For thousands of families, Ground Zero in southern Manhattan is holy ground. Thousands lost someone they love in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and hundreds of thousands know someone who was directly or indirectly scarred by the collapse of the World Trade Center. The emotional investment in Ground Zero cannot be overestimated.
That is precisely why Ground Zero must be open to the religious expression of all people whose lives were scarred by the tragedy: Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and more. And Muslims.
No one knows how many Muslims died on 9/11, but they number in the hundreds. One was Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New York City police cadet, emergency medical technician and medical student. When Salman disappeared on Sept. 11, law enforcement officials who knew of his Islamic faith sought him out among his family to question him about the attacks. His family lived with the onus of suspicion for six months until Salman’s body was identified. He was found near the North Tower with his EMT bag beside him, situated where he could help people in need.
The point of this now famous story is simple. Not every Muslim at Ground Zero was a terrorist, and not every Muslim was a hero. The vast majority were like thousands of others on Sept. 11: victims of one of the most heinous events of our times.
But for the family of Salman Hamdani and millions of innocent Muslims, the tragedy has been exacerbated by the fact that so many of the rest of us have formed our opinions about them out of prejudice and ignorance of the Muslim faith.
It is that narrow-minded intolerance that has led to the outcry against the building of Cordova House and Mosque near Ground Zero. It is the same ignorance that has led many to the outrageous conclusion that all Muslims advocate hatred and violence against non-Muslims. It is the same ignorance that has led to hate crimes and systematic discrimination against Muslims as well as to calls to burn the Quran.
On the eve of Ramadan on Aug. 11, the National Council of Churches, its Interfaith Relations Commission and Christian participants in the National Muslim-Christian Initiative issued a strong call for respect for our Muslim neighbors.
“Christ calls us to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39),” the statement said. “It is this commandment, more than the simple bonds of our common humanity, which is the basis for our relationship with Muslims around the world.”
The statement supported building Cordova House “as a living monument to mark the tragedy of 9/11 through a community center dedicated to learning, compassion and respect for all people.”
Now the National Council of Churches reaffirms that support and calls upon Christians and people of faith to join us in that affirmation.
The alternative to that support is to engage in a bigotry that will scar our generation in the same way as bigotry scarred our forebears.
Three hundred years ago, European settlers came to these shores with a determination to conquer and settle at the expense of millions of indigenous people who were regarded as sub-human savages. Today, we can’t look back on that history without painful contrition.
One hundred fifty years ago, white Americans subjugated black Africans in a cruel slavery that was justified with Bible proof-texts and a belief that blacks were inferior to whites. Today, we look back on that history with agonized disbelief.
Sixty years ago, in a time of war and great fear, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were deprived of their property and forced into detention camps because our grandparents feared everyone of Japanese ancestry. Today, that decision is universally regarded as an unconscionable mistake and a blot on American history.
Today, millions of Muslims are subjected to thoughtless generalizations, open discrimination and outright hostility because of the actions of a tiny minority whose violent acts defy the teachings of Mohammed.
How will we explain our ignorance and our compliance to our grandchildren?
It’s time to turn away from ignorance and embrace again the words of Christ: Love your neighbor as yourself.
In that spirit, we welcome the building of Cordova House and Mosque near Ground Zero.
Michael Kinnamon is general secretary of the National Council of Churches.