A fierce controversy is raging in the United States over plans to build an Islamic community and outreach centre, including a mosque, in Lower Manhattan, several blocks from “Ground Zero” – the site where the World Trade Centre stood when it was attacked on September 11, 2001.

The controversy started when the Cordoba Initiative, led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, wanted to get a permit to build the centre, to be called Cordoba House.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Ilhan Tanir commented that “one of the biggest motives of this controversy is the image of Islam in America… For many, Islam is a religion which chiefly spreads hatred. A lot of Americans believe that Islam is an exceptionally brutal religion in which basic human rights are unimportant for especially those who belong to other faiths. Since 9/11, this chain of beliefs has gained more evidence to prove its arguments are worthy, in light of many radical Islamic terrorists?blowing up innocent women or infants almost every single day.”

If that is the impression Americans have, it is not just because of what Muslims did and did not do, but because demagogues and anti-Muslim activists fanned the flames, seeking to sow fear and hatred rather than seek any common ground. Many claimed that locating Cordoba House so close to Ground Zero would be insensitive to the feelings of family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks. Former Republican vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor Sarah Palin jumped into the fray to oppose the mosque, ad?ing fuel to a fire that raged in the American media over what came to be known, misleadingly and disparagingly, as the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

In its mission statement, the Cordoba Initiative clearly states that one of its aims is “bringing back the atmosphere of interfaith tolerance and respect that we have longed for since Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony and prosperity eight hundred years ago.” We can only hope that Cordoba House will fulfil this noble mission, but some lessons emerged from the controversy.

President Barack Obama, despite his famous Cairo speech to the Muslim world last year, remained entirely silent, which might indicate his administration feels too intimidated to stand up to the wave of Islamophobia sweeping the country. It is hard to imagine such silence if any other religious group faced similar high-profile hostility. Many will wonder, if Obama can’t even reach out to American Muslims what can the rest of the world expect.

But after the project cleared its last technical hurdle – a vote of the New York City Landmarks Commission – New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a stirring and commendable speech defending the tolerance and openness of his city and the United States. Although he has taken extreme pro-Israel positions, Bloomberg showed enough courage to stand up to the raging bigotry.

One of the loudest opponents to Cordoba House was Abe Foxman, national director of the pro-Israel lobby group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which advertises itself as an organisation committed to fighting bigotry. Firmly aligning himself with the bigots, Foxman argued: “Ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgement, building an Islamic centre in the shadow of the World Trade centre will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right?.

“If you want to heal us, don’t do it in our cemetery,” he added.

This was ironic, not least because Foxman has been totally silent about the agony caused to Muslims by the plans of the Los Angeles-based pro-Israel group, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, to build a so-called “Museum of Tolerance” on top of Muslim graves in Mamillah Cemetery in Jerusalem. The head of the Wiesenthal Centre also opposed the Cordoba House.

Foxman’s endorsement of the anti-Muslim racists seems to have caused a backlash against a powerful organisation that is used to getting its way. Fareed Zakaria, CNN host, editor of Newsweek International and Washington Post columnist, responded by returning a prize the ADL had honoured him with five years earlier.

“I was thrilled to get the award from an organisation that I had long admired, but I cannot in good conscience keep it anymore,” he wrote.

Zakaria also returned the $10,000 that came with the award.

While Zakaria should be commended for this action, the question remains as to why he had accepted the award in the first place. Any honest observer should have seen the role the ADL has played in promoting the most extreme anti-Arab policies of Israel as well as many of the extremist “war on terror” policies of the US administration.

And beyond his action, Zakaria’s defence of Islam implied major misconceptions. He wrote that “the lasting solution to the problem of Islamic terror is to prevail in the battle of ideas and to discredit radical Islam.” This is utterly wrong. In the same way that there are terrorists, war criminals, murderers, thieves and torturers who adhere to all kinds of faiths, there are also Muslims who fit in such deplorable categories. How could there not be when Muslims are a third of the world’s population?

We do not speak of “Christian terror” or of “Jewish terror” just because there are terrorists who happen to be Christians or Jews. After all, don’t Israeli soldiers and settlers commit abominable crimes every day with the endorsement of rabbis, claiming that they do it for the sake of “Judaism” or the “Jewish people”?

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been killed in the wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States and its allies. What about the millions of people who were killed in Southeast Asia during America’s war in Vietnam? Should we call them victims of “Christian violence” – especially after it was revealed that some US soldiers’ rifles in Iraq were engraved with verses from the Bible?

Just like other people, sometimes Muslims engage in violence because they are under occupation, just as French, Belgian and Dutch Christians did in Europe. It just so happens the only countries in the world under foreign military occupation today are Muslim countries. Religion is entirely incidental to the fact that people took up arms, though they might find inspiration, comfort or courage in it, but it has become convenient to blame their religion in order to obscure the original causes of the violence.

Zakaria urges support for Imam Rauf, and rightly so, describing him as a “moderate” Muslim clergyman, who “routinely denounces terrorism” and “speaks of the need for Muslims to live peacefully with all other religions? He advocates equal rights for women, and argues against laws that in any way punish non-Muslims.”

But there is nothing novel or groundbreaking in any of that. With all due respect the imam is not reinterpreting Islam, he is simply describing part of its peaceful mission as Muslims all over the world live it every day. The reference to laws that punish non-Muslims, however, is quite implausible. I am not aware that such laws exist in Islam. Laws in general punish violators or breakers of the law regardless of their religion.

Allowing the Cordoba House to be built in downtown Manhattan and offering it support is not a great gesture to Islam. It is meant to be a symbol of healing and reconciliation for all faiths. As such it is not an Islamic shrine despite the fact that it would include a mosque, and it will be open for worship for all.

What the campaign against it reveals is that the Islamophobia gripping many “Western” countries is growing, not diminishing, and few are speaking out against it.

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