Thursday, September 9, 2010

Building on faith and understanding

Sep 9, 2010

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is one of the proponents of the Cordoba House, a Muslim community centre to promote multifaith understanding in Lower Manhattan, New York, near the site of the former World Trade Center, which was destroyed by terrorists on Sept 11, 2001. The proposal has drawn controversy. Below is an excerpt of an article he wrote in The New York Times defending the project.

AS MY flight approached America last weekend, my mind circled back to the furore which has broken out over plans to build the Cordoba House community centre in Lower Manhattan.
I have been away from home for two months, speaking abroad about cooperation among people from different religions. I have been struck by how the controversy has riveted Americans, as well as nearly everyone I have met on my travels.

We have all been awed by how inflammatory and emotional the issue of the proposed community centre has become. The level of attention reflects the degree to which people care about the very American values under debate: recognition of the rights of others, tolerance and freedom of worship.

Many people have wondered why I did not speak out more, and sooner, about this project. I felt that it would not be right to comment from abroad. It would be better if I addressed these issues once I returned home to America, and after I could confer with leaders of other faiths who have been deliberating with us over this project. My life's work has been focused on building bridges between religious groups, and never has that been as important as it is now.

We are proceeding with the community centre, Cordoba House. More importantly, we are doing so with the support of the downtown community, all levels of the government and leaders across the religious spectrum, who will be our partners. I am convinced that it is the right thing to do for many reasons.

Above all, the project will amplify the multifaith approach which the Cordoba Initiative has deployed in concrete ways for years. Our name, Cordoba, was inspired by the city in Spain where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in the Middle Ages during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims. Our initiative is intended to cultivate understanding among all religions and cultures.

Our broader mission - to strengthen relations between the Western and Muslim worlds and to help counter radical ideology - lies not in skirting the margins of issues which have polarised relations within the Muslim world and between non-Muslims and Muslims. It lies in confronting them as a joint multifaith, multinational effort.

From the political conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians to the building of a community centre in Lower Manhattan, Muslims and members of all faiths must work together if we are ever going to succeed in fostering understanding and peace.

At Cordoba House, we envision a shared space for community activities, like a swimming pool, classrooms and a play space for children. There will be separate prayer spaces for Muslims, Christians, Jews and men and women of other faiths. The centre will include a multifaith memorial dedicated to victims of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

I am very sensitive to the feelings of the families of 9/11 victims, as are my fellow leaders of many faiths. We will accordingly seek the support of those families, and the support of our vibrant neighbourhood, as we consider the ultimate plans for the community centre. Our objective has always been to make this a centre for unification and healing.

Cordoba House will be built on the two fundamental commandments common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam: to love the Lord our creator with all of our hearts, minds, souls and strength; and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. We want to foster a culture of worship authentic to each religious tradition, and also a culture of forging personal bonds across religious traditions.

I do not underestimate the challenges which will be involved in bringing our work to completion. (Construction has not even begun yet.) I know there will be interest in our financing, and so we will identify all of our financial backers clearly.

Lost amid the commotion is the good which has come out of the recent discussion. I want to draw attention, specifically, to the open, law-based and tolerant actions which have taken place, and that are particularly striking for Muslims.

President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg both spoke out in support of our project. As I travelled overseas, I saw first-hand how their words and actions made a tremendous impact on the Muslim street and on Muslim leaders. It was striking: A Christian president and a Jewish mayor of New York supporting the rights of Muslims. Their statements sent a powerful message about what America stands for, and will be remembered as a milestone in improving American-Muslim relations.

The wonderful outpouring of support for our right to build this community centre from across the social, religious and political spectrums seriously undermines the ability of anti-American radicals to recruit young, impressionable Muslims by falsely claiming that America persecutes Muslims for their faith. These efforts at distortion by radicals endanger our national security and the personal security of Americans worldwide. This is why Americans must not back away from the completion of this project. If we do, we cede the discourse and, essentially, our future to radicals on both sides. The paradigm of a clash between the West and the Muslim world will continue, as it has in recent decades, at a terrible cost. It is a paradigm we must shift.

From those who recognise our rights, from grassroots organisers to heads of state, I sense a global desire to build on this positive momentum and to be part of a global movement to heal relations and bring peace. This is an opportunity we must grasp.

How better to commemorate 9/11 than to urge our fellow Muslims, fellow Christians and fellow Jews to follow the fundamental common impulse of our great faith traditions?


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