What to do with Ground Zero?

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, their building was shut down, smothered in debris and dust.

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Today, from their 17th floor lounge-room window, you can look straight down into the heart of Ground Zero, the desolate hole in the ground barren for many years but more recently a construction zone as new buildings rise up to replace those that fell.

For New Yorkers, 9-11 has never really gone away and remains an emotional touch paper for many. It’s also an easy button to press for politicians looking to establish apparent patriotic credentials.

So it comes as no surprise that a plan to build “a mosque at Ground Zero” has become a flashpoint and one of the hottest national topics in the middle of this American summer.

Critics claim such a building on such a site (“on hallowed ground”, according to several descriptions) is an insult to those who died in 2001.

“I don’t want to be lectured by them about religious liberty at a time when there is not a single church or single synagogue in Saudi Arabia,” claimed Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, maybe forgetting one of the key differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia is religious freedom.

“Where does the funding come from for a $100-million mosque?” asked inquisitive Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for New York State Governor (probably the same place as most other new constructions).

Crackpots have populated Internet posts (some suggesting this is part of an Obama plan to introduce Sharia law to the US) but most have missed some key points.

Importantly, visions of minarets, golden domes and stars and crescents overlooking the World Trade Center Site are not part of the plan.

In fact, this “Ground Zero Mosque” is not actually a mosque but a cultural centre based on the YMCA (this prompted one witty critic to suggest outrage should be directed at the construction of a swimming poll on the site, which was possibly more inappropriate).

The original building, actually located several blocks north of Ground Zero, and nearby another existing mosque, is the former site of a discount clothing retailer damaged by landing gear from one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers nine years ago.

Ironically, the group planning the centre claims to want to foster “inter faith understanding”.

That idea is not working out too well at first look but the issue has brought to the forefront just where Islam in a post-9/11 world fit.

It also shows how New York, especially Manhattan, is a complex city of many, many, layers.

There are many critics from outside New York (including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin) but NY Governor David Patterson offered to find an alternative location for the proposed centre as compromise.

Manhattan borough President Scott Stringer supports the construction of the centre while New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg made an impassioned speech on religious freedoms.

“We would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else,” Bloomberg said.

Last weekend, President Obama too claimed the issue was not about 9/11 but the US Constitution.

“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama said at a dinner celebrating Ramadan (triggering more radical Christian outrage).

“That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”

It was, however, a Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat, who made a somewhat overlooked but important point.

“I recently got back from Afghanistan and, you know, we’re sending young majors in Army, Marines, Special Forces people, into villages to try to find common ground with Muslims to try to put aside the obvious differences that might superficially appear,” he said.

“And if we can’t do that here in the United States, then we’re going to have a very difficult time over there.”


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