Memo from Lower Manhattan: The Mosque
By Sharon Zukin
Of all the mosques, in all the towns, in all the world, why did this mosque cause a furor in this town? I’m speaking about Park51, an Islamic “community center promoting tolerance and understanding,” as its website says, which is being planned to replace an old five-story building in Lower Manhattan that formerly housed a Burlington Coat Factory store with a modern, thirteen-story multi-service facility modeled on Jewish community centers and the YMCA. The burning issue of course is that this location is two blocks from the World Trade Center site where nearly 3,000 men and women died in a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. A terrorist attack planned and carried out by…Muslims.
But this is New York, for goodness’ sake, which prides itself as – and is often excoriated for being – the most cosmopolitan city in the United States. And it’s not even a mosque, or not exclusively a mosque; it’s a cultural center mainly for Muslims but with an interfaith board of directors, outreach programs for members of the surrounding residential community and a small memorial to the victims of the World Trade Center attack, as well as space for prayer. Park51 is projected to be a place for learning, recreation, and, oh yes, preserving the religious identity of the one million Muslims who live in New York City and the many Muslims who work in Lower Manhattan, some of whose co-religionists—bond traders, street vendors, computer technicians, restaurant workers—were 9/11 victims too.
The plan for Park51, as yet undeveloped and with uncertain funding, won approval this summer from a series of public authorities who have jurisdiction on the matter. From the local community board, an advisory commission that must give its opinion on every change of land use in its district, to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Committee, the city council, and the mayor, every public official declared the project has a right to build in its chosen location. After the controversy broke and the Anti-Defamation League declared its opposition—but before the construction workers’ union said they would not work on the project and President Obama supported American Muslims’ right to worship where they choose (within unspecified political limits), the governor offered to mediate talks about choosing a different location. Apparently a new location might be less insulting to those who feel an Islamic center would defile the “sacred ground” where victims died.
Most New Yorkers would prefer to move Park51 farther from the WTC site but keep it in Lower Manhattan. But they also believe that Muslims have a right to build a mosque wherever they choose; they want Muslims to compromise, not yield their constitutional freedom to worship.
This ambivalence is not surprising. You would think a Muslim center that promotes tolerance would find a home in this most ethnic, most tolerant, most global of cities. But we know from all the controversies that have erupted around rebuilding the World Trade Center site that nothing about this location is either local or normal. Especially not a mosque and not when thousands of Americans are rallying against immigrants of all kinds and “Arabs,” whatever their religion or looks may be, are portrayed as terrorists in both popular films and high-class novels.
Just two weeks ago in midtown a Muslim taxi driver from Bangladesh was slashed by a passenger, an undergraduate film student from a pleasant little town north of New York City, who from alcohol or post-traumatic stress apparently thought he was attacking the enemy in Afghanistan, where he had recently been embedded with U.S. troops to research a film. “I’ve lived in this country for 35 years,” Ahmed Sharif, the injured driver, told the New York Post. “I’ve worked hard. This country has helped me a lot. But before yesterday, I never felt like I didn’t belong here.”
After 9/11 New York City reported fewer hate crimes against Muslims than other regions of the country, though many victims, afraid of retaliation, may not have reported the attacks. Yet hate crimes – and not just the bizarre slashing of Ahmed Sharif or attacks against other Muslims – are increasing now. Could anger about placing a mosque “at Ground Zero” be connected with a recent explosion of attacks against Mexican immigrants by young black men in Port Richmond, on Staten Island? Does Lower Manhattan, arguably the most global area of New York City, provoke the same kind of nativism as in Staten Island, arguably the most insular part of the city?
I’m not trying to spin a paranoid fantasy. But the problem is bigger than what will be built at Ground Zero and even more serious than Islam’s place in a multi-ethnic city. Both the attacks on Mexicans and the controversy over the mosque show how uneasily globalization sits in local communities. Verbal acceptance of ethnic and religious diversity cannot overcome a deep, unyielding fear that our individual destinies are tied together with those of strangers in ways we cannot control.
The combination of economic crisis, policy changes that are dismantling and reshaping basic social security systems, disastrous weather causing drastic floods, and ongoing war in Central Asia—all these are adding to our insecurities. Black teens on Staten Island who can’t find jobs and steal an illegal Mexican immigrant’s cell phone, a white undergraduate who tries to kill because he feels the pain of the troops, families who lose their mortgage and their home and see flood victims in Pakistan, China or New Orleans pushing and shoving for food: these gut-wrenching tensions are condensed in resistance to building the mosque.
New York has always been an immigrant city. In 2005, there were 231,000 New Yorkers with family background in the twenty-five countries, from Afghanistan to Yemen, where more than half the population are Muslims. They are a small part of the city’s population but a visible symbol of continual globalization, like the World Trade Center itself. It’s time to accept it.
Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.