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Ground Zero: An All-faith Center?

While fully acknowledging the right to build Cordoba House, the Islamic center erroneously referred to as the Ground Zero Mosque, human rights activist Partha Banerjee writes that peace activists could take the winds out of the sails of the right-wing hate campaign by working to build an all-faith, peace center near Ground Zero in New York, where all Americans can pray for global peace, inclusion, understanding and tolerance — and denounce hate and violence.

On September 11, 2001, my daughter was on her fourth day at Stuyvesant High School, just a couple of blocks off the World Trade Center. She saw the terror and hurt up close. She saw the towers going up in flames. She saw innocent people jumping off to death in panic and desperation. She then saw the towers crumbling. My wife and I lost touch with her for the entire day. Then, finally, at ten at night she came back home — exhausted, and completely covered with ashes and dust and free-floating asbestos off the towers. We’ll live for the rest of our lives with fear that she might get some horrible disease from it.

To recap, under political pressure from then New York City and federal governments (and a few influential parents), Stuyvesant reopened the school in a couple of weeks when the fire was still raging, and all other places except for Wall Street were closed due to health and safety reasons. For the next couple of years, we — a section of the school parents — staged protests on the street, demanding health and safety information for our children — with little success. Nobody paid attention.

I deeply understand and respect the issue and how sensitive it is, just the same way I have enough non-respect for the insensitivity around it. We’re talking about emotions and also the knee-jerk politics around the so-called Ground Zero mosque.

President-aspirant-since-1994 Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, recently said, “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington” — equating Muslims with Nazis.

(Above): A list commemorates the people killed by terror attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, at the Ground Zero Memorial in New York City.

U.S. President Barack Obama initially said that “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.” Then he backtracked. A noted columnist reacted in Washington Post, “Obama went to bed a panicked man and reached, trembling, some hours later, for a political morning-after pill to take back some of what he had said.”

Nevada’s Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, in the midst of a tough re-election battle with a Sarah Palin recruit (who wants to completely eliminate social security and believes that every American household must have guns), said that “the mosque should be built someplace else.” Election fears are real, after all.

I checked with some peace soldiers who lost their children, spouses and other loved ones on September 11, and yet, unlike many others, had the courage to stand up against the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Ashcroft bandwagon almost immediately after the terrorist attacks. They preached peace and inclusion, and not violence and division. They told me that the Cordoba House site in question had always been a property of the Muslim groups and thus the groups had legal rights to build their Islamic community center there. No problem: We all understand it.

But I also believe that these peace soldiers, with their noble mission to support the mosque and the cornerstone American way of tolerance and inclusion, unintentionally played straight into the hands of the Beck-O’Reilly-Limbaugh paranoia clan, and the end result of it has strengthened the militant right wing Tea Party just two months before the crucial national elections, ones that could change the political landscape of this country for a long time to come.
Again, think 1994, and more. That was when Republicans romped home by creating a smokescreen of hysteria of social wedge issues.

Contrary to what Newt Gingrich said, peaceful Muslims are not Nazis. I personally know countless such peaceful Muslims — rich and poor — some very close friends included. Newt might not like to hear it, but one could argue we put the label on some of his own people. We’ve caught them in their vitriolic rhetoric and action time and time again. We have no illusion about their politics and beliefs.

(Above): Sign for the World Trade Center Path Subway Station at Ground Zero Memorial in New York City.

Disappointing is the fact that seasoned politicians like Obama and Reid did not anticipate ahead of time the far right exploitation of the issue even though common sense said it was bound to happen. Now, even moderate Democrats are playing the compromise and catch-up game to placate an unsure electorate and an angry, unemployed workforce, and it’s not going well. Just this week, a group of workers demonstrated at Ground Zero against building the Islamic center near the site. A naive non-issue is suddenly an explosive election issue.

That is bizarre.

We should have rather had more substantive matters such as the economy, mortgage meltdown, education, health care, Wall Street, housing, BP and the environment as issues for this November’s ballot box. We should’ve had a conversation about the multi-trillion-dollar bank bailout and fat bonuses the executives paid themselves, when millions of American workers and families are hurting. These workers would perhaps include some of those that demonstrated at Ground Zero.

Finally, a word of wisdom that comes from reality. During the hateful, scary days after 9/11 when some of us were working on the ground attempting to save lives and dignity with our simple and inadequate resources, we often asked a question: “God forbid, what if there’s a second 9/11? Are we ready to prevent another series of assault and insult against the poor and vulnerable — many Muslims included?”

I want to revisit that question now.

So, what if there’s really a similar catastrophe on our soil — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or elsewhere? And God forbid, if that happens, is our still-divided, still-trustless society going to help save lives and dignity of the poor and vulnerable — many Muslims included? Is a mosque or Islamic center at Ground Zero going to wish away hate and violence on the unfortunate, near and far from it? Or, is it going to close down, for the fear of being another target, just the way a targeted group of people would desperately seek hide-outs?

This is not my America. This is not my daughter’s America.

What if we put our energy instead to build an all-faith, peace center on that sacred ground, where all Americans would be able to come and pray for global peace, inclusion, understanding and tolerance in America, and denounce hate and violence of any kind? That may not save lives lost in another hate crime. That may not save a poor Muslim or Sikh woman’s dignity violated by ignorant, hateful goons.

(Above): Ground Zero Memorial in New York City.

But wouldn’t an all-inclusive peace center be a perfect tribute to the thousands of innocent lives we lost on that calamitous day of September 11, 2001? It would also be a poignant mirror of the lives lost, representing a panoply of faiths and belief systems.

Come to think of it, that would be exemplary: The world would follow us again — this time, on peace, rejecting hate, violence and war.

And, what if we chose a less politically sensitive time to do it?

Partha Banerjee is a New York City-based college teacher, labor and immigrant rights activist. He worked against post-9/11 hate crimes on immigrants. He can be reached at: banerjee2000@hotmail.com


Click here to read the Current Issue in PDF Format

Ground Zero:
An All-Faith Center?

Human rights activist Partha Banerjee writes that peace activists should consider a campaign for an all-faith, peace center near Ground Zero in New York.

Peace Caravan:
Aman Ke Badhte Qadam

A 10-member India-Pakistan peace caravan went from Mumbai to Lahore, writes Sandeep Pandey, who was part of the team.

Bangladesh: The Promise
And the Challenge

Bangladesh faces many challenges, but if it also has potential to change for the better, writes Zareef Anam, a high school student in Dhaka.

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TAMIL FILM: Kadhal Solla Vandhen
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