The Cordoba Initiative, led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, wants to build a Community Center at Ground Zero. The Initiative is an established mosque in Tribeca, the New York City neighborhood around the corner from Ground Zero. For 23 years they have worshipped in the neighborhood and been a part of it. So far the wider community response is loud, mean and ugly. “No,” they say. Such an act would be sacrilegious and involve the people whose loved ones died at ground zero in unnecessary reviving of grief.
Besides the fact that such animosity will only lead to more bombings of more buildings around the world, because such xenophobia is the source of the original inane and insane bombing, the Community Center should be welcomed at Ground Zero. Why? Because it is a sign of hope, forgiveness and peace. These are big words — hope, forgiveness and peace. They rarely have the megaphone that the party of “nope” enjoys. Nevertheless, they are words that religious people need to protect with all our hearts and souls. We too need a department of homeland security and its job is to protect our words.
Let’s start with hope. When a tragedy happens, it often steals our hope. The 9-11 bombing is a terrible tragedy. It is a tragedy with causes in a larger human tragedy, the failure to get along, across culture and religious lines. That failure leads a lack of respect, an appreciation deficit syndrome, which then drives people, especially young men, crazy. They then do crazy things. If people had respect, young men would not be so crazy. Giving people respect stops terrorism. Telling them they can’t even build something, with their own money, on a property is disrespectful. It encourages more violence, which violence kills more hope.
Any religious organization planted at Ground Zero would give people hope that there is still a chance that we could still and yet learn to get along across culture or religious lines. When someone dies a terrible death, as did so many at Ground Zero, the grief issue is about how we go on, once we know how bad violence can be. The Jewish dead were particularly bereft because there was no burial and because the bodies exploded. Others experienced the same horror, but without the mandate for burial. I personally saw a finger on a windowsill in Tribeca. I will never forget it. Terrible violence yields terrible memories. Murder, especially murder by sudden terror and violence, has a long reach into a person’s future. A community center on the site of the bombing would create another picture of another kind of future, one with respect and hope at its heart.
What about forgiveness? It can be such a cheap word. It is obnoxious the way so many people tell other people they need to forgive the wrong done to them. Often those of us who advocate forgiveness don’t know what we are talking about. Then again, there is really no end to the suffering if we can’t forgive. There is no end game. We become hateful, the way our wrongdoers were hateful, and the victory goes to the terrorists. Forgiveness is also expensive. It is not a word to be thrown around lightly. Sometimes it needs a symbol. A community center could be a symbol that some members of the Moslem community wanted to say they were sorry for what others did. There might even be a victim (and yes, when we can’t forgive, we remain victims) who might become able to forgive if they participated in a program at a community center, got to know someone, had a swim or listened to a lecture. Forgiveness needs signs and symbols. Religious institutions need signs and symbols. Forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once. But it could begin with a building permit at Ground Zero.
Finally, that word love, which so many wrongly imagine as a soft verb. There is nothing soft about love. It is the most dangerous action in the world. Because we can’t love, because most of us do know the risks, we stay pre-love and permanently protected. Our armor forgets how to come off. We imagine our security is in bombs and borders when actually it is in risks taken on behalf and towards each other.
A community center at Ground Zero is an act of love, hope and forgiveness. We are actually desperate for that center.