By George Schira* – New York City marked the ninth anniversary of September 11, 2001 this year, a year shy of a decade, at a time at which one may think the event would have retreated into recent history crowded out by other concerns like the enduring economic crisis. The experiences of that tragic day are always on my mind and that of all New Yorkers, as well as most Americans. Observers, politicians and artists still grapple with the full impact of that tragedy in our lives and history. Having grown up in the aftermath of World War 2, I remember talk of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the warning of German submarines off the East Coast of the USA. My older sister recalls running to my father for consolation, fearing another attack on the mainland. Hawaii then was not a state but something of a foreign place to many. My father told her not to worry, that she was safe, and America would never be attacked.
Well, on 9/11, America was attacked and, what’s more, New York, where my mother was born and my father and both sets of grandparents had settled. And I was living in the city on that day, a city that had become the de facto capital of the world, political, financial and cultural, something of the seat of Empire. The shock has continued to have reverberations, death and destruction, for the 3,000 victims of all nationalities, religions and races, but mostly New Yorkers and Americans, and illness or unending grief for their families, friends and the first responders. But the shock waves went out to encompass all of us, those not on the scene who watched it on television but could see the smoke in the air and smell the debris. For me it was like a rape from which the victim never quite fully recovers, like post-traumatic stress disorder. And this was before those of us not on the scene saw the gruesome pictures of people jumping from the towers and the inferno that was soon to envelop them.
I was going to center my comments on how a paralysis of will in New York has affected the rebuilding of the site devastated by that attack on the 16-acres known as Ground Zero where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center had stood. The 8-acre Memorial Plaza with its underground museum and the once named “Freedom Tower” (now three towers) have not been built in the nine years since that day while memorials have gone up in those other two spots where hijacked planes crashed or that experienced attack, in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon in Washington DC. Even a small memorial to British victims was dedicated at Ground Zero by Queen Elizabeth on a short and hurried visit during one of the hottest days of the year, in July of this year, her first visit to the city in 53 years. New York was mired in bureaucracy and competing financial interests played out over the terms of three New York governors and three governors of New Jersey (the two states control the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey which controls construction at the site, and which had seen a turnover in leadership as well).
However I didn’t have to wait long for those lingering effects to visit New York City and America once again as new controversy gripped New Yorkers and Americans throwing them into an identity crisis that pulled the current and previous Mayors, the current Governors of New York and New Jersey and even the President of the United States of America and the Democratic and Republican Parties into a vortex of religion and politics, culture and ethnicity that became known as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy.
America has been called the great experiment and American identity is problematic at best as we have gone beyond the melting pot to an ever more diverse society. Sociologists have noted that Americans change religion every day and that now includes all the world’s religions along with some new ones begun at home.
Old Europe is somewhat different as different groups stay longer in their ghettos while others, like the gypsies or “Roma”, remain apart, but even that will change as Europe, in the words of Romano Prodi when he was President of the European Commission, becomes more and more a union of minorities.
President Obama, himself, who one out of five Americans now believe to be a Muslim, is the son of a Kenyan father who was agnostic and rejected the Islamic religion of his father and a Christian mother from Kansas who taught him to respect all religions and all people, professed his Christian faith only as an adult when he was exposed to the Afro-American community and black church experience in Chicago, but had to put out the message during the mosque controversy that he was something of an evangelical Christian who receives daily Bible verses – a common ground for most politicians in recent times. His troubles started with the famous Cairo speech reaching out to the world’s Muslims and grew in intensity when he spoke up in defense of constitutional rights at an Iftar dinner at the White House endorsing “the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan” only seeming to qualify his endorsement the next day when he said he wasn’t commenting on the wisdom of doing so, complicating the situation even further.
Earlier, Mayor Bloomberg took his defense of the constitutional right to build the “Ground Zero Mosque” when he stood on Governors Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background and representatives of every faith on either side– including the Greek Orthodox Church- and said: “We’ve come here to Governor’s Island where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam, and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted. We come here to see the inspiring symbol of liberty that more than 250 years later would greet millions of immigrants in this harbor.…. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker.” He went on to say that being a New Yorker meant living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance and that it was that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11. No mention was made of the genocide of the Native Americans or the African slaves brought to this free land.
If only it had ended there, but life is far more complex as is New York and as is America and today’s world and the media beat the story to death while new controversy erupted over a Florida Christian minister’s threat to burn the Koran, only to relent after criticism from General David Petraeus facing demonstrations in Kabul, Afghanistan and, later, the President, pleading for tolerance.
While opposition among New Yorkers to the construction of the mosque and Islamic cultural center (the Cordoba House or Park 51 at 45-47 Park Place which will be a 15-story building rising two city blocks from Ground Zero) hardened by a margin of 63 to 27 in a poll taken in mid-August despite the 64 per cent, representing every demographic group, stating that developers had a constitutional right to build it. Not only was this a matter of religious liberty but of local choice as the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and 29 of 30 Lower Manhattan community-board members voted to approve construction of the building in the former Burlington Coat Factory that had, in fact, been damaged by one the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers. National politicians, however, mostly Republicans facing Congressional elections, with the notable exception of the newly-elected Republican Governor of New Jersey, Christopher Christie, fanned the flames, generating opposition to the building of mosques across the country. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the best known Republican who is most identified with 9/11 having been mayor at the time, weighed in calling the plans for the mosque and cultural center “divisive” breeding hate rather than healing wounds.
One irony of history is that pre-World Trade Center this area of Lower Manhattan was once known as “Little Syria” and was inhabited by Arab Muslim and Christian immigrants from the Ottoman Empire and that two mosques have been in the same neighborhood, one four blocks away and one 12 blocks away for many years, one since 1970, the very year that the first tower, the North Tower of the World Trade Center, was completed. And next store to “Little Syria’ in those days was “Little Athens.”
Muslims in the New York Metropolitan area, an estimated 600,000 among more than 15 million people today, have opinions as diverse as other Americans, some regretting the push of the proposed project that is seen by some Americans as a sort of trophy building after a successful jihadist conquest while others welcome it as a harbinger for a changed Islam in a country that rejuvenates and revolutionizes everything, even religion.
Going back to that tragic day nine years ago, I was working as a consultant to Leadership 100, a charitable organization that supports the Greek Orthodox Church, and was asked to devise an organization plan for a September 11 relief fund to respond to the crisis that had counted Greek Orthodox Americans among its victims and destroyed one of its churches, St. Nicholas. I consciously resisted going down to Ground Zero. Months passed before I went down there when serving on the committee planning the building of the memorial. That is when I met the families of victims of the tragedy and personally felt moved to extend my condolences to each one. However I couldn’t follow the group’s visit down a rickety ramp into the deep pit that still held remains and half way down scurried back up to the top seeking the shelter of a police trailer. That’s when I felt myself surrounded by the palpable presence of forms in the air. I was shaken and sat down inside the trailer when a police officer asked what had happened. When I told him, he said I wasn’t the first to experience that. I say this only because I think I understand it when others talk of sensitivities and hallowed ground.
In the latest turn of events, the Greek Orthodox Church in America has been brought into the fray, a religious community that has stayed below the radar of American politics, when Fox News reported that the Port Authority had reneged on a deal to rebuild its St. Nicholas Church in a land swap right at Ground Zero after purportedly having offered $60 million in public money. The media put the story in terms of “approval for the mosque on the fast track” and “continued delays on building the church” and it was seized on by Greek American and other politicians running for office, creating a quandary for the Greek American Community and Greek Orthodox Church.
All this was going on while the Kuwaiti-born 61-year-old Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf whose idea it was to erect the Cordoba House, a moderate Sufi Moslem who has helped teach FBI agents and was touring the Middle East under the aegis of the US State Department, internationalizing the crisis further since he has not been transparent about the source of funds to build the center that some believe comes from Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the last engaged in spreading its intolerant brand of Islam, Wahhabism, worldwide. But this man is a Sufi, the most accommodating denomination of Islam and he has written What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right with America which argues that American democracy is the embodiment of Islam’s ideal society and the Cordoba House is to be “open and accessible to all.” Later he emphasized that there would even be “prayer spaces” for Christians and Jews.
On the day of the anniversary, the solemn commemorations were accompanied by demonstrators pro and con on the building of the “Ground Zero Mosque” and the media began to discuss the phenomenon of “Islamaphobia” wondering again at the repercussions abroad.
Commentators however, who had noted that the Imam had made ambiguous statements suggesting some American responsibility for 9/11, called terrorism a complex subject, and refused to term Hamas or Hezbollah terrorist organizations and opined that the Cordoba project was reclaiming the West for Islam, it having been the famous mosque erected in Cordoba when Islam conquered Spain, continued to stand their ground. Others, however, noted that he was compromising those positions and other, mostly evangelical Christian religious leaders around the country began to counter anti-Muslim sentiment.
So here are the questions: Are Americans nine years after 9/11 obsessed with an enemy that may no longer be the threat it once was as some contend? Do we play into our enemies’ hands if we deny American Muslims the right to build the mosque as Mayor Bloomberg says? Do we give a victory to the terrorists as former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich believes, testing the winds for a presidential run, and characterizing the project as part of an “Islamist cultural-political offensive” to undermine and destroy our civilization? Has the American imagination been taken over by this new intolerance, handing a victory to the terrorists?
The mosque dispute may not effect this either way some say because the threat waxes and wanes regardless due to other factors beyond our control, at home and abroad. So it will prove to be neither a triumph nor a defeat but simply tell the world America and New York have moved on.
If anything, in the aftermath of 9/11, the world has grown confused if not more complex and reactionary in the literal sense to the polls and the media with the Internet spreading reactions like wildfire worldwide. Somehow we all need to get back to our moral compass, remember who we are as human beings and where we are going on spaceship earth and truly create a new mythology for the future, one that includes us all.
In the meantime, I trust New Yorkers will recover from this and remember the transactions of everyday live that keeps the city alive and free and open to all. The restaurants are full again and when the theatre let out one recent evening that was a bit cooler, the streets seemed as packed with people, New Yorkers and Americans and other tourists, as on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. New Yorkers may have lost their innocence and Americans their sense of exceptionalism but neither has lost their life-affirming optimism.
*George Schira was the first Executive Director of the Carter Presidential Center. He lived in Greece from 1989 to 1991. Since 2000 he has served as a communications consultant to the Archbishop Iakovos Leadership 100 Endowment Fund.