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.

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