When I first caught wind that there were plans brewing to build a mosque near Ground Zero, my initial thoughts were: Are you serious? Why on earth would anyone want to build a Muslim place of worship near the site of the 9/11 attacks?
I feared for the safety of those who share my faith, and I immediately envisioned dozens of volunteers standing outside this building cleaning graffiti death threats off the walls. The whole thing didn't seem safe.
But as I dug deeper, past the media hoopla (every news site from Voice of America to Thaindian News has picked up on this story), hateful blog posts (on sites such as Jihad Watch and Islamization Watch), I found answers. And then things started to look up.
The existing building at 45-47 Park Place in New York City's Lower Manhattan district is the building causing all the commotion these days. It is located a few blocks from Ground Zero and dates back to the late 1850s. A Muslim outreach group the Cordoba Initiative, has been using it for Friday prayers since late last year. The space has been open Monday through Friday between noon and 10 p.m., according to a source familiar with the project. But now plans to reinvent this space have caused quite a frenzy.
Rumors that the building will be turned into a 13-story “Mega Mosque” (a term most often used by conservative blogger Pamela Gellar, editor and publisher of Atlas Shrugs and executive director of Stop Islamization of America, said in this video -- at the 6:33 mark -- and in this article on CNN.com) have spread like wildfire across media airwaves. The “Mosque at Ground Zero” (an inaccurate name given to the project that is not at but near Ground Zero) used in headlines in The New York Post, Dallas News and The Boston Globe) has evoked strong emotions from people all over New York City. But what most people don't know is that the so-called "Mega Mosque" is actually a community center that New Yorkers hope to build, appropriately called "Park 51" for its location.
According to the Park 51 website, the facility “will be dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and respect for our planet. Park51 will join New York to the world, offering a welcoming community center with multiple points of entry.”
According to an outside consultant working directly with Park 51, who agreed to speak about the project on the condition of anonymity, if built, Park 51 (a non-profit facility) would cover 150,000 square feet and stand approximately 13 to 15 stories high. The space would be divided into a prayer space for Muslims and include meeting spaces, meditation rooms, a memorial dedicated to 9/11, a spa, basketball court, swimming pool, auditorium, and classrooms offering everything from digital photography to language classes, all open to the public. The entire facility would also be green and include a garden.
“This project is being planned very professionally and seriously,” the source said. “Everything is legit and transparent. We've sought senior staff at the 92nd St. Y and the JCC to get advice on how to delegate various tasks.”
According to the source, discussion groups were held with New Yorkers of different backgrounds, faiths, cultures and races. They were asked what they wanted and what the city needed, and the answer was the same –- a community center that could service Lower Manhattan.
“This space is going to be available to the public for lease,” the source said. “If a Jewish group wants to have an event, they can come in and borrow the space. We're looking to fill the needs of the community.”
According to current population estimates on the New York City Department of City Planning Website, the 2009 Census Bureau estimates there are approximately 1.6 million people living in Manhattan, and a 2004 study published in Columbia News said, "an estimated 600,000 Muslims now represent one of the fastest growing religious communities in New York City."
An article published in The National earlier this year estimates there are about 100,000 children in the New York public school system, leading some to believe, based on population estimates, that New York City could very well be the largest Muslim city in the Western Hemisphere. This growing population needs to be serviced and accommodated, but the reality is that there is no place large enough for this diverse group of people to congregate that is not a theological-only institution. Park 51 would be the first of its kind to service both the Muslim and non-Muslim community at large, and the nickname “Mega Mosque” is a been-there-done-that scare tactic aimed at instilling fear in the hearts of Americans.
“It's become comedic to me,” said Oz Sultan, PR liaison and programming project manager for Park 51, regarding comments made by Pamela Gellar. “None of these groups have talked to us, and we've been open to let them know we'll talk to them. We were part of the community that was affected –- Muslim people in the community lost family members [on 9/11], too."
Most of the buzz is due to Cordoba Initiative's Cordoba House, which plans to use space at Park 51 for interfaith classes and a designated prayer space for Muslims. Cordoba House will have separate programs and initiatives targeted toward the Muslim community, but representatives at the Cordoba Initiative did not respond to queries about their role in this project and types of programming they hope to offer at Park 51 by the time this article was published.
Sultan said the creation of Park 51 is an effort to help make Muslims more aware of Islam in the 21st century and open a cross-cultural dialogue that will address issues that people don't talk about but do face the Muslim-American community, just like they face the rest of American society. Issues like homosexuality, obesity, drug and alcohol abuse.
“It's not just the space that's lacking, but the education initiatives,” Sultan said. “And to create a space where people of all faiths can come and learn is wonderful. The concern of security is always there, but when people start understanding what this is, I think things will calm down."
Whether you believe what you hear in the news, read on the Internet, or indulge in conspiracy theories, the one thing we all unanimously agree on is that the people who were responsible for the attacks on the Twin Towers had a skewed view of their purpose on this earth, and an entire nation and planet were affected by that horrific day. And though I stand by my belief that America is the greatest nation on earth, historically, we have made some shameful choices. We continue to discriminate against groups of people whether they were here first or not, and we can't find a way to shake our bad habits. We did it to the Native Americans, to the African Americans, to the Irish, the Polish, the Italians, and to the Jews. And now it's happening to the Muslims.
One of our nation's founding principles was religious freedom, yet everywhere we look, there are people trying to oppress these freedoms. Many opponents to Park 51 are concerned simply with the fact that Muslims will be gathered nearby, worshiping in congregation. But what these people fail to realize is that there have been well-established Muslim communities living and practicing their faith only blocks from Ground Zero for the last 30 years.
It's time for Americans to understand that we, I, the Muslim Americans in this country, whether through birth or naturalization were not responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and it is not fair that we continue to bear the burden of guilt or be made to feel "less American" for the actions of those we didn't even know. Muslims aren't just immigrants anymore, we are first-, second- and third-generation Americans, and we are a part of the fabric that binds our society. If Park 51 were realized, it could create more than 150 jobs in Lower Manhattan, which has not recovered economically since 9/11. To announce a $100M project that will create employment and bring more people to the area will rejuvenate an entire district, boost moral, and help heal our country's economy.
If everything I was told about this project in the last 12 hours is true, then I support Park 51, and I hope it becomes an inspiration, and a place where everyone, Muslim and otherwise can find peace and purpose.
Sabrina authors Slice of Lemon.
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