Isn’t Tolerance an American Virtue?

By George S. Hishmeh – Washington, D.C.
Observing the shameful and venomous debate raging in the US over plans for a Muslim civic centre and a mosque in downtown Manhattan two blocks from Ground Zero, I could not help but recall the time when my father took me to visit Syria and Jordan while I was a student at the American University of Beirut.

One of the most striking revelations for me, as a Christian, was seeing the tomb where the head of John the Baptist was said to lie inside the famous Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

Many years later, after I moved to the US, I took my family on an extensive tour of Spain. My youngest child, Leila, was fatigued by the number of churches, mosques, synagogues and other historic buildings we visited.

I could only convince her to make one more sightseeing and educational stop when I told her that this building in Cordoba, described as a city that was "tolerant, interfaith oriented, [and known for] embracing diversity," housed a beautiful mosque and a church in the same building, adjacent to a synagogue.

Leila was convinced, especially after she learned that we would then feast on paella, a sumptuous Spanish dish — then her favourite.

There are other examples of religious tolerance, especially in Istanbul and Jerusalem, where the Caliph Omar once refused to pray inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lest his fellow believers turn this all-important church, which is believed to house the tomb of Jesus, into a mosque. Instead, the Caliph stepped outside into the square and prayed there. The Mosque of Omar still stands today on this very spot.

The unfortunate hoopla in the US surfaced because of growing, unjustified Islamophobia and the approach of mid-term elections. The American right, led by the Republican party and extremist groups, is trying to shake up the Obama administration and his Democratic party. None of the critics are aware of the background of the proposed Cordoba House.

Although an argument can be made that the centre could have been located in other parts of Manhattan, the fact remains that it was not, as has been claimed, envisioned as a "victory monument" in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist massacre in 2001, perpetrated by 19 terrorists linked to Al Qaida — in itself a minority group that does not have any significant support among Muslims in the Arab world and elsewhere.

More striking are the impressive credentials of Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, the architect of the Cordoba Initiative, which envisions an inter-religious community centre in Lower Manhattan that will focus on improving relations between the Muslim world and the West. In 1997, the Kuwaiti-born cleric founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement and is considered "a leader in the effort to build religious pluralism and integrate Islam into modern society".

Interestingly, he will be travelling to Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE later this month as part of a US government-sponsored initiative to discuss "Muslim life in America and religious tolerance issues".

Cordoba House has been endorsed by New York’s Jewish Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose approval of the project was essential to bring it to fruition, and President Barak Obama — despite what some mistakenly saw in his off-the-cuff remark to a journalist that he was not commenting on "the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there".

The president’s ringing declaration, much to the satisfaction of attendants at an iftar dinner at the White House, left no doubt about his feelings. "Let me be clear," he declared, "as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country."

He went on, "That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances".

Though the media and officialdom in the US gave the Muslim undertaking in New York their top attention, and the Jewish-run Anti-Defamation League its surprise condemnation, there was hardly any mention, let alone criticism, of what the Israelis are doing to a famous Muslim site in Occupied Jerusalem — the historic Mamilla Cemetery.

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre has unlawfully started working on a Museum of Tolerance and Human Dignity on the grounds of the cemetery just as its director, Rabbi Marvin Hier, sounded off on a US television programme about the Manhattan project.

With police protection, the workers began their digging at 2:30am in the hope that Arab residents of the city would not notice their disgraceful action on the hallowed ground of this ancient cemetery, which dates back to the 7th century.

In fact, a previous Israeli regime had recognised it as "one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries, where 70,000 Muslim warriors of [Salah Al Deen’s] armies are interred along with many Muslim scholars".

Jeff Helper, director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, pointed out that "some 1,500 Muslim graves have been cleared in several nighttime operations". And to add insult to injury, the digging began on the eve of Ramadan.

What "tolerance and human dignity" is this?

– George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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