Mosque near Ground Zero?
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Mosque near Ground Zero?

Jewish-Muslim dialogue team speaks out on Cordoba House controversy

On behalf of this newspaper, Rabbi Steven Sirbu asked members of the Temple Emeth-Dar-Ul-Islah Mosque dialogue team how they felt about the Cordoba House controversy and what effect, if any, the controversy might have on relations within the two communities. Below are some of the replies.

Stephen Friedman, a board member of Temple Emeth, said that while initially [before joining the dialogue team], “I had to overcome some trepidation and irrational fear, due to the frequent media association of Islam with terrorism that had filtered into my consciousness … after a year of dialogue I count my Muslim colleagues as my friends.” This does not mean, he said, that there are not differences needing to be addressed, “but the fact that as a group we were able engage in meaningful dialogue on challenging issues like the Middle East conflict was very encouraging.” Adding that he strongly supports the building of Cordoba House, Friedman wrote, “The vast majority of Muslims, like Jews or Christians, are good people living lives of faith, dedicated to their families and communities. The Cordoba Center represents moderate voices in the Muslim world, the kind of voices that we should all support.”

Elijah Muhammad, a member of the mosque, suggested that “the controversy in itself shows that as a country and as a community, we are not accepting to groups who are outside the norm of our thinking. Instead of protesting the building of a cultural center that will happen to have a mosque inside, we as a community should be celebrating our diversity, not rejecting it…. It was not Islam that did those (9/11) attacks, but a group of people who were on a mission that did not reflect the teachings of Islam.” Muhammad said his biggest concern was the ADL statement, which “really caught me by surprise. Being a group that was involved in the civil rights, I would assume they would have been more sensitive.”

Arthur Lerman, an Emeth member, pointed out that in 1964 he had been a volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was in a Mississippi church when it was attacked. He drew a comparison between his experiences then and now, noting that his support for both the southern church and the Islamic center “is based on the furtherance of Jewish values: the right of our fellow human beings to live in freedom, and our obligation to live well with one another – without suspicion, in an atmosphere of open-hearted good will.”

Shaheen Khateeb, from the mosque, said that since she could not express her feelings as eloquently as those who have already spoken on the subject, she would quote several of them instead. She cited New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reminder that “Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans.” She also quoted CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, who said, “The debate over whether an Islamic center should be built a few blocks from the World Trade Center has ignored a fundamental point. If there is going to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed institute. We should be encouraging groups like the one behind this project, not demonizing them.”

Applauding plans to build Cordoba House, team member Dr. June Moss Handler of Emeth called it “a practical and symbolic opportunity for the Muslim community to remind us that most Muslims seek interfaith respect and understanding and are willing to work to gain that consideration. They should not have to,” she added. “As Jews we understand this only too well.”

Marcia Shapiro of Emeth said she has been “quite upset” over the controversy “and especially at the reasons given for opposition to the project. For those who say that it is hallowed ground, I remind them that the site is a former Burlington Coat Factory,” she said, noting that while she would have had the same opinion even if she had not participated in the dialogue, “there is no way I could have felt such an emotional reaction before this experience.” Said Shapiro: “As recent events have unfolded, I have seen them through the eyes of my Muslims friends and I imagine how it must feel to hear that the mosque will be an ‘insult’ to 9/11 victims…. The Muslims I grew to know are good-hearted people of faith who are committed to their families and their communities. The true insult is to them.”

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