Ground Zero Mosque: A Symbol of Religious Freedom

The proposed new Muslim center symbolizes the American ideals of religious and cultural inclusion, while Palin’s inflammatory comments just underscore her intolerance, says New York congressional candidate Reshma Saujani.

Arif Ali / Getty Images; Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

While New York City Community Board decisions do not regularly draw national headlines, the Lower Manhattan board’s 29-1 approval of construction plans for the Cordoba House did for one simple reason: The mosque and interfaith cultural center’s proposed location is just a few blocks from Ground Zero.

The torn lives and twisted steel from that fateful September morning left a visceral imprint on our city and have defined many aspects of our national dialogue over the last decade. How do we protect the civil liberties conceived by our Founders in the 18th century while combating the global security threats of the 21st century? How do we respect the religious freedom that has made America “the last best hope on earth” while confronting the reality of religious fundamentalism and extremism?

As Palin and the conservative clan rush to deliver politically polarizing and inflammatory diatribes, it is clear that they have forgotten what makes this country great.

The debate around the Cordoba House—or “the Ground Zero Mosque,” as it is sensationally being referred to in the media—not only has brought these questions to the national forefront once again, but also causes us, as a city and nation, to ask a more poignant one. What does our reaction to the construction of a mosque and interfaith center near Ground Zero say about our faith in the founding ideals that define this country?

I strongly support the community board’s decision. That religious freedom and interfaith dialogue can endure at such a symbolic site, I believe, is a testament to the strength of American democracy.

In a recent statement, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin urged her supporters to reject the “Ground Zero Mosque” and implored “Peace-seeking Muslims” to scrap plans for the Cordoba House because it represents “unnecessary provocation” and a “stab in the heart.” Michael Berry, a Republican talk-radio host in Houston, told listeners, “I hope the mosque isn’t built, and if it is, I hope it’s blown up, and I mean that.” These comments by Palin, Berry, and their small but vocal band of hate-mongers display their ignorance and intolerance, and indicate that they have lost faith in our founding principles.

My support for the proposal is shared by several community leaders—including multiple elected officials, the head of the Jewish Community Relations Council interfaith initiative, Hindu priests from my own faith, and several Christian clergymen—further attesting to the American ideals of religious and cultural inclusion.

Indeed, the proposal for the Cordoba House grew out of the activism of a nonprofit organization called the Cordoba Initiative, which seeks to foster greater understanding between Muslims and the West. We should encourage further forums for the Cordoba Initiative to discuss the plan’s details and exchange constructive feedback with the community.

As Palin and the conservative clan rush to deliver politically polarizing and inflammatory diatribes, it is clear that they have forgotten what makes this country great. The Cordoba Initiative was actually named for the city of Cordoba, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in peace for nearly 800 years during the Middle Ages. The proposed center, which will have a dedicated multi-faith prayer room, includes plans for an auditorium and conference center for cultural exchange programs and interfaith dialogues. In many ways, New York City today strikes me as a modern day Cordoba, where people of all races and religious faiths converge with the same aspirations to live in peace and a build a brighter future for their children.

I understand the pain, anxiety, and scars that still remain nearly a decade after that tragic Tuesday morning. I also understand the very real security threats we face from fundamentalist groups and terrorist networks.

I support the construction of the Cordoba House, not in spite of these realities, but because of them. We must both relentlessly pursue terrorist networks and staunchly defend our pluralistic democracy. The raw human component of this challenge calls on us to make an equal effort to combat extremism with education, intolerance with interfaith exchanges.

Reshma Saujani is a dedicated Democrat, attorney, and community activist running for Congress in New York's 14th Congressional District. The Indian-American daughter of political refugees, Reshma worked her way through Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Yale Law School with the help of student loans. In addition to her extensive pro-bono work, Reshma organized the first national South Asian voter drive and ran the under-40 effort at the Democratic National Committee.