To be human is to bear witness to events, both tragic and comic, and occasionally of epochal proportions. Historic, we call them, and some of us have been lucky—or unlucky—enough to be there when such events occurred: Mumbaikars in south Mumbai on 26/11; the Americans who thronged Hyde Park in Chicago on the night of Obama’s election victory; Europeans when the Berlin Wall fell; the Japanese when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed; the Chinese who thronged Tiananmen Square in terror, and later in jubilation to witness Hong Kong’s handover; the British on 4 June 1940, when Winston Churchill gave what is now considered the defining speech of World War II; the South Africans on 10 May 1994, to watch Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela be elected president of their country; and the New Yorkers who were in Manhattan on this very day nine years ago when the twin towers collapsed into rubble and altered the course of history—and the niceties of civil aviation—forever. 11 September 2001; or 9/11 as it has come to be known.
On that day, bleeding New Yorkers rallied around to help strangers and salvage their broken city. Today, those very people are engaged in a harsh, divisive debate about whether a mosque can be built in the shadows of where the World Trade Center once stood. Two-thirds of New Yorkers are opposed, according to a The New York Times poll. President Obama has weighed in and said that Muslims have as much right to build a mosque at Ground Zero as anyone else. Subsequent to his stance, Obama has had to fend off critics who have demanded his birth certificate as proof of his American-ness; to show them that his patriotism trumps his middle name—as if defending Muslims was unpatriotic.
Voices: A group of bikers protest the plan for a mosque near the Freedom Tower. Seth Wenig / AP
The man who won an election based on his fine ear for the pulse of his people seems to have become tone deaf. The man whose speeches and books reflect a nuanced understanding of the human condition seems to have become galactically insensitive. Obama is right. Of course, Muslim-Americans have a constitutional right to build a mosque in a location of their choice, once the necessary approvals are sought and met. The question is not whether they can; the question is whether they should.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Arab-American author who is spearheading the $100 million (around Rs 470 crore) Cordoba Initiative that is behind the mosque, has a long record of building bridges between the Muslim and Western worlds. As a Sufi teacher, he has condemned the terrorist attacks and repeatedly stated that the purpose of constructing a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero is to heal long-festering wounds. Few doubt his intent or his integrity. Even his staunchest supporters, however, wonder if the mosque will accomplish what he hopes it will. If the mosque’s purpose is to promote understanding and tolerance, it has failed, even before the first brick has been laid.
The building where the mosque and cultural centre are being planned used to be a musty Burlington Coat Factory—where legions of college students used to duck in for winter coat bargains. When it closed, no one mourned. But a mosque in its place seems so shocking as to seem inconceivable. Why a mosque? Why there?
Sure, whatever building rises at, or near Ground Zero is going to be controversial. Most memorials are. Early memorials celebrated victories. Later, they morphed into gestures of sympathy towards the losers and commemoration of the dead. The area surrounding Ground Zero isn’t technically a war memorial site but it is sacred ground for New Yorkers. The blogosphere has been rife with vocal dissenters. Putting a mosque at Ground Zero, some say, is like rubbing chilli powder into an open wound; like building a Jewish temple in the Gaza Strip; or like raising a Swastika sculpture in Auschwitz. It ain’t illegal but it isn’t right.
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President Obama and New York mayor Bloomberg are both right in defending the mosque constitutionally. But they aren’t being pragmatic. Politics, after all, is the art of the possible. A good politician views the gamut of possibilities through the prism of appropriateness. With malice towards none but sensitivity towards all. What was appropriate was Willy Brandt’s Kniefall von Warschau, or the Warsaw Genuflection, in which the German chancellor kneeled in humility before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial, an act that subsequently earned him a Nobel Prize.
There are so many logical ways by which New York City can determine what goes up in and around Ground Zero—ranging from getting the families of the dead involved to building a multi-faith complex, to building a museum that documents what exactly happened on 9/11 for future generations. A mosque seems like such a knee-jerk reaction. Why not a Jewish temple; or a Baptist church? Or for that matter, why not a Ganesh temple?
President Obama should take a page from how we Indians manage religious discourse and discord. We accord our myriad religions equal rights—to build temples, churches, mosques, gurudwaras, and synagogues. But we keep matters of church separate from the state. All our memorials are resolutely secular; and no one religion can coopt them, figuratively speaking. So by all means, let the Muslims contribute towards a centre at Ground Zero. Let them even fund the project entirely and be known for doing so. Let Imam Rauf use his considerable diplomatic skills to build bridges and heal breeches.
But let’s not call it a mosque. Let’s call it a memorial; a cultural centre; a secular sacred space where loved ones come to grieve. A space that is a monument but more than that, secular.
PS: Interestingly, in a recent essay in The New York Times (that ran after I submitted this column), Imam Rauf has stressed that the building will be a multi-faith complex. Not once, in his 1,076-word essay did he use the word “mosque”.
Shoba Narayan was 20 blocks from Ground Zero on 11 September 2001. She doubts that she will visit Ground Zero. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org