A New Yorker Looks at Our Mosque Dilemma

First we tried to save and better the world through the Iraq war, right now it seems we are trying to appeal to the world, specifically the Muslim world, with our goodness and tolerance; the occasion being the controversial construction of a mosque within two blocks of Ground Zero. Instead of reasonable debate on this hot button issue, the former site of the Twin Towers quickly morphed into the Tower of Babel. Picketers arrived in town, some on motorcycles, armed with fury. I shuddered at seeing, on TV, New York invaded by national political crazies, by the supporters of Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, tea party-ites, plus the folks who insist Obama is a non-American and a Muslim. But I'm also discouraged when some of my fellow liberals, or moderates -- whatever term we are using these days -- behave with wanton naiveté, and indeed callousness, in brushing aside as irrelevant the pain of the families of the 3,000 people killed on 9/11.

It's hubris to think, as does our mayor and some of our politicians, that by permitting the building of the mosque (New York has at present between one and two hundred mosques) we will be sending an effective message of our upholding religious freedom to the Muslim world. (Who is the messenger receiving our lofty message?) Such a long distance message of our superior religious freedoms will get lost on the Arab street which doesn't function through our ideas of religious freedom, and secular Europe might interpret such a firm adherence to religious freedom as indicative of our excessive emphasis on religion as the solution to all problems. Immigrants, including Muslim immigrants, are smart. They don't need our politicians' abstract messages, they want to come here for the reasons immigrants have always come here: we are a fluid society, immigrants (at least up to the recession) can earn a good living and wear, eat and do whatever they please.

Our priority should be to better educate ourselves. Bush, with his personal god in his pocket, tended to over-define the world in interfaith religious terms, which admittedly at times does some good, but can also get very mushy. As an American who has always had one foot in Spain, and who has lived in Paris and Morocco, I've often ended up as being the American writer at women's conferences in the Mediterranean. I notice in these get togethers that we participants tend to define ourselves in regard to country, to the cities we live in, not religion. (True, the women from Muslim countries are not so delighted with their religion.) We Americans would have considerably more clarity, a better sense of who is who and what is what if we went back to the old-fashioned habit of thinking through what is happening in the world in terms of countries and only secondarily in terms of faiths. In this respect, Bush's specific failure to push hard the oil-rich Saudis to reign in their Wahhabi madrassas where violence is taught as education and exported to other Arab countries has made it unnecessarily hard on moderate muslims.

But the real scandal is that nearly a decade after 9/11, Ground Zero remains a gaping hole of rubble. Europe managed to rebuild its cities after World War II. Why hasn't Mayor Bloomberg used his tremendous power in order to push through the creation of an impressive new edifice, which would include an appropriate memorial? If our billionaire (8th wealthiest person in the country) mayor had used his extraordinary resources and connections to rebuild the Twin Towers, we would now be looking at a very different Manhattan and having a very different dialogue about the construction of a mosque. In place of the image of a bombed out area where the stink of death lingered years, we would be uplifted by breathtaking new and inspiring architecture, and, in that context, one more mosque would simply be part of this new landscape.

Unfortunately Bloomberg, who is positioning himself as a future presidential candidate, is totally lacking in historical perspective, including his own. A pragmatic chameleon, in order to become mayor he switched from Democrat to Republican; in order to run as mayor for a third term he imperiously changed the city's two term limit to three. Bloomberg now seems to be planning a future run for a president, on we don't yet know what ticket. And more pertinent: despite his fancy rhetoric, he failed to comprehend that the fate of the World Trade Center and the well-being of New York City are inalterably intertwined.

Where do I stand? I won't oppose the mosque project. But, like many New Yorkers, I feel a certain sadness that neither Bloomberg nor the Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf would consider the offers of compromise, which included offers to help underwrite the building of a mosque a few blocks away.

Imam Feisal Abdul's proposed mosque and cultural center is being erroneously described as being "like the 92nd Street Y." But the Y was created in a more secular time. In the late 19th century the German Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff gave a considerable part of his fortune to its creation, and to New York City Settlement Houses for the poor. There are churches and synagogues in Manhattan that also serve as cultural centers, but the Y isn't one of them. It has no synagogue; its interest in Jewish culture is historic and cultural. When my mother would drag me as a child to the Y's Kaufmann auditorium because she was mad about modern dance, I, bored with the severity of the Martha Graham troupe and atonal music, would look upward at the ceiling which was rimmed with the essential names: Dante- Isaiah- Moses- Shakespeare- Beethoven-Lincoln- Goethe- Washington- Jefferson... Those are the ones I remember. During World War II, Aristotle was erased to make room for Albert Einstein, whom the Y had picked as Europe's most distinguished exile. (Being the 1940s, alas, an iconic woman didn't yet make it to the ceiling.) The Y was Schiff's cultural, not religious, gift to New York. Most writers and poets of note from T.S. Eliot, to special readings of James Joyce, to Bellow and Sontag, including this past spring Javier Marias, have appeared at the Y. And I am convinced that the dynamic exchange between diverse countries and cultures will continue to happen through the obvious mix of commerce, culture, and intellect, with modern technology, documentaries and film adding to the stew pot. And inside this framework, but not instead of, religion will play a role.