by Yehezkel Landau
In the summer of 2010, as the American midterm election season was heating up, one of the most controversial subjects of debate was the planned construction of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. Misleadingly dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque,” it became the focus of an ugly campaign to impugn the motives of those behind the Park 51 project, especially Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Islamophobic hysteria, playing on the pain of 9/11, was generated by the project’s critics as part of a calculated strategy to scare voters into voting for right-wing candidates in the November elections. This political aim was confirmed when the propaganda campaign was abruptly terminated following Election Day.
I have known Imam Feisal and his wife Daisy Khan for fifteen years. I consider them cherished friends and allies in the struggle to combat religious extremism. But this effort can’t be defined by what it is fighting against. It must be understood as a campaign to build bridges of mutual understanding and cooperation across the boundaries separating faith communities.
Given my friendship with this extraordinary couple, who are among the most courageous and dedicated American Muslim leaders, I did not hesitate for a moment when Daisy called me one afternoon that summer to ask if I could testify on behalf of Park 51 at a public hearing the following day, convened by the Zoning Board for lower Manhattan. I took a train into Manhattan and a subway downtown, then walking the few blocks to the site of the hearing. The large meeting hall was filling up with people, most of them opponents of the proposed community center who carried signs with anti-Muslim slogans. Some decried the mythical threat of “Sharia law” being imposed on American citizens. I added my name to the list of people registering to speak and then waited for the hearing to begin. Representatives of the American and international media were there to cover the event.
The energy in the room was intense, and when the hearing began the atmosphere grew increasingly confrontational. First Imam Feisal explained that he and his colleagues wanted to establish a Muslim counterpart to a Jewish community center or a YMCA, in order to serve the local Muslim community and improve relations with other faith communities. Then the head of the Zoning Board called out, one by one, the names of people who had signed up to speak. Each person was given up to two minutes to deliver remarks at a microphone placed in front of the crowd. I listened as the first 30 speakers, most of them opponents of the project, offered their views. Audience members cheered when an opponent spoke or booed when a supporter spoke. Decorum was repeatedly violated as testimonies were interrupted by hecklers, each time prompting the Zoning Board chair to call for order.
Then I heard my name called, and I walked to the microphone. I had not prepared a formal statement, since I wanted to get a sense of who the Zoning Board members and the other attendees were before saying anything. I realized that a reasoned argument, which I would use in an academic setting, was not appropriate for this one. Instead, I had to say something that would engage people on the emotional level, then move on to the substantive point: the Park 51 initiative was worthy of community-wide support. My Hebrew first name and kippah made it clear I was Jewish, and I began by identifying myself as a dual Israeli-American citizen. I acknowledged the unhealed pain of the 9/11 families and related my own experience with terror attacks in Jerusalem, where I had lived for close to 25 years. To demonstrate my empathy for the victims of terror, I mentioned that I attended two funerals on one afternoon after four Jewish women, one of them the daughter of my son’s former babysitter and another the mother of three friends, were stabbed to death at a bus stop near my home by an enraged Palestinian man from Gaza. I also mentioned my years of reserve duty in the Israel Defense Forces and the military service my son was then doing in the IDF.
The audience members listened intently. No one interrupted me. After acknowledging that “all of us, as Americans, have real enemies in the world who want us dead,” I made a 180-degree turn. I said, “but Imam Feisal and his colleagues are not among them. They are on OUR side,” struggling to combat religious fanatics who misuse Islam to justify their evil intentions. I added that I had known Imam Feisal and Daisy for over ten years, and that I had come to admire them. If there were any questions about their project, those questions should be presented to them so that they could be addressed. But no one should rush to judgment, especially to condemn a praiseworthy effort simply because its initiators were Muslims. Then I concluded by addressing the Zoning Board as well as the attendees: “If this Islamic community center is rejected, then the great city of New York will be no better than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which refuses to allow churches and synagogues to be built in its domain.”
I went back to my place in the hall and waited to see what would ensue. Even though Imam Feisal, Daisy, and their colleagues thanked me for my remarks, I was dismayed when the rancor returned with the next speaker’s testimony. The confrontational energy continued throughout the hearing. Fortunately, the Zoning Board voted to allow the Park 51 initiative to move forward. In the end, the project was suspended for reasons having more to do with internal tensions among its sponsors than with outside opposition.
What I learned from the 2010 experience, especially from the hearing that night, was that Islamophobia in America must be countered by committed people from across the religious and political spectrum. Ordinary citizens and public officials must work together. We need to supplement appeals to reason and good will with expressions of empathy for the fears which many Americans harbor toward Muslims. Their negative views have been molded by distorted images in the media and reinforced by demagogic politicians who pander to those fears. Our common welfare demands that we work together to ensure that compassion overcomes bigotry, and that inter-communal solidarity triumphs over estrangement, resentment, and hatred.
Here is the New York Times coverage of the Park 51 proposal, last updated April 2014.