include a theatre, a fitness center, swimming pool, basketball court, bookstore, culinary school … and a Muslim prayer room, amongst other facilities.

2) President Barack Obama is not a Muslim; he is a Christian. And despite what 52 percent of Republicans think, Obama does not “sympathize with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.”

3) Not building this Islamic community center signifies implicit victory for Osama bin Laden. The objectives of the 9/11 attacks were to invoke fear and intolerance in Americans, thereby undermining the very diversity and multiculturalism which makes America great. In our opposition to Park51, we’ve accomplished just that — we’ve shown the world that American extremism and xenophobia trumps our national conscience, suggesting that there is, in fact, a ‘clash’ between Islam and the West.

4) Burning Qur’ans is a “recruiting bonanza” for terrorists. Such Islamic xenophobia threatens our national security and endangers our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent Newsweek article quoted Taliban operative, Zabihullah, who stated: “By preventing this mosque from being built, America is doing us a big favor. It’s providing us with more recruits, donations and popular support … The more mosques you stop, the more jihadis we will get.” As Frank Rich eloquently, “How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?”

5) If a reform Islamic movement is going to thrive anywhere, it will have to start in the United States. Therefore, it is in our security and geopolitical interests to foster a moderate Islamic movement in America by supporting Muslims such as Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind Park51.

Although the latter arguments in support of the Islamic community center are certainly valid and worthy of recognition, they share a common reliance on strategic pragmatism and a neglect of fundamental principles. Park51 is not a mosque. But if it was, should that matter? Obama is not a Muslim, but if he was, should we care? When used over and over again, these justifications start to sound more like defense mechanisms than genuine points of view. Lacking the courage to say what they really think, politicians have resorted to depending on these justifications as a crutch.

In this regard, the left is as guilty as the right of using fear to influence and manipulate supporters. Though it is true that Islamophobia in America empowers Islamists in Jakarta and Kabul, tolerance of American Muslims should not be dependent on a fear of terrorism alone. We should advocate tolerance and embrace diversity for no other reason than it’s the American thing to do. Our nation was founded on freedom of religion, a separation of church and state and an inherent belief that diversity in all forms yields greatness. Allowing the interests of fringe terrorists to take precedence over our ideals is appalling, threatens our democracy and undermines American values. Now, this is something worthy of fear. If we lose our principles, what do we have left?

If you can manage to escape the political and religious dogma dominating this debate, you will find that some Americans have been brave enough to transcend this climate of fear and stand up for American values of tolerance, diversity and freedom.

When this controversy first broke out, CNN host Fareed Zakaria returned a 2005 award to the Anti-Defamation League in response to the organization’s opposition to Park51. In a letter to the League, Zakaria wrote, “I cannot in good conscience hold onto the award or the ($10,000) honorarium that came with it and am returning both.”

Cornell’s very own Keith Olbermann ’79 courageously condemned the opposition to the Park51 and the pervasive fear and hate that is paralyzing our country. In a twelve minute “special comment” on his show, Olbermann defended the right of Muslims in America, stating: “There is no training ground for terrorists; there is no insult to the victims of 9/11; there is no tribute to medieval Muslim subjugation of the West; there is, in fact, no Ground Zero Mosque.”

And most recently, Nicholas Kristof wrote about Susan Retik, a Jewish woman who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks. Refusing to allow her pain and fear to turn itself into hatred and intolerance, Retik and another 9/11 widow, founded an organization called Beyond the 11th, which seeks to fight the Taliban by empowering Afghan widows. She is now recruiting Muslims in America to join her battle.

September 11th was a tragic day, a day we will never forget. Remembering this day is not a choice. Yet how we choose to heal as a nation and honor those who were lost is, in fact, a choice. We can continue to live in fear and suffer the consequences — a society characterized by hate, division and blame — or we can look within and embrace the very principles which define America — tolerance, diversity and freedom. This test of principles is alive and urgent and awaiting your engagement.

Carolyn Witte is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at cwitte@cornellsun.com. Wit’s End appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Carolyn Witte