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Is the Islamic Center fair?

Timothy Kirchoff | Monday, August 30, 2010

In his column in Wednesday’s Observer, Alex Coccia commented on the xenophobia which, according to him, lies at the root of the opposition to the Manhattan Islamic cultural center. (“Islamic Center a step in the right direction,” Aug. 25) To some degree, I can agree with his analysis: Many Muslims today are met with the same sort of paranoia that once characterized American treatment of Catholic immigrants. Until John F. Kennedy was elected President, many Americans thought that Catholicism was inherently antithetical to democracy and to religious freedom. They feared that putting Catholics in power would lead to an American Inquisition. To the extent that the moderate Muslims of modern America are treated the same way that American Catholics were only a few decades ago, I sympathize with them and want to see the cultural center built.

However, I think that characterizing the opposition as purely xenophobic is neither true nor especially productive. Coccia notes that, if the center is built, one side will view it as a sign of American tolerance, the other as desecration of hallowed ground. However, I think that the reasons for the latter perspective are somewhat more complex than Coccia thinks. Looking at the still-empty Ground Zero site and the situation of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center and was destroyed by the falling rubble, the oppositions’ objections become more understandable. The Freedom Tower planned for the former World Trade Center site is not due to be completed until 2013 — the construction is barely at ground level — and the City of New York has not been extremely cooperative in helping St. Nicholas’ Church rebuild, to say the least. It is not that a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan is seen as inherently evil or disrespectful — apparently, there is already a mosque two blocks from the planned location that predates the 9/11 attacks. The opposition is so vehement not because 52 percent of New Yorkers are anti-Islamic — if they were, the state of fear and the retaliatory attacks which Coccia described would have continued instead of dropping off almost to pre-9/11 levels in the following years. Simply put, it is radically unfair for the Islamic cultural center to be put on a fast track while Ground Zero still literally scars the face of Manhattan and St. Nicholas’ Church hits roadblock after roadblock in its efforts to rebuild.

Although I would like to see the cultural center built and sympathize with moderate Muslims who are trying to practice their faith in the context of a democratic society, I think that center’s supporters should back down — at least for now.

Timothy Kirchoff

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