The Latest Incarnations of Founding Fathers: Bloomberg and Zakaria

by Jagath Asoka

(August 10, Washington, Sri Lanka Guardian) Two blocks from the site of Ground Zero, a center—The Cordoba House, a 15-story community center, including a mosque—is being built in an old Burlington Coat Factory building. The Cordoba House is a community-driven Muslim-led project, not intended to be a house of worship, exclusive to Muslims; it will serve as a cultural nexus by providing a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores, and restaurants.

A majority of Americans, as well as most New Yorkers, is against this project. Some Americans believe that building a mosque so close to Ground Zero, where terrorists had killed nearly 3,000 people in the name of Islam, would be an insult to those who died on 9/11; however, some relatives of 9/11 victims believe that the project would be an opportunity for Muslims to demonstrate that there are moderates among them. Whether you support the idea of building an Islamic center near Ground Zero or not, you still have to grapple with this fundamental question: Should the United States government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion?

The speech given by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on 03 August 2010, following The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission's denial of landmark status to the proposed site of the Cordoba House, and the courageous act of returning the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL’s) award by Fareed Zakaria—the host of CNN’s GPS—concretize my belief that the freedom of religion and freedom of religious expression is the most precious freedom of the United States.

The speech that was given by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Governor's Island, where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted in the United States, praising a decision to allow an Islamic center to be built near Ground Zero, should be read by every man, woman, and child.

While New York City Mayor Bloomberg welcomes the Cordoba House as an expression of freedom of religion, many right-wing politicians vehemently oppose it by demonizing it, saying that “Cordoba” is a hidden Muslim code for “conquest.” But according to Carl Pyrdum, a scholar of the medieval world, the word “Cordoba” does not denote a hidden code for “conquest,” rather, it refers to the largest medieval library in Western Europe, in Cordoba, where scholars of all three Abrahamic monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—passionately engaged in scholarly activities without any fear, intimidation, or coercion.

Five years ago, the ADL honored Fareed Zakaria with its Hubert Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize. When the ADL, which used to fight discrimination against all religions, races, and creeds, made the decision to publicly side with those urging the relocation of the planned community center in lower Manhattan, Zakaria returned the ADL’s award. I was deeply moved by Mr. Zakaria’s courageous act of returning the ADL’s award along with the money that they gave him, because his conscience would not allow him to hold onto the award at the expense of denying the freedom of religion and freedom of religious expression of Muslims.

The United States was founded by those who sought freedom of religion and freedom of religious expression. I truly believe that if one supports prohibition of someone else’s religion, it is as same as cutting the branch that all of us are sitting on; it would desecrate the sanctity of the most precious freedom in the United States: the freedom to worship, or not to worship, as we wish.

Saying no to the community center is saying no to the founding principle of freedom of religion in America. I am not a Muslim, but I think by saying no to the community center would also mean: legitimization of radical and violent Islam; a victory for radical extremists, fundamentalists, and jihadists; a slap in the face for moderate Muslims who believe in a peaceful, tolerant, and pluralistic vision of Islam.

I sincerely believe that New York City—particularly, near Ground Zero—is the ideal place to build an Islamic community center, because it is the city of all religions, a haven for all immigrants; it was built by immigrants, and it is sustained by immigrants; a city where people from more than a hundred different countries, speaking more than two hundred different languages and professing every faith, live in harmony.