Over the last few months, I have had a front-row seat to history.
Last May, I spoke at a public hearing of Manhattan's Community Board No. 1 in support of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan, the husband-and-wife team that initiated plans to build a multistory Islamic center two blocks north of ground zero, once the site of the twin towers.
I was there on behalf of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which has worked with the group Feisal and Khan lead — the American Society for Muslim Advancement — in ongoing efforts to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations in America and around the world.
In my testimony at the hearing, I said that since our organizations began cooperating three years ago, I have consistently found both Feisal and Khan to be unequivocally opposed to violence and terrorism, and deeply committed to the American values of democracy and pluralism. These are values, Feisal argues in What's Right With Islam Is What's Right With America that are intrinsic to the Islamic religion as well.
For this reason, our foundation has consistently supported Feisal's effort to create an Islamic community center in New York that will serve as a high-profile platform from which to articulate that vision of peaceful and pluralistic Islam to both Muslims and non-Muslims. Months ago, he and his wife told the president of our foundation, Rabbi Marc Schneier, that they hope to create a center for Muslim-Jewish dialogue at the Islamic community center, in cooperation with our foundation and the larger Jewish community.
Over the past three years, Feisal and Khan have taken part in an annual event sponsored by our foundation known as "The Weekend of Twinning of Mosques and Synagogues Across North America," during which mosques and synagogues offer one-on-one programs focusing on and celebrating commonalities in our two-faith traditions.
From what I have learned, when Feisal set out during the past few years to bring to fruition his decades-old dream of creating an Islamic center with a strong interfaith component in New York City, he was never much concerned about where the center would be located.
Yet when a space large enough to fulfill his vision became available a couple of blocks north of where the World Trade Center once stood, he saw special significance in the site. He argued that the building of an Islamic community center there dedicated to nonviolence and mutual understanding among faiths would represent a deeply felt gesture of compassion and healing by the Muslims of New York to the entire New York community, including those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001.
In retrospect, Feisal can justly be accused of being naive for not perceiving that building an Islamic community center so close to ground zero would unleash the kind of firestorm of fear, loathing and anti-Muslim rhetoric that has erupted in recent weeks. From my conversations with him and his wife on the subject of the proposed center that have been going on for almost a year, it is clear to me that they never anticipated the kind of political backlash that has indeed occurred.
Together with the American Society for Muslim Advancement and other moderate Muslim organizations, our foundation will continue to nurture a movement of Muslims and Jews committed to communication, reconciliation and cooperation.
Walter Ruby is the Muslim-Jewish relations program officer at the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.