Memory through universalism at Ground Zero
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Memory through universalism at Ground Zero

In the past few weeks, some, including William McGurn, a former chief speechwriter for president George W. Bush, have drawn a comparison between the convent built on the perimeter of Auschwitz and the mosque scheduled to be built in the environs of Ground Zero in New York, where pieces of the planes fell. The fundamental argument has been that just as a convent does not belong on the grounds of the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, a mosque does not belong in the place where Americans representing a wide range of religions and ethnic backgrounds were killed. As leader of a group of seven who climbed the fence at Auschwitz in July of 1989 to protest against the convent, I would like to expand upon this comparison.

The convent did not belong at Auschwitz-Birkenau because well over 90 percent of those who were murdered on that soil were Jewish. To erect a convent where nuns would be cloistered and – as they themselves proclaimed – would pray for the souls of the departed, would be, in the minds of so many of the victims themselves, as well as among surviving family members and friends, an act of sacrilege. It would have been understood as nothing less than a Christian show of triumphalism, a sort of tangible declaration at this fundamentally Jewish burial site, that Christianity prevails.

I take second place to no one when it comes to showing respect for religious places of worship of all faiths. But a convent at the largest Jewish cemetery in the world is inappropriate. Although it took many years for Pope John Paul II to come to this realization, it was he himself who finally ordered the nuns to move.

In a similar vein, 9/11 was an attack against America. It was an assault on the country’s fundamental principles of pluralism, of the need to embrace all of humankind – people of all faiths, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, believers and non-believers, agnostics and atheists. Here, right before our eyes, was the contrast between the killers, who could only see one way of living, and the American democratic way of openness and universalism that embraces people of all backgrounds and all faiths.

Hence, it would be inappropriate for there to be built at that particular place – the site of an attack against an all-embracing way of life – any edifice that represents a particular religious belief. In the place where America was attacked, the response should be one that embodies the “spirit of America.” It should include a center where believers of all faiths and, of course, non-believers too, can meditate and reflect, in an area open to all.

Opposition to the new mosque near Ground Zero does not preclude the continued use of buildings – even a mosque – that existed before 9/11. Those pre-existing buildings are in stark contrast to a colossal community center/mosque built as a clear response to the attack.

As the debate has become more acrimonious, it is important for both sides not to impugn the motives of the other. Those who favor the mosque should not attribute to all who oppose it a demonization of Islam. And those who oppose the mosque should not attribute to those who defend it a disloyalty to America or hopeless naiveté. The debate has focused on the voices of extremism on each side. The voices of the center, the majority, which are much more nuanced, must be heard.

Spirituality is intertwined with stepping back, making room for the other. With so many families and friends of victims upset by the creation of this new mosque, why not step back and find another site a bit farther away? This is what Pope John Paul II did when he ordered the nuns to leave the convent at Auschwitz and relocate farther away. Similarly, in the case of the mosque, the stepping back would not be a defeat; it would be a heroic gesture to bring calm to the community.

As a clerical first responder on 9/11, I had the task of ministering to and comforting the true heroes – police officers, firefighters, and others. I breathed the air, listened to the stories, and participated with religious leaders of other faiths in the prayer services near the makeshift morgues. At the site of the destroyed Twin Towers, during those terrible days, I felt a profound sense of universalism. The soil at Ground Zero is hallowed ground. If one walks those sidewalks carefully, one can’t help but feel the cries of all the deceased.

To those who attacked America and for those who were brutally murdered, it is critical that the response be an American one. It must be a tribute that embraces all faiths, all believers and non-believers, created in a place that represents the legacy, the vibrancy, and the continuity of America itself – a place that reflects that all of us are created equal.

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