Sep 12th 2010

Qurans, Commemorations and Ground Zero

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

The tension on the site of 'Ground Zero', New York's historical wound that refuses to heal, becomes tenser with each year. There is still no monument to the slain. The Cordoba Initiative, which 'seeks to actively promote engagement through a myriad of programs, by reinforcing similarities and addressing differences', has decided to tackle the thorny issue of commemoration in its own way. This would involve the construction of an Islamic community centre in lower Manhattan, to be called Cordoba House, part of what has been termed the Park51 project.

The suggestion has caused uproar. Accusations that this would be a monument to terrorism are being thrown about with heated frequency. Cultural insensitivity is being alleged. That it might not strictly speaking be a 'mosque' (a prayer room in a community centre surely does not convert a space into a mosque) has not featured heavily in the debate. If we consult the words of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf himself, the centre envisages 'separate prayer spaces for Muslims, Christians, Jews and men and women of other faiths' (NYT, Sep 7). A reading of his views in the article omits reference to the mosque altogether, though there should be no surprise if such a centre should host one. Not all mosques need resemble Istanbul's vast and stately Hagia Sofia.

As with so much associated with the carnage of that fateful day on September 11, 2001, the political freight has proven overwhelming for those wishing to commemorate it. Individuals such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have made little secret of their opposition to any project that might involve Islam, garnering support in characteristically populist fashion. In a Facebook post, Palin queried President Obama as to whether 'they' should 'build a mosque steps away from where radical Islamists killed 3000 people?' In another post, she urged, in her idiosyncratic use of language, 'Peaceful Muslims [to] pls refudiate.'

Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, keen to bolster any electoral prospects against his Nevada contender Sharron Angle, has thrown in his lot on the side against the centre, arguing that, while Muslims can claim to have the protection of the First Amendment right to religious freedom, 'this mosque should be built somewhere else' (NPR, Aug 16). The Imam has also been attacked as a closet extremist, whose father was a militant in the employ of the Egyptian government.

One who is far from closeted in the extremist bracket is Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Centre at Gainesville, Florida, who decided to take matters back to the days of fundamentalist crusading by proposing a commemorative burning of the Quran. (If you can't burn the enemy, try to burn their books.) Such Pentecostal fervour has done much to earn the pastor national notoriety. It has also enraged the US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, who has claimed that the decision could 'endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort here' (ABC World News, Sep 7). The Quran bonfire was, incidentally, called off at the last minute, with Jones claiming that it was merely a ploy to reveal 'an element of Islam that is very dangerous and radical'.

This is not to suggest that voices in favour of the Imam's project have not been heard amongst the hideous din. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has called opposition to the centre as 'all about hate and Islamaphobia' fed by 'grandstanding politicians' who evidently have a selective reading of the First Amendment.

As has been pointed out by the more scrupulous observers in the media, the actual structure will not be placed on the ground of the former World Trade Centre. The place is slated to be at a location several blocks away that used to be used by the Burlington Coat Factory. But it would seem that near enough is dangerous enough. The danger now is who continues to shape this debate. If the centre relocates, there is little doubt that the 'refudiating' radicals would have won.


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