Is opposing all of Islam a useful response to 9/11?

Well, that is clearly a rhetorical question, and blog readers who know me also know what my answer would be.

But the reason I’m asking the question is a report in the New York Times this morning that the Anti-Defamation League is opposing construction of an Islamic mosque and cultural center near the site of the World Trade Center attacks in New York City.

The Anti-Defamation League is the most prominent organization in the American Jewish world focused on fighting anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. They often end up to the right of my own personal politics when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, but I respect their long and distinguished track record speaking out against neo-Nazism, hate crimes and bigotry against minorities.  Recently, for instance, they filed a court brief opposing Arizona’s notorious new anti-immigrant law.

But now comes the issue of the New York mosque.

According to the Times, the local Muslim community has been planning a $100 million complex with a prayer space, performing arts center, pool and restaurant. It will be a community center modeled on the 92nd Street Y (the prestigious Upper East Side Jewish cultural center where yours truly went to nursery school and was taught by Anthony Lewis’ mother — how’s that for obscure trivia?).

Organizers say the complex will have a board made up of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders and is intended to be a beacon of moderate Islam.

“We are looking to build bridges between faiths,” organizer Oz Sultan said in an interview with the Times.

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg and the local community board have supported the project. But some relatives of 9/11 victims have denounced it, and national Republican leaders including Sarah Palin have made opposition to the mosque a part of their stump speeches. 

The ADL initially had criticized the anti-Muslim tone of opposition to the project, according to the Times. But on Friday director Abraham Foxman said the group had come out against the mosque out of deference to the relatives of 9/11 victims.

“It’s the wrong place,” Mr. Foxman told the Times. “Find another place.”

Asked why the opposition of the families was so pivotal in the decision, Mr. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, said they were entitled to their emotions.

“Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

Okay, so where do I start with how wrong this is?

First of all, just because victims of a horrific crime react emotionally is no reason for the rest of us to throw our normal rational, critical faculties out the window. Respecting someone’s pain doesn’t mean you have to do everything they want or agree with everything they say.

And thinking rationally about this — do we really want to punish the entire New York Muslim community because of the 9/11 terrorists?

Because that’s what the ADL is doing. It’s saying there is no difference between the average tax-paying, law-abiding, family-raising Muslim citizen of New York and the 9/11 terrorists. 

It’s saying that because they happen to share the same overarching religion, they should not be allowed to pray, learn, socialize near ground zero.

If this proposal were for a Catholic church at ground zero, no one would be making a fuss. If it were for a synagogue at ground zero, no one would be making a fuss.   Another YMCA or YMHA, no problem.

But Muslim moms and dads dropping children off at nursery school or art classes, like my mom used to drop me off? Muslim employees on Wall Street gathering near their offices at lunchtime to pray?

These scenarios are being treated as some kind of insult to the 9/11 victims.

Of course I’ll never know what it’s like to have lost a loved one in 9/11.  But my own feeling is that — rather than an insult to the victims — a center that is devoted to moderate Islam and to interfaith understanding would be a fitting addition to the other ways that we are memorializing the attacks.

Heck, at the very least it’s a lot more positive and meaningful than putting a Burger King or Starbucks there.

I could go on and on venting, but I suspect you get my point. I hope Mayor Bloomberg stands his ground. I hope the ADL gets an earful from American Jews who find their position inconsistent, unfair, anti-Muslim and narrow-minded.

Want to let the ADL know what you think? You can email them a comment at this link. I sent them my own thoughts already.

Want to let me know what you think? You know I love it when people leave comments here!


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6 Responses to “Is opposing all of Islam a useful response to 9/11?”

  1. Saladin Says:

    I enjoyed this post a great deal. I always love well-articulated arguments and appreciate your perspective. Thank you. Salaam!

  2. John Mangels Says:

    I was upset to hear about the opposition. I appreciate your response.

  3. Kaveh Says:

    Well said, Ilana! Thanks for speaking your thoughts on this.

  4. Janice Dean Says:

    Hear hear! Thank you, Ilana, for your post.

  5. Ilana DeBare Says:

    Quick update: the ADL sent me an email reply today, to the comment I had left on their web site. Here it is:

    Thank you for contacting us with your concerns about ADL’s statement on the proposed Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero. We take your input very seriously, and we are forwarding it to our colleagues in our National office for their additional consideration.

    ADL’s statement has generated a great deal of reaction, much of which is based on a misunderstanding of it. The key to our stance is expressed most concisely in this sentence in our original statement (copied below for your reference):

    “In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.”

    ADL’s position regarding the location of the Islamic Cultural Center is about sensitivity to the victims and their loved ones. We believe that everyone – opponents and proponents alike – must pay attention to these sensitivities. Importantly, however, they must do so without giving in to appeals to bigotry – a point which we emphasized strongly in our statement.

    For your information, this concern about sensitivity also informed our opposition years ago to the building of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz-Birkeneau. We were widely supported for taking this stance for the same reasons of sensitivity.

    ADL adamantly opposes anti-Muslim bigotry, and we have a consistent reliable record of doing so. As just one example, on many occasions over the years we have spoken out clearly against acts and statements of anti-Muslim bigotry after 9/11.

    We hope that this explanation elucidates our position on the proposed Islamic Cultural Center in downtown Manhattan.

  6. Kaveh Says:

    Thanks for posting their response, Ilana. I read it twice and tried to find a deeper logic there, but failed. Yes, of course, some victims will not like to see the Center… but it’s an irrational dislike, as ADL had previously stated. These victims are of course free to have that initial reaction, but as you stated, the rest of us don’t need to suffer from that also; perhaps time and gentle minds will help them understand that a handful of criminal extremists do not represent all multiethnic, multifaceted members of a very large body of religious adherents. Peace could be hard work, but is there a better alternative?

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