As we reported previously, a proposed plan to build an Islamic cultural center close to the site of 9/11 has unleashed a wave of anti-Muslim vitriol in New York. A public hearing on the project this week showed that even the most diverse city in the world can fall prey to the most vile intolerance.
At least we got some colorful sound bites:
"A monument to terrorism."
"A very carefully planned effort on the part of radical Islamists..."
"I'm not racist, thank you!"
How did an otherwise mundane hearing of the Landmarks Preservation Commission disintegrate into a Muslim-bashing fest? After all, the organizations behind the center, Cordoba House, (strategic name-change reportedly pending), the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, have strained for months to present the project as a community resource that is open to all, with the mission of promoting intercultural reconciliation and understanding.
Indeed, many in the community appreciate that theme. But others can't stand the idea of any symbol of Islam standing so close to the Ground Zero site. Then again, the opposition's brutal smear campaign suggests that they'd be hostile to any representation of the Muslim community anywhere, whether two blocks from Ground Zero or on the other side of the world (reminiscent of the outrage over the Arabic-themed Khalil Gibran Academy in Brooklyn). Right-wing critics like Rep. Peter King have drummed up conspiranoia over the project's funding sources, implying ties to terrorism. While opponents call Cordoba House an insult to survivors of 9/11, they can hardly justify their own exploitation of the tragedy to demonize Islamic culture.
The media repeatedly labels the center simply as a "mosque," even though the building would house various cultural and athletic facilities in addition to a carefully planned prayer space. Fortunately, NBC and CBS rejected a conservative group's attempt to run a fear-mongering ad titled "The Audacity of Jihad" (an anti-Obama-anti-Islam two-fer!).
In the end, whether or not the plan moves forward, the controversy has already deepened tensions and heightened the city's cultural and ethnic barriers. And that's exactly why no one needs this community center more than its most unwelcoming neighbors.
Follow the Cordoba Initiative and its supporters on their blog.