As expected, New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission today declined to protect a forlorn building on Lower Manhattan's Park Place with landmark status. Despite being over 150 years old, nothing about the style, construction, or decades of tenant rosters gave it intrinsic historical value. And if it were owned by anybody else, the commission's decision would have probably been met with indifference by everyone except the developer who wants to tear it down.
But it's precisely who this developer is, and what religion he represents, that has riveted the attention and emotions of people across the United States to 51 Park Place. The developer is Sharif el-Gamal with the Muslim group Cordoba Initiative, and he wants to build a 13-story Islamic center two blocks north of Ground Zero to house a recreation center and mosque.
Actually, el-Gamal has already been hosting Islamic services in 51 Park Place, where men have been worshipping in what had last been a store for Burlington Coat Factory. El-Gamal could re-model the existing building for his mosque-cum-social-club, bringing the structure up to code and restoring its exterior. But no, it's not enough for el-Gamal to establish an Islamic worship site so close to one of Islam's most famous attack sites. He wants to erect a 13-story monument to his faith at a cost of $100 million. He claims this building will be a bridge between skeptical westerners and peace-loving Muslim moderates.
And although the LPC had no authority to render a judgment on what el-Gamal wants to do with his property, it appears theirs was the final checkbox to be ticked before dirt can start flying and el-Gamal's plans can become reality.
Within 15 minutes of CNN's posting of the LPC's ruling this morning, over 250 posts had been logged on their site by people who appeared to be evenly split between anger over el-Gamal's plans and support for it.
As with any public battle of this magnitude, a lot of misinformation and hyperbole guides both opponents and proponents, and I addressed some of those issues in my previous essay on this subject. But we need to talk about a couple more claims that destabilize the rationale proponents hold, and better frame what I view as the proper perspective.
Christianity's God Isn't Islam's
First is the claim by at least two of CNN's posters that the Allah worshipped by Muslims is the same God worshipped by evangelical Christians. Pardon my bluntness, but this has been a common, albeit crucial, mistake made by many people since 9/11, including former President George W. Bush and U2 frontman Bono.
Evangelicals believe God to be the triune deity comprised of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Don't expect to understand it, because not even the staunchest theologian can fully explain trinitarian theology. Although I feel like a heretic for condensing such a profound truth in this manner, suffice it to say that God is Father of all things, Jesus Christ the Savior is the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit is God's presence with believers in our path of sanctification. All three are equal, yet distinct, components of the Trinity, with different roles to play in the creation and redemption of the world.
"Allah" may be translated "god," but Allah is not God. Islam's god does not have a savior-son who is equal with him, nor a spirit who indwells Muslim believers. Quite simply, without the trinitarian intrinsicness of the God of the Bible, big-g God becomes little-g god. Anybody who assumes differently - whether Christian or Muslim - needs to educate themself about the basics of these religions.
Islam and Infidels
Second is the persistent claim by moderate Muslims that theirs is a religion of peace. Many non-Muslim supporters of this assumption point to the epic Crusades fought by neo-Christian warriors as proof that world religions have always had their bad eggs. However, the Crusades were not supported by any Biblical texts which call for the utter elimination of infidels, or people who don't worship God.
On the other hand, Muslims have never been able to utterly refute the parts of the Koran which call for just such an elimination of us infidels. Again, please pardon my bluntness, but Muslims who claim to be moderate simply fail to be convincing to people who assume sacred religious texts mean what they say. Platitudes by self-described moderate Muslims about reinterpreting the Koran for modern cultures have yet to match the force of their warmongering fundamentalist brethren.
Third is the persistent claim that Muslims have historically erected a house of worship on or near the sites of major Islamic victories. Is that true or false?
First, let's consider the fact that eons ago, Muslims built a large mosque in Cordoba, Spain. This has been a focal point of many right-wing activists who oppose the mosque near Ground Zero. But what's the story? Here's a short excerpt from Andalucia.com, a Spanish tourism site with no relationship to any right-wing Americans, talking about this mosque in Cordoba:
"First, the Romans built a pagan temple on the site. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the new Germanic masters of Spain (the Visigoths) replaced it with the Christian church of Saint Vincent. When the Arabs conquered the peninsula in the early 8th century, they tore down the church and began building their great mosque, which - commensurate with Cordoba's importance as the centre of Muslim power in Spain - became the largest mosque in all of Islam after that of Caaba, in Arabia."
So while it appears as though Muslims had constructed at least one key mosque on a conquered site, the Christians had built one first, and after this paragraph, Andalucia.com goes on to describe how, after Christians re-conquered the Spaniards, they retrofitted the mosque into a church.
To me, however, the stunning symbolism here is that the previous name of the Ground Zero mosque project was "Cordoba House," a name changed by developer el-Gamal after opposition to his project continued to intensify. Why did he originally want the name Cordoba House, if not to symbolize one of Islam's most prominent battlefield victories at what was then considered to be a prominent world city?
World history is littered with memorials and monuments to war heroes and conquering armies of various faiths, governments, and rogue factions. It gets messy quickly when trying to identify religious symbolism that was promulgated by Muslims but not by other religions. So I'm not ready to jump on the "Ground Zero mosque as triumphant symbol" bandwagon.
However, doesn't sufficient suspicion exist with the correlation between Cordoba House and the grand mosque in the Spanish city of the same name? How does the name "Cordoba" contribute to attitudes of reconciliation and mutual understanding? What was their original purpose in choosing that name?
Where's Their Money Coming From?
This is an election year in New York State, and one of the issues Republican gubernatorial candidates in this notoriously blue state have seized upon deals with the finances of el-Gamal, his group Cordoba Initiative, and how he is paying for this $100 million mosque. Usually, when a Christian church wants to construct an edifice, they have to raise money through a lengthy and well-publicized process, but el-Gamal's plans seem to have sprung from no sizable Muslim congregation. It's not like an uptown mosque is relocating, selling their current property for tens of millions of dollars to help finance their new $100 million digs.
For comparison's sake, consider the recently-begun $115 million building project undertaken by First Baptist Church in Dallas. It has been heralded as the largest church building project in US history. First Baptist will be destroying several multi-story buildings on its landlocked campus in downtown Dallas, a physical environment not unlike what el-Gamal faces on Manhattan's Park Place. However, First Baptist's project includes a sprawling new public plaza, a new 3,000-seat sanctuary, a sky bridge, a parking garage, and an education building.
Granted, construction costs in Dallas pale in comparison to New York City's. A typical 50-story Manhattan office building now costs about $1 billion to build. But still, $100 million is still a lot of money, whether it's New York or Dallas. Where is it coming from?
New York's Republican gubernatorial candidates Rick Lazio and Carl Paladino have called for the state's current attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, to investigate where el-Gamal is getting his funding. If he's been able to raise $100 million from his own personal fortune or from wealthy private citizens, that's one thing. But Lazio and Paladino smell a rat - a rat in the form of radical Islamic funding associations including the royal family from Saudi Arabia and other influential Muslims with terrorist ties. Wouldn't they be an easy source for quick and quiet sums of money in the $100 million range?
Cuomo, however, has balked at investigating el-Gamal, because he's the Democratic candidate for governor, and he doesn't want to rock his liberal boat. And, to Cuomo's credit, nobody has come forward claiming el-Gamal has defrauded them. At this point, Cuomo has no legal obligation to investigate el-Gamal, and indeed, el-Gamal could work any investigation to his own advantage, portraying himself as the victim of the attorney general's witch hunt. So, it appears that as long as el-Gamal refuses to divulge his funding sources, we won't know where this $100 million is coming from. (Update: according to recent reports, el-Gamal says he will be starting a fundraising drive soon to acquire the money he needs for his project. By saying this, he is either implying that he doesn't yet have money committed to the project, or wanting to create the impression that he's not sure if/when this sum will be raised. My question would be who jumps through all these hoops to demolish one building and propose replacing it with a $100 million structure if you don't already have a good idea of who's going to bankroll the idea?)
Friend or Foe?
No matter how you look at this issue, very little can be genuinely summed up in the quick sound bites both opponents and proponents have been lobbing in the media. And just because a developer gets their green lights to build on Manhattan's high-stakes island doesn't mean the project will ever get built.
Small comfort, perhaps, to people like me who harbor grave misgivings about constructing a mosque so close to Ground Zero. What used to be just another mammoth New York office complex has become a site laden with symbolism that, even if overblown, is nevertheless substantive. El-Gamal himself has yet to deny the significance of his project's proximity to Ground Zero. But if he wants to build a $100 million Muslim social club, and he really wants to improve cross-cultural relationships, why can't he build it further away from such a contentious spot?
Answer these questions, Mr. el-Gamal, and understand that even if the 9/11 terrorists have been unfair to your brand of Islam, freedom of religion can benefit from grace not only by your detractors, but you yourself. Indeed, the entire Muslim community in the United States would do well to heed the suspicion and distrust fomented within many Americans by this project in New York City, and work harder at proving to us that you don't believe those parts of the Koran which tell you to kill us.
Christ tells His followers to love our enemies. At least I'm trying.