Commentary: Let the Cordoba Center be built near ground zero

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

I still search for the Twin Towers in movies. In the late-night reruns shot pre-September 11, 2001. In films that show panoramic stretches of the New York skyline, I look.

I suspect I'm like a lot of people in that regard, New Yorkers and people living in virtually every state. We seek remnants of how things were before that awful day.

Maybe it's one way of grappling with the jarring fact that more than twice as many American soldiers have been killed in the costly wars that followed 9/11 than the 2,750 souls lost that day. And the hunt for Osama bin Laden is still a fruitless endeavor.

Now comes word of a massive construction project to be located a mere two blocks from Ground Zero — a $100 million, 13-story Islamic cultural center and mosque.

Not the sort of sort phoenix rising anyone anticipated. That some would see the proposal as a slap is understandable, up to a point. That sentiment stems from the simplest of thinking, an inability to distinguish Islamist terrorism from Islam itself.

I believe America needs to grit its teeth and let the center be built.

There is no better way to show how far the U.S. has come from the pathetically naive days when so many asked, "Why do they hate us?" We should get it by now. Islamic radicals despise what the U.S. claims to be: tolerant, accepting, big enough for all faiths. This is an opportunity to prove it.

Legally, if the Constitution is to be upheld, there is no choice. The land is privately owned. Last week the building plan cleared a final permission hurdle. The center is to include a 500-seat performing arts center, restaurants, bookstores and art space, all for the stated purpose of improving understanding between Muslims and the West.

Some critics of the plan have latched onto the idea of shifting the site a mile or so further away from Ground Zero to avoid offending sensibilities so close to hallowed ground. Even the Anti-Defamation League, so often a noble voice for toleration and respect for all faiths, urged the backers of the Islamic center to find a different locale.

But Ground Zero isn't the place to compromise, to waffle and begin parsing religious freedom. American Muslims, workers and rescuers, died that day as well. The terrorists saw them as targets along with the Jews, the Catholics, the Protestants and others among the dead, not some sort of collateral damage.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has been among the most eloquent, and realistic, on the matter. "I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime — as important a test — and it is critically important that we get it right," he said.

Other politicians, meanwhile, are spinning the controversy for gain. Newt Gingrich has denounced it, as has Sarah Palin, who called the proposal an "unnecessary provocation."

Perhaps we should hope the center does a little provoking, albeit not in the sense Palin suggests. It could be quite an asset if it hosts challenging debates and lectures on Muslim-Western relations and governmental policy, along with other intercultural dialogues that will broaden understanding.

Gingrich seized upon the name, since dropped, that planners had chosen for the center: Cordoba House. Cordoba, the onetime capital of Moorish Spain, to Gingrich represents invasion and domination. But in fact Islamic Cordoba was a place of intellectual flowering, where Classical texts were translated (much to the benefit of Renaissance Europe), and philosophers, mathematicians and scholars — Muslim, Jewish and Christian — carried on the work of advancing civilization.

If any pressure is to be exerted on the Islamic center's builders, it should be to fulfill that particular legacy. Then the center could become a symbol of what was not crushed that September day nine years ago — the American determination to stick to our beloved tenets of freedom, and our impulse to cooperate with all that share them, whoever they may be.

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