Like many people of faith, I celebrated the news a couple weeks ago when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee unanimously voted to allow the Cordoba Initiative to build a community center at 47 Park Place, a former Burlington Coat Factory location. I was pleased for several reasons, chief of which is that the LPC made its decision on the basis of facts and not on prejudice.
The center, much like a YMCA or JCC, is there for the community at large, not only for Muslims, and will have performance space, classrooms, and a gymnasium complex. The center will also include dedicated worship space -- yes, a mosque: a mosque that is led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a leading American imam who has a long history of opposing the radicalization of Islam and who has an extensive track record of working to foster religious pluralism in the United States and abroad. It will also include a memorial to the victims of the September 11 attacks.
Both before and since the decision, there’s been a lot of press about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” especially from radio and television talk-show hosts on the far right, who claim that the fifteen-story community and cultural center -- which is actually two blocks away from ground zero -- is an affront to the victims of the September 11 attacks and a victory for radical Islam. It is sad (and rather scary) that so many people believe these distortions and outright lies, and that ignorance and misinformation so easily lead to fear and hatred of our neighbors.
We live in a nation that is increasingly diverse, where people of different languages, cultures, races and religions work together, learn together, play together and live together. Even our own families often reflect this American cultural diversity. None of us can any longer afford to draw lines between “us” and “them.”
Here in Norwalk, we are learning what it means to live in a religiously pluralistic city. People of all faiths, as well as people of no particular faith, share equally in our civic life and, while many people still refer to the United States as “a Christian nation,” that description is much more historical than a reflection of our current reality. We see this religious pluralism expressed in the life of the Norwalk Clergy Association, whose president is a rabbi and whose members include not only Jews and Christians, but also Imam Azzeim Mahmoud and the Al-Madany Islamic Center. Last year, we experienced the richness of interfaith worship as the three Abrahamic faith communities joined together in our church for the community Thanksgiving service.
This is the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daylight hours, focusing on the spiritual disciplines of patience, humility and prayer. During Ramadan, Muslims take part in acts of generosity and charity as part of their spiritual practice. After sunset, the day’s fast is broken with a communal meal, Iftar, which the Al-Madany center has invited clergy from Norwalk’s Jewish and Christian communities to share. This month of spiritual discipline ends with one of the year’s biggest celebrations as Muslims celebrate the three day feast of Eid-al-Fitr.
The Muslim calendar is a lunar based calendar and not solar, like the Georgian calendar, so the dates for Ramdan and Eid-al-Fitr cycle throughout the year. This year, Eid-al-Fitr falls on September 9, 10 & 11. One doesn’t have to be particularly clairvoyant to be able to see that a major Muslim festival falling on September 11 will be misinterpreted by those who do not understand that this is an accident of the calendar, while others will intentionally spread misinformation in order to sow the seeds of conflict.
In the weeks ahead, I’m certain that we’ll all hear conversations about “those #%*@ Muslims celebrating September 11th.” It would be easy to stand by silently and let those conversations happen around us but, as Christians, it is our duty to be truth-tellers and peace-makers. Even though it may be unpopular, it is our job to defend our Muslim neighbors from slander and to stand with them as they live out the right to free expression of religion that is enjoyed by everyone in our nation. I’m sure that you’ll do your part.