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Ground Zero and Harry Reid's Cowardly Statement

The smartest way to battle extremist ideologies is to strengthen the voices of the vast majority of Muslims in the world who eschew violence and to promote pluralism.
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Harry Reid has capitulated to politicized fear-mongering rhetoric that, at bottom, fallaciously equates the vast majority of Muslims to the 9/11 terrorists. He stated yesterday that the Islamic Community Center planned on a site three blocks from Ground Zero (incorrectly termed the "Ground Zero Mosque") should be built elsewhere.

The increasingly vitriolic and ignorant rhetoric surrounding this issue is couched in terms of "sensitivity." Yes, they have a right to build a mosque near Ground Zero, the argument goes, but it is insensitive to do so. Why? Because Muslims bombed the World Trade Center; ergo, no Muslims should worship near the remains of the World Trade Center.

Take the premise away - the premise that equates all Muslims with the 9/11 terrorists - and this argument makes no sense. After all, do we disallow the building of churches wherever crimes have been committed by Christian murderers? Of course not, because there's a (correct) presumption that criminals who happen to be Christian have nothing to do with mainstream Christianity. Yet, a double standard kicks in where Muslims are concerned: any crime committed by Muslims is considered to be indicative of the religion of Islam itself and typical of all Muslims.

The organizers of the planned Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan include the imam of a mosque located twelve blocks from Ground Zero. He's been the imam there for 27 years, a community leader who has built interfaith and community bridges in his neighborhood. When his mosque became too small to house his congregation, he and his congregation began searching for a new property in the late 1990s. Obviously, they searched for a property in the same neighborhood as their original mosque, the neighborhood of Lower Manhattan - that's where their congregation has lived and worshiped for nearly three decades. It's their neighborhood. They finally found a property that had stood empty for years, located just 9 blocks from the original mosque they'd outgrown. And they decided to build there not just a mosque, but an Islamic Community Center that would serve the entire community, non-Muslim and Muslim alike.

But imagine their surprise when suddenly virulent voices started demanding that they not build a new Islamic Community Center in the neighborhood where they've lived and worshiped for nearly three decades and instead locate it somewhere else - all because a terrible crime was committed three blocks away in September of 2001.

The people who committed that crime on 9/11 violated every tenet of Islam. They violated numerous specific rules of Islamic law that forbid the killing of noncombatants, forbid suicide, and forbid the clandestine use of force (terrorism). Messages from every Muslim country in the world came in immediately after the attacks, condemning them as criminal and un-Islamic. Muslim religious leaders all over the world, as well as organizations representing the six million Muslims in America, condemned the World Trade Center attacks. For American Muslims, it was as much our tragedy as anyone else's; the casualties of the 9/11 attacks included many Muslims, as well. In fact, al-Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion.

But now, because of those very criminal and un-Islamic acts of 9/11, Muslims are under pressure to move their congregation out of their neighborhood and relocate somewhere else.

The majority of this country may (according to some polls) oppose the building of the Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero, but the majority of people in Manhattan favor the Islamic Center. Why? Because many New Yorkers actually know the facts about this building and its organizers. They don't just believe misleading one-liners. They know this Islamic Community Center will benefit the entire community of Lower Manhattan. That's why the building of this Center has been supported by, among others, the Mayor of New York, the President of the Borough of Manhattan, the Auburn Seminary, the American Jewish Committee, the Interfaith Center of New York, the New York Buddhist Church, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, St. Bartholomew's Church, St. Peter's Church, and many, many others.

The new Islamic Center would include not just a mosque, but also an interfaith chapel, interfaith programs, a 9/11 victims memorial, a lecture hall, resources on women's empowerment and youth development, a library, and a swimming pool. It would be open to the community at large. It was modeled on the Jewish Community Centers that populate the United States; in fact, a local JCC has been helpful with the planning of the Islamic Center.

The organizers of the new Islamic Community Center consulted community political leaders and religious leaders when they began to form their plans. They sought to build a center to encourage mainstream, progressive voices in Islam, the surest way to defeat religious extremism. Al-Qaeda thrives on division and the oppression of Muslims - outrage over the treatment of Muslims is what al-Qaeda uses to recruit new extremists and foment hatred. What better defeat for al-Qaeda than to support interfaith pluralism and cooperation?

This is not the time to give in to extremist hysteria and McCarthyism. American knowledge of Islam and its tenets is sparse. The smartest way to battle extremist ideologies is to strengthen the voices of the vast majority of Muslims in the world who eschew violence and to promote pluralism. We should listen to the Mayor of New York, the President of the Borough of Manhattan, and many others, and welcome a community center that would benefit not only Muslims, but all Americans.

Sumbul Ali-Karamali is an attorney with an additional degree in Islamic law, and is the author of "The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing."

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