Active Ignorance at Play: The Controversy Over Building The Cordoba House Near Ground Zero

I am a New Yorker.  I am also a world citizen.  Therefore, I have a responsibility to write about this horrific debate that has been brewing in New York City over plans to seek approval to build a new cultural center called the Cordoba House a mere two blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Approximately a week ago, there was an open community board meeting to discuss the plans for the Cordoba House.  People came out in droves to voice their objections, claiming that Ground Zero is too sacred to put a “mosque that symbolizes the ideology that inspired the attacks of 9/11.”  You’ll see in this interview and video on ABC news that the media continues to perpetuate the inaccuracy that Muslims “were cheering in the streets in streets in the Middle East and in America” on 9/11.  I didn’t see any Muslims dancing in our streets? Did you? How about our friends in the Middle East? Were there droves of people dancing in your streets when the towers fell?  What I do recall are images from around the world showing people crying and holding candle light vigils.  I recall friends from all regions of the world, including the Middle East, sending their heartfelt condolences over the terrorist attacks and reminding us that this is not what Islam is about.

The same ABC news video clip shows Daisy Khan, Executive Director for the American Society for Muslim Advancement serving as a voice of reason.  She states: “It is active ignorance at play, and a center like this will be dedicated to removing that ignorance.”  Bravo to Ms. Khan for stating what needed to be said. It makes me  wonder how many of the people condemning the Cordoba House initiative have ever SPOKEN with a person who is Muslim.  I wonder if they’ve ever directly sat down and asked a Muslim person about their faith and what they do in a mosque when they pray.  I wonder if they’ve ever seen anything about Islam that didn’t come out of Fox 5 news or any other conservative news source.  I wonder if they have ever picked up an English version of the Koran or traveled to a place that is primarily Muslim?  I wonder if they have ever visited the Cordoba House Initiative’s website which clearly explains the goals of the project and the legacy of work done on behalf of peace building around the world.

I was in New York on 9/11.  I spent the day frantically trying to contact my family. I went to the local hospital to try to donate blood. My family awaited news of my brother-in-law who worked near the towers;  he wasn’t reached for a few hours but at the time it felt like days.  Thankfully he was alright, just difficult to reach.  We watched as thousands died on that day in New York and in Washington DC.  I tear up just thinking about how many people I know who lost someone close to them and I mourn the passing of a way of life in this country that died on that day.  While I can’t completely understand the grief and pain of those who had family members and friends murdered, I do have an obligation to push back against ignorance about what the Muslim community stands for and what they are trying to do with Cordoba House.

When people are angry enough to state things such as “this is where the next terrorist act will be planned,” we have an obligation to say, ok, enough is enough. Let’s not forget that innocent Muslims were killed in the Trade Center on 9/11.  Is it not their right to mourn also and build an educational and spiritual center that is based on religious leaders working together to minimize tension between Muslims and the West?  And if two blocks away from Ground Zero is “too close,” what is far enough away?  Are we talking 5 blocks? Above 23rd street? Above 59th Street?  One of the outer boroughs of New York? New Jersey? This ridiculous notion that the plans for the center are “too close” are sprung from a group of people who are drowning in sadness, anger and ignorance.

I can’t believe that I even have to write this because it seems so ridiculous that somehow Muslims are all being labeled as terrorists by people who live in one of the most diverse cities in the world.  For me, it is as silly as saying that all Republicans are terrorists because Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) was a registered Republican.  Any extremist view is dangerous, but to label all people under one umbrella of faith is simply ignorant.

As an international educator, I work tirelessly to bring diverse people together to create opportunities for authentic dialogue.  In the past, I’ve brought World Religions for Peace to speak with students and recently wrote about my experience bringing the film “Crossing Borders” to Western Connecticut State University.  This marvelous film about a group of American students who travel to Morocco to meet a group of Muslim students prompted several Western Connecticut State University students to write papers about their negative stereotypes of the Muslim world, admitting they had never even had a conversation with a Muslim before and feeling ashamed that they judged them without warrant.  The simple lesson of not judging a book by its cover is certainly applicable here.

When these protesters in New York City have actually had a conversation with a Muslim person, I’m quite certain that they won’t be standing in line to complain about the Cordoba House Initiative.  In fact, I think they’ll be standing in line to attend one of the cultural events.  I know I will be.