Why I Think the New York Mosque Near Ground Zero is Good

Today, I found out, purely by accident, that I am connected to the ‘ground zero’ mosque in an unexpected way.  First of all, ‘ground zero mosque’ is a terrible name.  The building is not on ground zero.  It’s a couple of blocks away.  It’s simply a New York Islamic center.  I lived in New York for many years and I know perfectly well that lower Manhattan is tiny.  Everything is near ground zero!  For weeks, I have been reading articles about the plans for converting a building in lower Manhattan into an Islamic center and the accompanying controversy, based in large part upon the notion that an Islamic center close to ground zero somehow insults the memories of the 9/11 victims.  I have made my thoughts on the virulent anti-Muslim bigotry spreading across the United States and Europe very clear in an earlier post.  This form of bigotry is going to be seen eventually as one of the great shames of the early 21st century.

During my web travels this morning, I came across a Salon article about how all the fear-mongering surrounding this Islamic center got started.

Here’s a quote from the article:

Dec. 8, 2009: The Times publishes a lengthy front-page look at the Cordoba project. “We want to push back against the extremists,” Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the lead organizer, is quoted as saying. Two Jewish leaders and two city officials, including the mayor’s office, say they support the idea, as does the mother of a man killed on 9/11. An FBI spokesman says the imam has worked with the bureau. Besides a few third-tier right-wing blogs, including Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs site, no one much notices the Times story.

Well, as chance would have it, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the older brother of my very best friend throughout my teenage years.  I grew up in Washington, D.C. where Mr. Abdul Rauf’s father was the director of the Islamic Center.  It is a beautiful mosque located on Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest D.C.  I spent many of my days there in the seventies and early eighties because my friend’s family had their apartment inside the center.  Those were days filled with the adventure of young minds trying to explore and figure out what they were going to do in life.  I was – and still am – a non-religious liberal-minded fellow, more interested in riding bikes than attending services.  My friend was the youngest of three brothers and he was very intelligent, rather sensitive, but always an irritatingly persistent arguer on almost any topic we could find.  We’d argue on buses, in cars, walking through D.C., watching TV, going to movies, playing football – just about anywhere was a good spot for an argument.  I spent many weekends there at the Islamic Center playing soccer with my friend and the young men who worked there.  They tried to teach Backgammon to me down in the basement of the mosque where they smoked in secret because if Mr. Abdul Rauf found out about it they would have been in a little trouble with him.  The father took his work seriously.  But he was a gentle and kind man.  He treated me like his son.  I had many dinners at home with the family and Mr. Abdul Rauf never once tried to make me feel bad for not being a Muslim.  He would answer my questions with simplicity and understanding.  He would tell some little stories in order to illustrate a point.  I was always told that he spent much of his time studying the Holy Qu’ran and writing books about it.  I was amazed by his library of books.  His office was a quiet place where books were piled and papers were spilled across his desk.  I liked this man.  He was reserved and slightly imposing, but profoundly kind and he took care of everyone I ever saw him come into contact with.

My friend’s father knew that his son and I had developed a keen interest in Super 8 film cameras.  He invited us to come into the mosque for a wedding ceremony and he said we could film it.  We were to be the chroniclers of a real Muslim wedding!  We prepared for this over several weeks.  My friend taught me the ways of showing respect in a mosque.  He showed me the beauty inside a mosque.  I felt comfortable there even though I didn’t have a religious bone in my body.  Frankly, I felt more comfortable there than I’ve ever felt in a Catholic church.  Much more relaxed.  And the beauty is of a much less imposing and ostentatious nature.  The beauty is subtle and serene.  Like water.

So my best friend and I filmed his father performing an Islamic wedding.  We felt very much in charge of what we were doing and we did the best job we knew how.  I always felt proud that I had this connection to the mosque and its activities.  There were plenty of other occasions the family invited me to.  I even helped them prepare for some of the big feasts and celebrations.  I’d haul dessert trays and pile foods onto tables out in the courtyard.  I’d help clean the family apartment after some big gathering or dinner.  Then my friend and I would sneak into all the leftovers when his parents were asleep.  I believe that this was where I had my first taste of a magnificent dessert called baklava.  It was a good time then and I had experiences that are very rare for an American boy who doesn’t worship a god.

My friend taught me how one must never place another book or anything at all on top of a Holy Qu’ran.  To this day, I have a habit of pulling the Qu’ran out from under another book so that it can rest by itself.  It’s a habit that goes back to my admiration for this family of Feisal Abdul Rauf.  He also taught me that in the presence of a Muslim, one should never cross one’s leg so as to expose the sole of one’s shoe to that person.  It is very rude and it is still something I try to avoid doing.

When I was fourteen or fifteen there came a summer when I wanted desperately to buy a ten-speed bicycle.  I had no ability to pay for such a thing.  My friend told his father about this situation and I was offered my very first job for the summer.  The job was to guard an exhibit of miniature models of all Islam’s most holy buildings.  The Islamic Center reserved its entire library for this event and moved in fifteen or twenty table-top models that were constructed from hand-carved wood.  They were minutely detailed and they fascinated me with all their minarets and arches and courtyards and tiny windows.  My job was to sit in a nearby chair during the morning hours and occasionally get up to stroll around the exhibit and try to answer any questions from visitors.  I think I had a small book of information that I had to study in order to at least be able to point out the various buildings.  So, in a way, my very first paying job in life was to protect the holiest sites of Islam for four weeks one summer long ago.

This family trusted me.  My best friend trusted me.

So now I trust Feisal Abdul Rauf.  He is the brother of my best friend – the closest thing to a brother I ever had.  This man is certainly to be trusted.  He is doing something that is generous and kind.  He is trying to give an Islamic center to New York City.  He is trying to help.  He is giving of himself and his people to help a still wounded city.  I say that because this is a family that you can trust.  The parents, the brothers, the wonderful sisters.  There is only goodness and healing here.  The outrage and the strange arguments against this center are simply based on a lack of information and understanding.

I should relate another episode that happened back in D.C.  One afternoon, my friend and I were hanging out at my house which was up the avenue a few miles from the Islamic center, right next to the Vice Presidential compound at the National Observatory.  In fact, he and I knew how to sneak through some woods and get underneath the fence surrounding the Vice President’s compound.  We’d do that quite regularly back in the seventies and we’d go into a cafeteria building where the candy machines were cheaper than anywhere else in the neighborhood.  Can you imagine doing such a thing today?  No way!  You’d have a Predator drone firing missiles at you in ten seconds flat!  But we did it then and we never once got caught.  We even filmed a little movie right there in the woods next to the Vice President’s fence.  We set off smoke bombs and threw burning chunks of wood into the air in order to enact the fallout from a volcanic eruption.  Just imagine us, mere yards from the Vice President’s living room, burning sticks and firing off smoke bombs while filming it all with our little cameras!

But back to the episode.  In 1977, after hanging out watching TV one afternoon, my friend had to go home.  He walked down Massachusetts Avenue.  While he was on his way, I saw to my horror on television a special news report.  There was live aerial video of the Islamic Center!  A bus was pulled across the avenue as some sort of barricade and police were surrounding the building.  This was the Hanafi Siege in which hostages were taken by gunmen at the District Building (city hall) – now called the John A. Wilson Building, B’nai B’rith headquarters, and the Islamic Center.  My friend’s parents had been made victims inside their own apartment by some violent protesters who were threatening them with death.  The situation was eventually resolved but two people had been killed by the gunmen.  I was horrified that my friend had to walk home to find this happening to his family – to people I knew and loved as my dear friends.  They did not deserve to be treated that way because some extreme and unhappy people thought they should make a display of their problems.  I felt that the family had been scarred by violence from the lunatic fringe.  My friend used to tell me that he and his family regarded the extreme factions of Islam as insane people.  There were particular leaders of countries in the Middle East that they regarded as being insane and dangerous.

Being as non-religious as I’ve always been, I took great pleasure in arguing away many days and nights with my best friend.  Our most heated disagreements were  related to religious beliefs like hell, heaven, sin, marriage, and the rights of women.  We’d literally argue for hours on end.  We never agreed and that was fine.  We were still the best of friends and I would not part with those arguments for all the world.  It is the arguing that makes the friend, not the result.

In this argument over the New York mosque I feel that I have an unfair advantage because I know so much about how Muslims really are.  So, my suggestion for those who are opposed or afraid of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan is to plan on going there sometime to make a friend.  You will find that you can have many brilliant arguments with your friends there and that you will be well-fed in the process.  You should trust me on this.  In fact, when the center opens I plan to stop by and try to meet my old friend’s brother and ask him if I can perhaps have some of that delicious baklava!

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