In the Name of Peace

By Dana Davison

Different factions refer to it as the Islamic Community Center, Cordoba Center, Ground Zero Mosque, Muslim Center or the Old Burlington Coat Factory. Each of these names might reveal a particular stance on the project officially known as Park51.

However, the debate surrounding this controversial building proposal centers not on the name but on the location. And while extreme opinions on both sides of this polarizing issue tend to garner the most attention, two women—both non-Muslim and deeply affected by September 11th—offer more nuanced and unexpected opposing views. Their beliefs put them each at odds with their peers, but they find common ground with each other on what stirred the controversy and agree on a possible solution.

Abigail Carter lost her husband in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. She supports Park51. “I feel that any group, no matter their faith, has the freedom to exist in this country,” she says. Carter was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Toronto. She and her husband, Arron Dack, lived in London, Brussels and Boston before settling in Montclair, NJ. After her husband’s death, Carter started writing as a way to make sense of it all. She now lives in Seattle, and has contributed to Self magazine and published a book called The Alchemy of Loss.

“The mosque is not technically at Ground Zero, but even if it were, as long as it is legal in respect to city ordinances, it should not matter where it is built,” she says. “I do not hold all of Islam accountable for my husband’s death, just as I do not hold all Christians accountable for the Oklahoma bombing or all Germans accountable for the Holocaust. To me, a mosque at Ground Zero shows the zealots responsible for terrorist acts and the rest of the world what freedom and tolerance look like, and shows that we are not conquered by their acts but able to rise above them and grow stronger.”

Genevieve describes herself as an average New York lady. She has lived in the city for 25 years, working as a freelance writer and editor, and she watched the collapsed towers from her Chelsea apartment rooftop. She opposes Park51, much to the surprise of her fellow liberal friends. Because of angry reactions and a general worry of repercussions, she prefers to use a pseudonym. “I think it is inappropriate to build such a center, no matter how noble its intentions, on the site where such a huge, terrible crime was committed in the name of Islam,” she says, “even though the vast majority of Muslims find that day as abominable as anyone else.”

She points out that the old Burlington Coat factory was damaged on September 11th by part of one of the planes that flew into the towers. “That, to me, makes the location very fairly part of Ground Zero,” Genevieve says. “Opposing a location is not religious intolerance. Religious tolerance is abundantly established in this country, and the more I heard opposition to the site almost uniformly labeled bigotry, the more I felt that something very scary was happening. Calling someone bigoted is an effective way of putting a stop to a healthy discussion of anything. I do not see how building the center in another Manhattan location would ultimately hurt anyone who would want to use it.”

Carter and Genevieve have never met, but they each are taking an unusual position within their respective worlds, and both express an awareness of the other side. Carter worries about getting flack from other families affected by 9/11 who oppose it, but she says so far no one has dared to take on a widow. “I sense that the opposition is based in fear,” Carter says. “It is a fear I understand.” Genevieve is concerned that people realize there are valid reasons to oppose it, but she says, “There are also a variety of equally ugly reasons.”

From their two unique vantage points, the women concur that the media intensified the divisions. “The media fanned the flames of this issue and then the politicians jumped on board and used it to whatever advantage they could,” Carter says. “The media often plays Chicken Little with their alarmism.” Genevieve thinks most of the mainstream media labels any opposition to the project as intolerance. She points to the coverage of Florida pastor Terry Jones. “The pastor may have acted in a tasteless way,” she says, “but media outlets effectively poured gasoline on a spark and turned it into a bonfire.”

Discord about the project extends into the Muslim community, and the developers are trying to set the record straight.

For their part, prominent Muslims are divided on the project for various reasons. Journalist, author and commentator Fareed Zakaria supports Park51 on secular grounds, and Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, opposes it as insensitive. In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Muslim scholar Irshad Manji posed questions like “Will the swimming pool be segregated? May women lead congregational prayers any day of the week? What will be taught about homosexuals? Agnostics? Atheists? Apostasy? Where does one sign up for advance tickets to Salman Rushdie’s lecture?”

The Park51 website does not address these specific questions, but the developers are making their case for the center as a place of tolerance, stating in the Vision section: “Our goals are pluralism, service, arts and culture, health and healing.” And in the Mission section, the center strives to: “Encourage dialogue, harmony and respect amongst all people, regardless of race, faith, gender or cultural background.”

Although Genevieve believes the location could be easily moved out of respect since the developers still need a lot more money to make the center a reality, she also supports a proposed compromise to keep the Park51 address. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel publicly suggested that Imam Faisal Rauf bring Muslims, Christians and Jews together to raise the money, and run it as a Center of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, united.

It may be idealistic, but then that is a quality these two women share in their agreement on a solution to end the tensions and promote healing for everyone involved. Says Carter, “I love it! What a message that would send to the world!”