The proposed Ground Zero mosque.
The cacophony of voices offering their strong opinions on whether the Ground Zero mosque ought to be built – from Mayor Michael Bloomberg who is in favor to Sarah Palin and Abraham Foxman who are opposed – omits the most important voices of all, that of the victim’s families. Ultimately, theirs is the opinion that really matters.
More than being a shrine to the greatest terror attack against America in history, Ground Zero is a burial ground. Thousands of bodies that were incinerated in jet-fuel-fired heat and were never recovered are part of the very ground and air of the place, and it is utterly inappropriate to build anything on that cemetery without the consent of the families. The very first thing the Mayor of New York and the Islamic organizers of the $100 million project ought to do is canvass the families.
But having established that my opinion, as well as every other non-family commentator, is secondary, I have to say how absurd the debate on the mosque has become. Should a 13-story Islamic mosque and cultural center be built adjacent to the hallowed ground where nearly 3000 people were killed by Islamic extremists? Yes, but only if one of its principal focuses is a museum dedicated to the atrocity that took place on 9/11 with a heavy educational emphasis on a repudiation of Islamic extremism. Such a museum, built by Muslims, would incorporate a modern history of those who have abused Islam for hate-filled purposes – including the highjackers themselves - and museum-style educational exhibitions highlighting how both the Koran and Islam utterly dismiss such hate-filled interpretations of the Islamic faith. If the mosque organizers were to place a museum of this nature at the very center of the cultural center, it would, I assume, be welcomed by the families of the victims and the residents of New York.
And in truth I am astonished that the mosque organizers haven’t thought of this themselves. After all, the cultural center is set to incorporate a swimming pool and a large auditorium. Could the organizers be so insensitive as to ignore the elephant in the room and not address the murders that took place in the name of Islam just two blocks away?
Imagine if BP, in an effort to bolster their PR, decided to build a BP information center on a beach in Louisiana that focused on their global operations, research into cleaner energy, safety procedures, and even global philanthropy, without a mention of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the eleven BP employees who were killed fifty miles off-shore. Would the effort produce anything but anger? Would it serve to advance the interests of BP or to reinforce the public’s impressions of a global behemoth that puts profits before people.
The mosque organizers at Ground Zero risk reinforcing a growing international impression of Islamic insensitivity if they proceed with an Islamic center that refuses, as its primary goal, to hallow the memories of the three thousand innocent people who were martyred on 9/11.
In the Jewish religion we raise our children with the awareness that wearing a yarmulke on their heads automatically anoints them as ambassadors of the faith. How they behave both in public and in private will reflect either positively or negatively on their tradition. If you claim to be a religious Jew but are not honest in business – even if you keep all the Jewish rituals like Sabbath observance and kosher food – you have brought the religion into disrepute. It is a sensitivity that I urge my Muslim brothers and sisters to embrace. There can be no higher honor for a religious man or woman than to add luster to their faith through their humane and sensitive dealings with all whom they encounter. Conversely, there can be no greater insult to the religion than to behave inhumanely while claiming to live by a higher spiritual and moral code.
The mosque organizers have an opportunity to reverse a growing mainstream impression that Islam knows how to take offense to perceived slights even while dishing it out unawares through what is perceived as bullying behavior.
Americans are good-natured, tolerant, and loving people. Religion flourishes in America as in no other nation on earth. The idea of women being banned from wearing a burka or the hijab in the United States, as is the growing trend in Western Europe and especially in France, is inconceivable in America. Why alienate such a fair-minded people by unilaterally deciding that a mosque be built in a place of profound American tragedy and pain?
I am a religious Jew who has deep respect and affection for my Muslim brothers and sisters. I decry all forms of religious bigotry and intolerance, and on my radio show on WABC, whenever a caller defames Islam as an evil religion, I respond forcefully with the history of Islam as a faith that for many centuries was progressive and tolerant, with a strong emphasis on education and even women’s rights when these things were largely unknown in medieval Christian Europe. But there can be little question that in our time the public face of Islam is becoming one of intolerance and hate. And it is a tragedy for the hundreds of millions of decent, peace-loving and G-dfearing Muslims who are being unfairly grouped together with hate-filled extremists.
Only Muslims can rescue Islam from that growing darkness by serving as public Ambassadors of a faith that, rather than imposing itself on families who are still mourning relatives killed in the most brutal manner, works with them to perpetuate the memory of those they lost.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts ‘The Shmuley Show’ on 77 WABC in New York City and is the Founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author most recently of ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley and on his