For several months I have been reading with keen interest the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic Cultural Center at 9-11's Ground Zero. The $100 million center would be called Cordoba House. You can read more about the proposal on the group's website. I have a mixture of feelings about this idea.
First the positives. It appears that this initiative and in particular its leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a moderate Muslim who is at home in America and most importantly at home with its ideas. He has as well been active in interfaith affairs for many years. In an age where religion in general and Islam in particular is becoming increasingly radicalized we would do well to help nurture moderate forces who wish to integrate Islam with Western values. I am even willing to support their efforts despite their apparent refusal to distance themselves from the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. I must say that I prefer and most admire denunciations of specific terrorists and their particular organizations rather than of terrorism in general. Everyone hates terrorism. It is the particular ideas that spawn terrorists that are more important to abhor and confront. Nonetheless, Feisal's identification with the victims of 9-11 and his opposition to terrorism is at times moving. I have hope as well in his Sufi roots. (Sufi Islam is in general associated with an openness to other cultures and their ideas, as opposed to for example Wahhabism.) The more we can help Muslims to become an active part of Western society and not feel disenfranchised from these societies the better for all.
Now for my negative feelings. Where are the donations coming from? This is no small matter. Would we want a Saudi financed center at the place where Saudi terrorists destroyed so much? (The 9-11 terrorists were by and large from Saudia Arabia, not Afghanistan or Iraq.) Let us be clear, the United States does indeed have enemies, in particular from the Muslim world. Money from those who preach against our values would be contrary to the proposed mission of the center. Let's find out more about the center's supporters. Second, Ground Zero is sacred ground, sanctified by the murdered blood of thousands. I do not believe that all Muslims are terrorists. To suggest this or even worse to suggest that Islam can only foster terrorism is discriminatory, but 99.9% of terrorists who attack Americans are Muslim. I do not believe that Feisal is correct when he says that 99.9% of Muslims reject terrorism. Part of the problem is this very point. If more people were like Feisal who stood up and said that terrorism is an anathema to Islam much would be corrected. I want to support Feisal, but I have my misgivings. Better that we should be building an America House, an interfaith, multi-cultural center that would serve all people. The 19 and their Al Qaeda and Taliban sponsors attacked us for our very embrace of diversity. The only appropriate center on this hallowed ground would therefore not be a Jewish center, or Christian center or Muslim center, but a center jointly run and financed by people of all faiths.
And finally, the name. Cordoba, Spain was once a great cultural center, where Islam and Jewish philosophy, as well as Jewish and Muslim poetry flourished alongside each other. In 1148, the year the great Moses Maimonides became a bar mitzvah, his city of Cordoba was invaded by fanatical Muslims, the Almohades. They presented the Jews, and all non-Muslims, with a choice: conversion or death. Maimonides and his family fled Spain, never to return again. For the leaders of Cordoba House, they hear in their name the flourishing of Islamic culture in an open, worldly, and perhaps even pluralistic society, one that by the way continues to influence Jewish philosophy and poetry to this day, but one that sadly collapsed in bloodshed, religious extremism and intolerance. To my Jewish ears I hear in Cordoba the trauma of my hero's childhood. I hear him wandering for years before finally settling in Cairo over ten years later.
Let's change the name. Let's change the location. On this sacred ground let's only embrace the religious diversity that did not outlast the name Cordoba.
By the way you can read my earlier post on the subject here. Then I had less questions and misgivings about the project than I have today.