Cordova House - Nauman Asghar - Friday, October 01, 2010

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Recently, a fierce controversy erupted in the United States after the idea to erect Cordova House near Ground Zero was mooted by a Kuwaiti immigrant, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. The centre, a 15-story building, is proposed to be built 600 feet from where the World Trade Centre stood until the Sept 11 attacks. The complex will have a mosque, a 500-seat auditorium, a swimming pool, a restaurant and a bookstore. Imam Feisal is a moderate Muslim who preaches the progressive version of Islam and emphasises its compatibility with American values.

The centre is named after Cordova in the Andalusia region of southern Spain. Cordova is famous for the coexistence of Muslims, Christians and Jews under the Moors. In America there was religious freedom, until the Sept 11 attacks sparked the debate of whether Islam poses a threat to American values. 9/11 was a traumatic incident that took the lives of 3,000 innocent people. But rather than investigating the underlying causes that prompted 19 radical Muslims to crash hijacked planes into the Twin Towers, the coterie of neocons launched a crusade against Islam.

President Obama strongly defended the Cordova Centre project during his speech at an Iftar dinner at the White House. He asserted that "Islam is a part of America" and also expressed appreciation for the contributions of American Muslims in the strengthening of the United States. The president's remarks triggered a furore as the opponents of the Ground Zero mosque were already indignant when the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the project in May by a vote of 29-1.

But two days later, President Obama, in efforts to control political damage caused by his comments in favour of the Cordova Initiative, diluted his stance against the bigots. Perhaps the president has forgotten that the building of the centre will be a true victory of the voice of reason over the voice of dogmatism.

Those who object to its construction view the project as primarily an affront to the relatives of 9/11 victims. The sceptics hold the stance that the centre will become the breeding ground for militant Muslims and that thus the project will present a security threat to America. A dispassionate analysis makes it crystal clear that all these objections are preposterous and ridiculous. Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, himself acknowledged the fact that American Muslims felt as much grief over the shameful incident of 9/11 as did other Americans.

The critics must keep it in mind that blocking the construction of the Islamic centre will imperil the United States' centuries-old values of religious freedom and political liberty. In addition to offending the religious feelings of American Muslims, it will allow extremist elements to fan inter-religious dissensions in the flourishing cosmopolitan cultural atmosphere of the United States. Republicans Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich miss the point that promoting inter-religious harmony and cooperation is the only tool against religious fanaticism. The Republicans seem to be on a mission to mislead public opinion by twisting facts, whether it is on the question of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or that of Cordova House.

The supporters of the project say that the centre will be a symbol of tolerance and pluralism. The centre will not entirely be a place of worship. Instead, it will provide a forum for a host of cultural activities to the citizens living in the neighbourhood. The objective of the proposed centre is to foster inter-faith harmony and provide people of diverse backgrounds a place of learning, dialogue and understanding. Besides, this initiative will also allow Muslims a golden opportunity to clear out misunderstandings clouding their faith and repair strained Islam-West relations.

The truth is that the people who want to establish the centre are themselves Americans. The construction of the mosque near Ground Zero is aimed at bridging the differences and bring the people from different faiths closer by highlighting the commonalities. The support of other religious communities will go a long way to defeat the pernicious agenda of extremists to ignite conflict between Islam and other religions.

The founding fathers of America envisioned their country as being dedicated to democratic ideals. To deny a religious community its legitimate freedoms because of the criminal acts of a few rogue elements will be betraying the vision for which the "Land of Liberties" was founded.

If US authorities succumb to bigoted feelings on the issue of the complex, it will strengthen the hands of extremists and they will play up this issue to popularise their slogan that Islam is at war with the West as a whole. President Obama should stick to his guns and refuse to give in to the pressure of rightwing hawkish Republicans. At present the world stands in dire need of promoting common ideals of humanity.

The writer is an advocate and teaches Constitutional and International Law at the Punjab University. Email: naumanlawyer@

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