Volume 80, Number 11 | August 12 - 18, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Fanning the flames

The Cordoba Initiative’s effort to build an Islamic community center and prayer space — recently renamed Park51 — two blocks north of the World Trade Center site has emerged as a hot national political issue. On the right, Sarah Palin, Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich and many others have voiced their opposition. The people who live and work in Lower Manhattan, for the most part, have had a much more balanced and inclusive response.

 Our newspapers were out early in support of Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee’s unanimous resolution to support the project, and we urged the full board to follow suit, which it commendably did. Since last week’s unanimous Landmarks Preservation Commission vote to not landmark 45-47 Park Place, the proposed future home of the community center, numerous developments have arisen. 

First and foremost, we applaud Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to hold a press conference last week, with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, at which he spoke plainly and powerfully on the need to separate church and state in this issue; i.e., that the government should have no role in determining where a people should worship, or where a place of worship should be located.

While media outlets everywhere continue to mistakenly use the word “mosque” in a blatant attempt to sensationalize and polarize the debate, and while we choose to purposefully avoid the word, let’s pretend for a moment it is indeed a “13-story mosque.” Our Constitution ensures that a mosque could be erected anywhere in the country. If the Cordoba Initiative and Soho Properties have the money to build it, let them build it and let their congregation come and worship. That’s both the beauty of our country, now, and the legacy of the men and women who fled religious persecution and traveled to our shores. It’s the foundation, the bedrock, of the United States of America.

In this clear context of the need to keep government out of religious decision-making, it was jarring indeed this week to hear Governor Paterson blunder in the opposite direction, and offer to find state-owned land should Cordoba wish to move its community center farther from Ground Zero. What next? Do we begin offering state-owned land to any and every religious institution that wishes to build a new place of worship? Or does this generous offer only extend to the Cordoba Initiative? Be careful, governor, or 20 more Cordoba’s might be knocking at your door during your remaining few months in office.

And last, we must address the M.T.A.’s decision to allow Pamela Geller’s group, the Freedom Defense Initiative, to advertise on our city buses what we believe is a sinister message that will only divide and further polarize the debate. While we consider the ad to be profoundly misleading and reprehensible, we acknowledge it is legal and protected by the First Amendment. But we must point out that the opponents’ argument all along was that locating Park51 so close to hallowed Ground Zero is hurtful and a slap in the face to the victims, survivors and families of 9/11.

So what about this advertisement, which contains images of the north tower in flames and a plane careening into the south tower, across from a rendering of the new community center? Many of the families and survivors of the terrorist attacks themselves asked the media in the months and years following the attack to use restraint in showing these violent images. They understandably did not want to have to relive that tragic day every time a media outlet wanted to garner higher ratings or a politician tried to tap into the emotionally charged issue for political gain.

Geller herself told our sister paper Downtown Express this week that the First Amendment is not about protecting ideas we like, but about protecting all ideas. The advertisement is protected free speech, but that is a very low bar. It is only meant to fan the flames, literally, in a gross attempt to exploit 9/11 images to further an anti-Islamic message.


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