Tempers are heating up in the New York City area over the plans by the American Society for Muslim Advancement and another Islamic group known as the Cordoba Initiative to build a $100 million, 13-story, Islamic cultural center and mosque just two blocks from Ground Zero. And if that were not inflammatory enough, the plan is to inaugurate the new center on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Another provocative aspect is the fact that the majority of the money will allegedly come from the Saudis. Furthermore, the Imam who helped found the Cordoba initiative after 9/11, Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf, is on record as telling CNN, right after the 9/11 attacks, "U.S. policies were an accessory to the crime that happened. We (the U.S.) have been an accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. Osama bin Laden was made in the USA."
New Yorkers seem overwhelmingly opposed to the plan, comparing its insensitivity to the German government opening, say, a Bach appreciation museum right outside the Auschwitz death camp, or Toyota opening a car factory by the Arizona Memorial on the island of Oahu. On my radio show many families of 9/11 victims called in to condemn the plans as 'a slap in the face,' 'highly insensitive,' and 'a despicable attempt to claim victory at the site where so many innocent Americans died.'
The issues at stake affect the very heart of American democracy. On the one hand it would be the height of insensitivity, not to say an outright provocation, for the Islamic community to build a giant Islamic shrine at the resting place of 3000 innocent Americans who were murdered by Islamic terrorists. On the other hand, America is a tolerant country that allows for the free worship of all its citizens and one bridles against the idea of preventing any mosque from being built.
I have a simple, elegant, and deeply moral solution. Let the Islamic Cultural Center be built. Let the mosque be included. But, the Muslim organizations building it should commit right now to making the principal focus of the building a museum depicting the rise of Islamic extremism, its hate-based agenda, and how it is an abomination to Islam. The museum would feature exhibits showing the major fomenters of Islamic hatred worldwide and the cultural and religious factors that have gained them so wide a following. It would have exhibitions on some of the terrible atrocities committed by these Islamic fundamentalists, focusing specifically on the slaughter at Ground Zero on 9/11. The Islamic Center would have a major exhibition on the evil of Osama bin Laden, detailing his crimes against humanity and the number of innocent people he has killed. Most importantly, the museum would repudiate these haters by showing how their actions are an abomination to authentic Islamic teaching and how every G-d-fearing Muslim has a responsibility to spit them out.
Who could possibly object to Muslims coming together to create a museum condemning growing Islamic intolerance and call Osama bin Laden, Hamas, and Hezbollah what they are - perversions of Islam that are defiling and destroying a great world religion.
If the groups building the Cultural Center and mosque are prepared to make this its focus they will have proven that they are not only enormously sensitive to the families of the victims who lost loved ones there, but that they are courageous voices who wish to take back their religion from the fiends who purport to represent it.
This is something that the German government has done extremely well since the holocaust. They have built memorials and museums that depict the rise of Nazism and how state organs such as the political establishment, the media, and business all facilitated and contributed to Hitler's rise. Many of these government-sponsored exhibits go even further, exploring a German national character that was so subservient to and respectful of authority - and so dependent on strongmen to lead it - that it eagerly embraced the anti-Semitism of Hitler and became, in Daniel Goldhagen's memorable phrase, 'Hitler's willing executioners.'
Without a similar degree of introspection, on the one hand, and widespread condemnation of Islamic terrorism on the other, Islam risks being taken over by fanatics who disgrace their faith by murdering in the name of Allah. Communities that are not self-critical always risk going off the deep end. They have no internal mechanism to weed out corruption. And an Islamic Center at Ground Zero dedicated to that deeply necessary and currently absent introspection would repudiate the terrorists who perpetrated the atrocity, honor the victims who died there, and serve as a powerful step toward G-d fearing and decent Muslims taking back their faith from the fanatics.
But it goes without saying that my opinion on the matter does not much matter. It is the victims families who must be consulted the Islamic groups on question first and foremost.
About fifteen years ago I visited the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp for the first time. I was taken aback by giant Christian crosses that dotted the deathly landscape. Wherever you looked there no Jewish symbols only Christian ones. I asked my close friend Prof. Jonathan Webber, one of the world's leading authorities on Auschwitz and my guide at the camp, why there were so many Christian symbols when more than ninety-five percent of the people who died there were Jews. He explained to me that the Jewish response to Auschwitz was one of emptiness and silence. Something unspeakable and inexplicable had happened here. The horror was too great to capture, the meaninglessness of the act too profound to be justified with any kind of memorial. Jews did not want to give meaning to something so utterly meaningless. Indeed, Jewish theologians speak of the holocaust as a time of Hester Panim, the hiding of G-d's presence. Hence, the Jewish community took the approach of leaving the slaughterhouse empty of symbolism or memorials. Christians might seek to redeem it, but some places remain unredeemable. The Jewish community discussed this with our Christian brothers and many of the Christian symbols were removed.
In the same way it behooved our Christian brothers to allow us Jews to choose to commemorate the extermination of our people in the manner we saw fit, it likewise behooves our Islamic brothers and sisters to approach the families of those who died on 9/11 and ask them how they wish the site to be commemorated. And if as a body they object to any kind of mosque being built there, then their wishes should be respected.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly claimed that the Ford Foundation was helping to fund the mosque at Ground Zero. We regret this error.