Friday, August 20, 2010
I have a confession to make: I don’t really get this whole “9/11 Mosque” controversy. That is, I know what it’s about—some Muslims want to build a cultural center a few blocks away from the big hole where the World Trade Center used to be—and I know that people and news organizations don’t have a whole lot to do during August and things can get a little silly (last August was when we had the whole Town Hall Meeting kerfuffle). But I don’t understand why we need opinion polls to tell us that 70 percent of the country is against the building of a mosque (a cultural center, actually) in a middle of a block that includes restaurants, apartment buildings, and a strip club across the street.
This New Yorker opinion piece sums up the situation nicely. People who don’t live in New York, people who will never walk by the proposed mosque, people who have made their careers badmouthing the “elites” who live and work in New York City—these people don’t think the mosque should be built. But they shouldn’t be involved in this process. What Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich or Howard Dean says about the Park 51 project shouldn’t matter to anyone. Conservatives are constantly bitching about “states’ rights”; well, what about a city’s rights? The neighborhood Community Board—the smallest, most local form of government in New York City—endorsed the project 28 to one. And while New Yorkers oppose it, Manhattanites (you know, the people who actually breathed in the dust and ash from the fallen World Trade Center nine years ago) are in favor of it. So why won’t these goddam out-of-towners just keep their mouths shut?
The arguments against the mosque that aren’t just obvious anti-Muslim sentiments are tidily articulated in this blog post. The author equates 9/11 to genocide and makes no distinction between American Muslims and Middle Eastern Muslims, and describes the mosque’s location as, “within enough distance to pass the mosque coming from one direction and turn your head to see the WTC within a minute.”
I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing this blogger isn’t a New Yorker. If he was, he’d know you can’t see the WTC, because there’s nothing to see. It’s not a memorial, it’s just a giant construction site. In a few years, it’ll be a giant office building (housing Conde Nast, among others) in a neighborhood full of giant office buildings. Conservatives and other out-of-towners who oppose Park 51 seem to think that the big hole in the ground is the only distinguishable feature in that part of Manhattan; in actuality, the former WTC doesn’t stand out very much. I used to visit some guys who lived near the big hole to watch sports and get high, and believe it or not, I don’t think I thought about 9/11 once when I was walking past the hole.
America is still getting over the World Trade Center attacks, but Manhattan has moved on, because that’s what Manhattan does. Nothing leaves much of a mark, every scar is built over and built over again. Maybe that’s heartless, maybe it’s a good way to move on, but that’s what happens. I don’t know if the critics in other parts of the country understand how little 9/11 has defined Manhattan and how easily life flows around that big hole. They’re looking to preserve the “sanctity” of a “memorial site” that exists only within their heads.
Another thing I’m not sure the Park 51 critics get is that there are a lot of Muslims in New York. That sounds stupid, but in most parts of the country, Muslims are a rare sight. They’re extremely foreign to most Americans, and possibly a little scary. Even on the subway, where you’re likely to see some weird stuff, it’s a little startling to see a woman in a full-on burqa. But you’ll see those women if you live here, and you might walk by the mosque near my house and hear that Islamic chanting that they do. I’m just guessing, but I imagine that people who have never met (or even seen) a Muslim find the prospect of building a mosque “in the shadow of the 9/11 site”—wait, what shadow?—pretty objectionable, because to them, mosque=Muslim=enemy. New York isn’t exactly Mecca or Tehran (remember that controversy over the Muslim school?), but it isn’t Wasilla, Alaska either. There are enough mosques in town that one more shouldn’t upset anyone—especially when the building in question is already used for Islamic prayer!
I’m still wrapping my head around how one would be offended by the presence of this cultural center, which might explain why I can’t understand the grievances of the out-of-towner opposition. Are tourists going to walk past the mosque and be upset because they’re on their way to the 9/11 memorial/New York Doll strip club and the ambience was disturbed? Are the prayers of Muslims going to prevent the 9/11 victims’ souls from going to heaven? Is merely knowing that a Muslim building is near a big hole hundreds of miles away from you upsetting? Or do the opponents agree with Gingrich, who believes the cultural center is part of an “Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization." If that last one is true, I really, really don’t understand.