'Ground Zero Mosque': Islamophobic extremists are fueling the controversy

Criticism of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque -- a symbol of tolerance – is generating fear of Muslims. In reality, New York is home to 800,000 hard-working Muslims who help make it the greatest city on earth.

When the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) announced its opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” last week, Director Abraham Foxman said that “Building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.”

In an interview with The New York Times, he acknowledged that such a position might seem to run counter to his group’s stated goal of combating bigotry. “Survivors of the Holocaust,” he retorted, “are entitled to feelings that are irrational.”

In its coverage of the controversy, the Times offered a bold and perhaps somewhat unsurprising prediction. “The unexpected move” by the “influential Jewish organization,” wrote Michael Barbaro, “could well be a turning point in the battle,” causing public sentiment to turn decisively against the project.

Surprising backlash

By the end of the day, however, something remarkable had happened. The venerable ADL – with its 97-year record of “defend[ing] democratic ideals and protect[ing] civil rights” – found itself under siege, attacked by progressives and establishment figures alike.

Nobel laureate Paul Krugman called the statement “shocking,” “shameful – and stupid.” By the ADL’s reasoning, he argued, Jews shouldn’t write for national publications and shouldn’t serve on the Supreme Court because this might be painful for some people.

Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution assailed the group for making common cause with “bigots and demagogues.”

“Scary Arabs ... want to kill you, all of you, because that is their nature,” blogged Alex Pareene at Salon sarcastically.

Contrary to Mr. Foxman’s remarks, it is not “survivors of the Holocaust” who are raving mad about the “Ground Zero mosque.” Nor, for the most part, is it the families of the Sept. 11 victims.

Islamophobic extremists

The entire controversy has in large part been fabricated and perpetuated by Islamophobic extremists who make money by fomenting suspicion and intolerance toward the “other.”

In popular discussions, the proposed Islamic center has usually been considered as a symbol of tolerance in a free society, as a museum of sorts to the freedom of conscience we hold so dear.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg underscored this freedom in a passionate defense of the center this week: “The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.”

800,000 Muslims in New York

Seeing the center as primarily a symbol of tolerance, however, for all its merits, risks obscuring a more tangible reality. After all, New York is home to one of the nation’s largest and most vibrant Muslim-American communities, recently estimated by the New York City Police Department at over 800,000 strong.

These are 800,000 hard-working citizens who contribute to the fabric of American society on a daily basis; men, women, and children from all over the world lured to the greatest city on earth, “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Doctors and lawyers, taxi drivers and waiters, policemen, students teachers – these are the 800,000 real human beings who contribute to New York every day.

Who are these bloggers with their hate-filled, vitriolic rants? Do they live in our neighborhoods, take our subways, or send their children to our public schools? Do they walk the streets of Flatbush, breathe the aromas of Jackson Heights, or pass by the wreckage of Ground Zero on a daily basis?

On that day, when hundreds of thousands of Muslim-American New Yorkers came face to face with unimaginable death and destruction, walking away with a renewed commitment to embodying a message of tolerance amidst a society engulfed in hate – on that day when many Muslim-Americans lost their lives along with Jews and Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists – where were these hate-mongers then?

Individuals for whom “New York” is nothing but an abstraction and a cheap talking point – what gives them the right to determine how we honor the “memory of 9/11”? Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer was right; it is such hate speech that truly “disgraces the memories” of the victims of 9/11.

Archaic notions of 'us' vs. 'them'

So many in our society remain mired in archaic notions of “us” vs. “them,”, of “the same” vs. “the other,” failing to realize how useless these constructs are in this day and age. Last month, for example, Sen. Charles Schumer told a gathering of Orthodox Jews that it makes sense to strangle “them” economically, referring to the people of Gaza. He failed to realize, of course, that there are thousands of Palestinian-Americans, loyal hard-working citizens, who live in our midst, some even in his very district. What a surprise, Senator – “they” turn out to be “us.”

Similarly, there are those who say “don’t let those Muslims build a mosque near Ground Zero.” Do they realize that there are already over 100 mosques in New York City? And no, this isn’t a Saudi plot to take over America – the oldest was built over 70 years ago.

And then there is my generation, those who were born and raised in this country, brought up in the uniquely diverse milieu of New York. “Those Muslims hate our way of life,” we are told. Such an ignorant statement shows that some people cannot accept the simple fact that Muslims can be Americans and so many Americans can be Muslims; that Muslims can be New Yorkers and New Yorkers – 800,000 of them – can be Muslims.

We have found the other – and they turn out to be none other than us.

Hamdan Azhar is a PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Chicago. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Penn State and a master’s in biostatistics from the University of Michigan. He is a product of New York City public schools and is a native of Brooklyn, New York.

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