Heated Headlines: Discussing the New York Mosque Controversy

November 19, 2010

An artist's rendering of the proposed Park51 © 2010 SOMA Architects

An artist's rendering of the proposed Park51
© 2010 SOMA Architects

On Tuesday, November 9, about 50 people gathered in the Bieberbach-Reed Room to discuss the New York Mosque controversy as part of Diversity Dialogues. The Muslim Student Association (MSA), Middle Eastern Cultures and Cuisine Association (MECCA) and Jewish Student Union (JSU) sponsored the event, which was attended by students, faculty and staff, as well as several members and special guests from the community.

The event began with a viewing of three videos of various perspectives. The first video was against building a mosque at Ground Zero. It stated that Muslims have used mosques as symbols of victory, and that if one were built at Ground Zero, it would encourage more terrorist attacks.

The second video was a speech by President Obama, who acknowledged that people must recognize the sensitivities of developing lower Manhattan and the unimaginable emotions that still surround those personally affected by 9/11. However, Obama ultimately supported Muslims’ right to build a place of worship on the basis of religious freedom.

The third video, from 60 Minutes, featured interviews with several people who play a significant part of the mosque controversy.

The first interviewee, Sherif El-Gamal, is the real estate developer who bought Park 51, located two and a half blocks from Ground Zero, about a year ago. He plans to tear down the current abandoned building occupying the space and replace it with a 16-story Islamic community center. He was inspired by the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, of which he was a member. Among other things, the center will house a pool, child-care facilities, a world-class auditorium and an Islamic prayer room.

The next interviewee was Pamela Geller, a former New York Media executive and the Islamic Center’s most ardent opponent, despite the fact that it received the unanimous approval of the Community Board. Before condemning the Islamic Center, Geller stated in her interview, “We live in a multicultural society, a pluralistic society with all different kinds of people. And how do we do that? We do that by getting along...” Geller’s blog seems to be the first that renamed the Islamic Community Center as “The Mosque at Ground Zero.”

The last interview was with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the head Imam of the Islamic Center. He was picked by the Bush Administration to travel the Muslim world and explain the virtues of America, which he still does to this day. He thinks that America and the Muslim community need the center as a platform to wage peace and strengthen the voice of the moderates. “We are ready, willing and able to serve our country and to serve our faith tradition,” he said. Imam Rauf plans to have a board of directors for the center made up of Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

The video concluded with two facts that have been largely ignored. The first is that there is a second Ground Zero, the Pentagon, in which a memorial and interfaith chapel was built where the airplane hit. This chapel has already housed Islamic prayer for eight years. The second is that the Islamic prayer space at Park 51 is already established. Hundreds of Muslims have been meeting in the abandoned building for more than a year.

After the videos, Director of Multicultural Affairs Mahjabeen Rafiuddin facilitated the dialogue. This discussion showcased a diversity of opinions, although most people accepted that they had the Constitutional right to build on Park 51.

Some people thought it would be better to sell Park 51 for a profit and move the location of the Islamic Center further away to calm people down. Others thought that moving location would send the wrong message. This has not been the only Muslim building to be challenged, and its completion could help show that it is unfair to label an entire religion based on a few extremists.

One student mentioned the Danger of a Single Story, through which people become defined as only one thing. This reflects a stereotypical view of an entire people that completely negates their rich culture and individual’s struggles and triumphs.

Patrick Powers, dean of the chapel, brought to attention the relatively distracting nature of fighting over a building. “God doesn’t say build buildings. God wants to live in people… We’re fighting buildings rather than the demons in ourselves,” he said.

“The building’s not important,” echoed Assistant Professor of Political Science Dan Chong. “What’s in people’s heart is important.”

The real challenge is not for a building permit that has already been granted, but to bridge the differences of opinion. Ground Zero will always be sacred to America, and the Muslim community has renounced the acts of 9/11. It’s reasonable to say that America would be more secure if, instead of creating conflict and possibly intensifying negative feelings, its people would respect Islamic freedom as much as we respect religious freedom.

For more information about Diversity Dialogues and cultural student organizations, please contact Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs Rachel Luce-Hitt at rluce@rollins.edu.

By Michael Barrett (Class of 2013)

Office of Public Relations & Community Affairs
For more information, contact news@rollins.edu.

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