Archive for August, 2010

Support for Cordoba House – Sunday, August 22, 2010

August 31, 2010

Good morning and welcome to the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I am delighted to welcome all the humanists who are here for the summer session of The Humanist Institute. Last night we celebrated the graduation of another class, one that I was fortunate to have co-mentored with Dr. Anthony Pinn. Congratulations again to Class XV: Maggie Ardiente, Bob Baehrman, and Ann Fuller!

Language, for humanists, is extremely important. I dare say that words are “sacred” to us. (Take note that I enclose the word “sacred” in quotation marks.) We like to talk almost as much as we like to read, and are acutely aware of the different meanings words have in different contexts. So let me be clear: I am speaking now as an Ethical Culture Leader about an issue that began quietly and locally in downtown Manhattan and has “gone viral,” as the media put it, over the last week.

People are demonstrating right now, in front of a former retail store – the Burlington Coat Factory, against a proposed Islamic Community Center. They say it is a “mosque at Ground Zero” that desecrates “holy ground.” First of all, no New Yorker calls the site of the September 11 attack “ground zero.” It is – and always will be – the World Trade Center. To verify this, take any subway downtown and listen to the name of the stop. “Ground zero” implies war and retaliation for an act of war, what President Bush chose to call a “war on terror.” The World Trade Center is where 19 terrorists chose to fly two planes into two towers filled with people, killing 3,000 of them. We mourn them – all of them. They were our family, friends, and neighbors, and we remember them dearly every time we pass that site.

Secondly, Cordoba House (aka Park51 Community Center) will be two blocks north of WTC in a bustling neighborhood of retail stores, schools, churches and a well-established mosque, bars, and strip clubs. Community Board No. 1 reviewed its proposal for a center with interfaith spaces, reading rooms, a restaurant, gymnasium and swimming pool, and approved it in a 29 to one vote. The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved it.

Now let’s consider the people who will run Cordoba House, named for the flourishing of Islamic culture in Spain hundreds of years ago. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan, a married couple, are leading figures in the interfaith community of NYC. Rauf has been imam of a mosque in Tribeca for almost 30 years, and Khan is head of the American Muslim Association. Both are strong advocates for women within Islam. They are also Sufis, a branch of Islam at the opposite end of the religious spectrum from the Taliban, Wahhabis, and jihadis.

Those of you who have studied with The Humanist Institute are familiar with Vartan Gregorian’s book, Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith. It is essential reading for everyone, not just humanists. Those cynical politicians and pundits who are exploiting this situation probably recognize the diversity within Christianity but choose to conflate all Muslims. We humanists have also been conflated, and I don’t just mean the differences between religious and secular humanists. (Years ago in Seattle during the G8 Summit, a group of self-proclaimed “humanists” joined the riots that rocked that city. A photo of them appeared in the NY Times, and I remember exclaiming, “They aren’t humanists! No humanist would do that!”) This profound – and, I believe, willful – ignorance incites action on the part of people who need a target for their fear and anger, strong emotions indeed.

And this is an emotional issue. Even a cognitive understanding of the facts cannot overcome the deep feelings we harbor. Nor should it: Human beings employ an emotional intelligence. I understand and empathize with those who feel that the Islamic community center should be moved farther away out of sensitivity to the families of 9/11 victims. But how far is far enough? What distance in terms of geography and theology would be deemed sensitive?

I wholeheartedly support my interfaith colleagues Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan in their Cordoba House venture, which began in the spirit of community and continues in a spirit of courage. To do otherwise would violate my principles as a New Yorker and an Ethical Humanist. New York City, with its roots in a tolerant New Amsterdam, is a cosmopolitan city that celebrates diversity and understanding. Humanism has a long tradition of enlightened reason and compassion. My religious faith is in human beings who find common ground with one another and build a better world upon it for everyone.

Leader’s Message – “Summer of the Mosque That Isn’t” – September 2010

August 20, 2010

This was a particularly hot summer with temperatures soaring to 100+ degrees and cloying humidity, a sweltering combination that kept air conditioners humming and city pools crowded. The political atmosphere was also heated as an issue involving a local community board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission boiled over into the world outside New York City. News of the “Ground Zero mosque” spread like a virus, infecting some people with fear and anger, others with opportunism, and leaving many of us shaking our heads in despair.

Let’s start with the facts. (I’ve been quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan all summer: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” he said, “but not his own facts.”) Park51, as it will be called, is neither a mosque nor is it at Ground Zero. Its sponsors envision a cultural center – something like the 92nd Street Y – with classrooms, galleries, an auditorium, a restaurant, a swimming pool and gym, a memorial to the victims of 9/11, and an Islamic “prayer room.” Housed in a former retail store, it is two blocks north of the World Trade Center site.

Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan are a married couple who will run the center. He graduated from Columbia University, wrote a book called “What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America,” and has been the imam of a mosque in Tribeca for three decades, as well as vice-chair of the Interfaith Center of New York. She runs the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which promotes “cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration, youth and women’s empowerment, and arts and cultural exchange.”

Members of Community Board No. 1 endorsed the project 29 to one, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously in its favor. So what’s the problem?

It seems that the farther away from the epicenter one is, the louder and more vicious the protests are. Republicans facing midterm elections, egged on by Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Rudy Guiliani, oppose the “mosque” as a symbolic affront to the victims of 9/11, playing to the fears and anger of people unfamiliar with the situation.

Speaking for many New Yorkers, Mayor Mike Bloomberg harked back to the days of New Amsterdam “where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted.” “We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors,” he said. “But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11.”

A few days after the mayor’s speech, I received an email message asking, “In light of Islam’s open tolerance of stoning of women, hanging of gays, beheadings on YouTube, etc., what is the position of the NYSEC on the building of a mosque at Ground Zero?” I stared at the computer screen a long while feeling angry and sad, judging the writer, and taken aback by the depth of my emotions. Islam is not alone in violating human rights, I wanted to respond; Christianity has held its own over the millennia. Some people need little excuse to be cruel, and religion often provides it.

But Bloomberg said it best when he concluded, “Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists – and we should not stand for that.”