SOURCE: The question of whether to build an Islamic Cultural Center at Park 51 at the site of Ground Zero in Manhattan has made headlines this year across the country, and two key figures representing different sides of the issue brought the discussion to Queens.
Daisy Khan, wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, and Jim Riches, retired FDNY deputy chief who lost his son on September 11, were the keynote speakers at Queens College in a community-wide dialogue that included 9/11 families and students on November 22.
Khan spoke first and highlighted her work trying to establish an American-Muslim identity while separating mainstream Muslims from extremist terrorists. Khan said that shaping Islam – or shaping religion – in American is a daunting task.
“I’m not only a Muslim. I’m a full-fledged American,” said Khan. “I’m a full-fledged immigrant and naturalized citizen.”
Khan presented a slideshow with examples promoting division and tolerance concerning attitudes towards Muslims, including slides of Fox News, Pamela Gellar and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Afterward Khan presented a choice.
“Are we going to go with a divided America?” Khan said. “Or are we going to go with a united America?”
On the other side was Riches, who lost his son Jimmy Riches Jr., on September 11 and didn’t recover his body until March 25, 2002.
“Losing a son or a child is a pain I would not wish on my worst enemy.” Riches began.
Riches said he developed acute respiratory syndrome in 2005. His family was told he had five hours to live and he slipped into a coma for 16 days. He woke with stroke-like symptoms, but managed to recover.
“This is great that we’re here tonight talking about the mosque.” Riches said.
“We feel this is not a constitutional rights issue,” Riches said. “We never sought to shut down a mosque.”
“We as 9/11 families, we’re pretty moderate. I’ve been called a radical and a bigot.” Riches said he never participated in the rallies against the mosque, and that it is a location issue.
“Location, location, location,” Riches repeated. “Show some sensitivity to us.”
“We feel that it’s a cemetery, that it is sacred ground.” Riches said. The FDNY has mapped the area containing remains.
Meanwhile, Khan drew parallels between Islam and the United States. She said that both the Koran and the Declaration of Independence speak of a creator. She said 1,012 years ago, Muslim jurists wrote six basic rights of people: life, the free exercise of religion, property, family, the development of intellect and dignity – right very similar to those proposed by the Founding Fathers. Khan’s last parallel was that Islam, like America, has deep roots in pluralism. It, like the United States, is composed of many ethnic groups.
“Extremists want a singular ideology,” Khan said. “They do not believe in pluralism.”
“A Western Islamic identity is taking place in the West,” Khan said. “There are more Muslims in the United States than in Saudi Arabia.”
Charlie Wohlberg, one of the student speakers, asked Riches where the line is drawn on construction.
“A couple blocks further would probably be fine,” Riches said. “I can’t put a certain thing on it but not line of sight.”
“But if it has to be built, we can’t do anything about it.” Riches said.
Khan said that after September 11 her organization had to become spokesperson for Islam overnight.
“We abhor terrorists because they have made our lives difficult,” Khan said. She said that Muslims liberty and faith have been questioned. “It’s really important that American values prevail.”
Khan said that it is important for moderate Muslims to have a platform to speak, since their voice is drowned out by the extremists.
“A center like this would be dedicated to amplifying the voices of Muslims.” Khan said. Khan also presented the organization Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow, which operates in 77 countries and strives to make sure extremism doesn’t take root in local communities.
“I applaud them for reaching out to stop the extremists,” Riches said.
One thing that Khan and Riches agreed on was that creating a dialogue about Islam important.
“The people that can lead this conversation most effectively are the 9/11 family members,” Khan said.
“You have to have open dialogue about 9/11,” Riches said. “History is being told now. Scholars need to put it out the right way.”