Why all the fuss about the mosque?

Updated: 2010-08-24 07:51

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

Twitter Facebook Myspace Yahoo! Linkedin Mixx

If you believe Americans are preoccupied these days with issues such as the economy, jobs, troop withdrawal from Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, you may be wrong. Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic center to be built two blocks from Ground Zero, the World Trade Center site in New York, is the hot issue in the country at the moment.

On Sunday morning I stood in the rain at Park Place, between West Broadway and Church Street in New York, and watched as those for and against the proposed development waved banners and shouted their views.

While freedom of assembly is a constitutional right in the United States, what surprised me was the high turnout of people against the Islamic center, although perhaps I shouldn't have been, considering several recent public opinion polls have revealed that most New Yorkers and most Americans oppose the project.

US President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have both pitched in on the issue. Obama said that Muslims in America have the right to build a place of worship on private property in lower Manhattan, while Bloomberg's address on religious freedom and tolerance on the Governor's Island on Aug 3, attended by religious leaders from different groups, resonated like the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.

What is troubling about the debate is that New Yorkers, who are regarded as the most progressive people in the country, and who live in a city with the most ethnic and religious diversity, where more than 300 languages are spoken, suddenly seem narrow-minded.

We all know that those who launched the attack on Sept 11, 2001, were a small group of fanatics. So, if opponents to the building of the mosque and cultural center agree that Muslim does not equate with extremist or terrorist or Al-Qaida, why are they making such a fuss?

On the contrary, since a high percentage of Americans, according to a Time magazine survey, still hold a negative view of Muslims, great efforts are needed to help bridge the divide between Americans and the Muslim world. This is especially true in New York City, as supporters of the mosque and cultural center argue, to reflect its great spirit of tolerance and openness.

It should be noted that of the 3,000 people who died on Sept 11 nine years ago, 300 were Muslims.

If you agree that Islam as a religion is not responsible for the terrorist attack, then there is no such issue as "sensitivity to victims' families and friends" by having a mosque and Muslim cultural center near Ground Zero. The planned Muslim cultural center, according to reports, will include a gym, a swimming pool, a theater and an auditorium with 500 seats and will be open to all visitors.

In fact, the often labeled "Ground Zero mosque" or "Mosque at Ground Zero" is such a misnomer that news organizations such as Associated Press have issued guidelines to avoid the usages. It is a mosque to be built two blocks away from the World Trade Center site. And if you stand on any part of the Ground Zero site today, you cannot even see that building, which used to house a Burlington Coat department store selling mostly clothing and shoes.

If you think an Islamic Center to be built two blocks away is not okay, then you might not think it is okay anywhere in New York. That of course is not what New Yorkers are known for.

On my several trips to the US, I have found quite a few Americans are easily distracted by such non-issues.

For many months in 1998, the American public and politicians chose to be obsessed with everything about Monica Lewinski and ignore key issues of national interest. And in 2003, when most of the world opposed the invasion of Iraq, many Americans chose to believe that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

I am a foreigner, and what's happening in today's American national debate about the Islamic center is truly foreign to me.

The author is China Daily's chief correspondent in New York and can be reached at chenweihua@chinadaily.com.cn

Paper's Digest

Chinese jet takes on Big 2

First large commercial plane set to ride on demand for aircraft as economy grows.

Super-CPU only for domestic eyes

European Edition


Chinese jet takes on Big 2

First large commercial plane set to ride on demand for aircraft as economy grows.

Gaining ground

Doing business in china for westerners has come a long way, Peter batey says.

Safeguarding environment a priority

China continues to face mounting pressure to curb environmental degradation, despite progress in reducing pollution over the last five years, the environmental protection minister warned.

Mounting inflation pressure tests policy makers
Chinese vice president to visit four nations
Chinese, Russian presidents meet in Seoul on co-op