“I am a slow walker, but I never walk backwards.”
I am a New Yorker and my city was attacked on September 11, 2001. The day after 9/11 I was 2 blocks from Ground Zero from 9am to 9pm doing water runs for the firemen, policemen and other Emergency service men and women working to find survivors and removing bodies from Ground Zero. I ran up and down those streets all day long collecting and passing out bottles of water donated by companies, stores and ordinary people. I was not alone. There were many others like me who volunteered because they needed and wanted to do something to help their city in its darkest hour. I still remember the streets lined with people, Buddhists, women, Muslims, children, Jews, Christians, men, Hindus, all standing arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder and cheering every serviceman coming in and out of Ground Zero. They were all New Yorkers who were there to help in any way they could, or simply to provide moral support and show their solidarity. I remember thinking to myself that this is exactly why I always have been and always will be a proud New Yorker. This is also why I had never doubted that our city would not only survive this reprehensible attack but grow stronger from it. We would show the world that terrorists are and will remain nothing more than a repugnant, immoral and cowardly group of men who can never break our will, our spirit, our unity and our sense of human decency. Not with 9/11. Not ever.
It amazes me when politicians continually cite public opinion polls that say almost 70% of New Yorkers do not want the ‘mosque’ built near Ground Zero, as a great reason to stop the project from proceeding. If people always knew what they wanted and leaders always followed the will of the people or what people believed was possible, then women would still not have the right to vote in America, Black people would not be served in restaurants and India would probably still be under British Rule. The timing of this sudden hysteria is also very curious. This project has been openly discussed since a New York Times article disclosed the plans in great detail sometime late last year (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/09/nyregion/09mosque.html) and it was never raised as an issue by anybody for months after that. However, now that mid-term election fever has taken stride it has suddenly become a huge issue. I also wonder how many of that 70% of New Yorker’s are aware that the location in question already has a prayer hall, with Muslims coming there daily to pray. And that the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” is actually called Parc51 and is meant to be a non-descript building that serves as an inter-faith cultural center with a swimming pool, Performing Arts Theater, gymnasium, classes and yes the same prayer hall that exists today. The inspiration and model for the Islamic cultural center is the Jewish Community Center (JCC) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. There will be no dome shaped mosque, or minarets with loud speakers, period. It is also worth noting that the site is two and a half blocks from the old World Trade Center location. One cannot even see Ground Zero from it.
That many families of victims of 9/11 are upset and angry is not surprising, given how deep and recent the wounds still are. Almost 3,000 innocent people were murdered that day. It was the first and only large scale attack on American soil, other than Pearl Harbor, and in many ways it shook the foundations of the safety people felt, and caused many American’s to lose their innocence. I did not lose a family member that day, but I did go to every Armory, morgue, and hospital and did spend hours calling victim help lines to search for a family friend’s son from India. He worked in Tower 1 and was missing. So while I cannot claim to understand the feeling of loss I do totally understand the intensity of their feelings, and the emotional frenzy this issue has stirred up among New Yorkers, by fringe groups on both sides. What we decide will be fundamental to what New York City stands for going forward and how we view ourselves and are viewed by the country and the world. It is important that we get this right, and there is a right answer. It is for this reason that we must all start by asking ourselves again who was attacked on that day. We will realise that it was all New Yorkers - Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu and every other religion represented by the 2,752 innocent people working in the two towers. It was democracy and freedom being attacked by a twisted ideology and by manipulated men filled with hatred for all human beings alike (I should state an equal number of victim’s families have come forward in support of the Cordoba Initiative and for building the Parc51 Cultural Center). The next question we should ask is what happened to the solidarity that we showed in the days after those cowardly terrorists attacked our city. And then the only question that remains is how we should proceed in order to do justice to the memory of the victims to ensure that their lives were not lost in vain – to see us all fight and become even more divisive and divided.
The Imam Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan have lived in this neighborhood for many years, and they too are New Yorkers. The Imam worked for the Bush administration, and now Obama's, as an American emissary to Muslim countries. His mission is to encourage them to pursue the same religious and personal freedoms that he is allowed in America. Imam Rauf travels the world telling all Muslims how great and wonderful it is to be American and being a Muslim in America. So instead of fighting them, let us pose a challenge to Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan to make their neighborhood Cultural Center a tribute to the progress we have made in a world where we are often divided by hate and misinformation. To do this we need to lift ourselves above the daily diatribes of politicians seeking another term, candidates seeking a cheap platform for the 2012 Presidential election, and self professed Pundits making a quick buck. We need to challenge our beliefs, dig deeper and get beyond the inflamed rhetoric of manic Muslim clerics, misguided liberal louts and conservative con men. We need to channel all this emotion, anger and feeling into demanding that the people behind Parc51 use this opportunity to make their Cultural Center the most open-minded, inviting, cross-cultural and all-religion-encompassing Islamic destination in the world; a testament to equality and religious freedom that exists in America, that the Imam travels the world touting.
I say we tell them, “Go ahead and build the Islamic Cultural Center but make damn sure that it represents our city, its uniqueness and its greatest strength – that we may be from different parts of the world and believe in different Gods, but each day that we live, work and walk in this city we are one. We are New Yorkers.” And by doing this we shall make it the greatest tribute we can pay to our fellow New Yorkers, who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001.