Cordoba House

August 2, 2010 — Leave a comment

One of my local haunts is opposite the Islamic Da’Wah Center which opened in 2002 in Downtown Houston. Originally the Houston National Bank built in 1928, the neo-classical limestone building, sits solid and confident. Doric columns soar upwards suggesting the weight of the world, or at least the spread of a moderate Islam, can confidently rest on the pillars.

Synchronicity came when sipping my latté and reading an article in the Houston Chronicle, I glanced up and saw men in suits, in chinos and long-sleeved shirts, and some in traditional salwar kameez (baggy trousers and tunic), making their way into the Da’wah Center for Friday afternoon prayers; the piece was about the debate over Cordoba House, a mosque and Islamic educational centre, being built two blocks north of Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.

Local authorities gave the go-head for construction of Cordoba House early in May. It had the support of New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg and the Interfaith Alliance, but surprisingly not of all Muslims, or of many other Americans.

Emotions naturally run rampant if someone dear to you died in the 9/11 atrocity, but people from many countries and many faiths died that terrible day. And many law-abiding Muslims have since been killed in the name of Allah, by their ‘fundamentalist’ brothers and sisters. But we must remember Islam is not al-Qa’eda.

Obstructing the building of a centre promoting cross-cultural understanding alienates moderate Muslims of all nationalities. Reading comments from people with names like ‘disgusted of Delaware’ who ask why cathedrals can’t be built in Saudi Arabia stagnates the discussion. Saudi Arabia is not an open society, but young countries such as the United States, have been founded on freedom of religious persecution and the right to speech. Surely it is in all our best interests to foster a more tolerant society everywhere.

It is curious too that the Anti-Defamation League, set up 1913, “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all” has, in the last week, come out on the side of those opposed to the mosque. The ADL is a respected, and normally moderate, organisation much involved in encouraging and aiding communication between diverse groups, and protecting the civil rights of all.

It is hard to fathom that a centre for cultural learning that would increase the understanding of, and tolerance for a different religion is being pilloried by luminaries like Sarah Palin as an unnecessary provocation, or disrespectful, when just around the corner of the proposed site sit a couple of strip joints. Now which, I wonder, shows more disrespect to those murdered by radicals?

Those opposed to Cordoba House are attempting to get the current semi-derelict building on the site, an Italian Renaissance-type structure built in 1858 designated a historical landmark not because of its age or questionable beauty, but because the upper floors were destroyed by airplane debris from the World Trade Center attack. If granted it would slow the building process but the plans, which have been based on YMCAs and Jewish Community centres around New York, would be changed to incorporate the new requirements.

Questions of where the money, a proposed $100 million, is coming from have also arisen and which are being investigated. The same questions need possibly to be asked of the sprawl of mega-churches that proliferate around the United States.

In the spirit of interfaith alliance, the proposed board of the mosque would be made up of Muslims, Christian and Jewish leaders. A crucible of religious learning that would in turn encourage a better understanding of the Islamic culture.

Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinksi, who spent many years in Africa described cultural perspective when he said, often a native and a newcomer have difficulty finding a common language, because each looks at the same place through a different lens. Cultural understanding can only come about with an openness of mind; and that can only happen when curiosity, travel, education and an exchange of knowledge are encouraged.

There are mosques in Western cities, and there are churches and cathedrals in predominantly Islamic countries. The Islamic Cultural Centre in London, opened by King George VI in 1944, was built in recognition of the support given by Muslims in the British Empire during World War II. The Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Faisalabad, Pakistan works to promote harmony and create dialogue between the country’s different religions.

Religion will continue, I suppose along with politics, to be a subject to avoid at a dinner party, but surely we should be looking at Cordoba House not as “a symbol of conquest” as some have described it, but as “a symbol of hope”. A hope that cultural awareness can be gained, and differences bridged by a willingness from us all to be more curious and open to differing cultural perspectives.

As I looked around my coffee shop at the familiar faces, I realised for the first time that at a guess, we were a collection of Catholics, Jews and Protestants, but no Muslims. They were over the road at the Islamic Da’wah Center praying for redemption, and a new mosque just north of Ground Zero.

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