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Mosque-ing the Issues

September 9, 2010

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers.

  1. I was born and raised in Westchester County, New York, about 25 miles north of Ground Zero.
  2. I knew/know people who worked at the World Trade Center on September, 11 (one of whom died in the disaster).

In short, the terrorist attack on Manhattan hit close to home for me, even though I was safely tucked away in bed some 3,000 miles away in Menlo Park, California when the first plane flew into the towers.

Like most people, the events of September 11 remain burned in my memory. It was my last day working at Quicken.com (my group had been disbanded and the 11th was, strangely enough, our last day as Intuit employees). I dutifully trekked into my office that morning and spent hours sitting around the TV with my soon-to-be former co-workers watching the tragedy play out as we contemplated the next moves in our personal and professional lives. To say the events of that day put my problems in perspective is an understatement, at best.

Most of us have lost jobs at sometime in our lives and we know the experience sucks. You feel worthless. Scared. Frightened for your future. But the fact is, jobs are fairly easy to find if you’re motivated enough. Maybe not in this economy, but still… the problems that come with being unemployed simply don’t compare to the horrors and life-changing events that the victims of 9/11 suffered on that fateful day.

But, I digress.

The fact is, even though I was nowhere near New York when the towers collapsed, the attacks still felt somehow personal. New York is my home town and, whether you liked the WTC or not, those two giant columns of glass and steel were an iconic part of our skyline. They defined lower Manhattan, for better or worse, and the city still looks strangely empty without them.

In the hours that followed the attacks, New Yorkers lost more than a landmark and thousands of friends and family members. We lost the feeling of invincibility that most of us see as our birthright. New York is the Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. The greatest city in the world. It’s invulnerable. Impregnable. Unconquerable.

Except, it isn’t.

With the ninth anniversary of the terrorist bombings just days away, there’s a new furor raging around site of the former towers. The mosque issue.

For those of you unfamiliar with the political scandal du jour, let me give you the quick overview. A local Iman – Feisel Abdul Rauf – who is widely described as being very progressive in his views, wants to build a new Islamic center/mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero.

Insensitive? Maybe, but for the fact that this project isn’t all that new or out of character for the area. The building where the proposed mosque is slated to be situated was bought in 2009 and has, since September of that year, been used as an overflow prayer center for another nearby mosque. Plans for the new center were announced in December 2009 and received little comment at the time.

In fact, the project moved along rather quietly until May 2010 when a couple of local conservative bloggers began railing against the proposed center. Not long after, the center caught the attention of the folks at FOX, along with pin heads like Rush and Sarah Palin and… well, you know the rest.

Of course, since I started this little post, the mosque controversy has been over-taken by the icon of religious tolerance in Florida, Pastor Terry Jones who, up until a couple of hours ago, was planning on burning copies of the Koran outside his Gainesville ministry.

Classy.

What’s interesting about both of these kerfuffles is that, in many ways, they are opposite sides of the exact same issue. In New York, you can argue that the Imam behind the new Islamic center is being insensitive to the community by wanting to place it on a site just blocks from Ground Zero. And, maybe he is. But, the fact remains that, barring some sort of zoning issue, he has a constitutional right to open his center wherever he pleases.

And, as misguided and stupid as his planned protest was, the fact remains that Pastor Jones has a constitutional right to burn a Koran in Florida should he change his mind.

That’s the beauty of our constitution. It provides freedom of speech and freedom of religion to everyone, whether or not you agree with their choice of deity or manner of expression. Sure, the men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center nine years ago were all Muslims with dark skin, but that doesn’t mean every other Muslim living in the United States is a potential terrorist. And Pastor Jones is a white guy from Florida, but that doesn’t mean that every other white guy with a southern accent is a racist.

Unfortunately, there are people in this country who are simply too stupid, too politically motivated, or too filled with hatred to understand that the September 11th hijackers and Pastor Jones are (or were) all extremists. If we, as Americans, start lashing out at everyone who looks different than us or who prays to a different God than we do, then all of the progress we’ve made as an “enlightened society” over the past 100 years will quickly become undone.

And that would be a true American tragedy.

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