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At the Heart of Ground Zero

by AZADEH POURZAND in Boston

20 Aug 2010 19:1439 Comments
0517-groundzeronew.jpg[ comment ] America is currently embroiled in an intense debate over the building of an Islamic cultural center, including a mosque, close to Manhattan's Ground Zero, where 2,752 people were murdered in the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. As an Iranian American of Muslim faith, I cannot help but be concerned about the nature of some of the arguments that confuse and conflate me and everyone else who professes my faith with Islamist fundamentalists and terrorists.

Many criticize President Barack Obama and his affirmation of the constitutional rights of those who plan to build the center. He has been called an "Islamic ballerina" and accused of aiding and abetting the spread of Islamic fundamentalist ideology. Some argue that so long as certain Muslim countries do not allow non-Muslims to practice their religions freely or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, even enter the holy city of Mecca, the United States should do nothing to accommodate Muslims. Others argue that the building of an Islamic center close to Ground Zero is inherently disrespectful to the innocent victims of 9/11 and their families.

There is no question that what happened in September 2001 epitomizes the brutality of those Islamist fundamentalists who have the simple mission of murdering those who oppose them, a mission they pursue -- so they claim -- in the name of Allah. But what many seem to forget is that the innocent people they butchered and the grand towers they destroyed were not their primary targets.

The central objective of their campaign is the devastation of fundamental American principles, such as freedom of expression -- in particular, the right to freely practice one's religious faith according to the dictates of individual conscience. In our fight against Islamist fundamentalism, we ought to hold on to these core American values more passionately than ever. A cultural center that would educate Muslims and others about the moderate and deeply tolerant history of true Islamic principles could serve as a powerful symbol of America's historic and essential commitment to religious freedom.

As the daughter of two human rights advocates who have both paid a high price for their activism on behalf of freedom of expression in Iran, I know well how it is to watch your loved ones imprisoned, tortured, and humiliated in the name of some supposedly superior political ideology or religion. I recall vividly how much I wanted to disassociate myself from anything Islamic when I first arrived in the United States as a teenager. It was the uniquely American devotion to freedom that I gradually came to understand which allowed me, once again, to embrace the peaceful, beautiful aspects of my faith.

I will never forget the day that I landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport on September 28, 2001, and became a resident -- now a citizen -- of the United States. That day I was reborn in a land where I felt free and liberated. I remember the smile on my face when, at my new high school, I was posed a certain question for the first time: "Do you abide by any religion or faith?" I will never forget the glorious realization that struck me: I was free to choose my own answer. I was not forced to say that I was a true believer in some strict, harsh interpretation of Islam. Muslim or non-Muslim, I was going to be respected.

Sometimes I think back to my life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I remember having to run away from the morality police in Tehran because my friends and I were wearing tight garments, loose scarves, or makeup. I remember a female officer of the morality police once telling me my "non-Islamic" appearance made me a source of shame not only for my family but for the entire Muslim nation of Iran. I recall giggling in the prayer room as our middle school principal supervised our prayer hours. I recall humming Backstreet Boys songs instead of uttering those mandatory prayers.

These experiences, and many others like them, are the foundation of why I believe the forceful deprivation or imposition of any religious practice only invites more extremism and ignorance into a society. Instead of waiting for autocratic Islamic governments such as those of Saudi Arabia and Iran to ease their discriminatory religious laws, the United States should continue to stand strong and stand out for its uncompromising commitment to religious freedom.

Let us not respond to Islamist fundamentalism with paranoia and a mirrored fundamentalist attitude. Never forgetting who we are at our best, let us set a model for the rest of the world. Let us remind ourselves and the world of our commitment to tolerance and the right to religious freedom for all those who seek to practice their faith without harming others. Let us believe that at the heart of Ground Zero there abides the true American spirit, founded on the inspiring ideals of a land in which freedom of expression is never to be compromised or undermined.

Azadeh Pourzand is a recent graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where she was the Editor in Chief of the Women's Policy Journal.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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39 Comments

Anyone who still thinks "Islam" had anything to do with 9/11, should take some time and read Robert Pape's "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism" in which he goes through an analysis of every known case of suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2005 and concludes that there is "little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions... . Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland."

Terrorist psychos carried out the atrocity of 9/11. But do you think the slaughtering of Iraqi, Afghan and Palestinian (amongst others) mothers and children, by so called trained armies, is any different or constitutes anything less than terrorism?

Before rambling on about the beautiful "democracy" she lives in and contrasting it so simplistically to the horrid "morality police" that roam the threatening streets of Tehran (I really had to roll my eyes on that one), I suggest the author go back and do a few interviews with some of these families.

Houshang / August 20, 2010 8:26 PM

I am getting this article via a Facebook group dedicated to freedom in Iran and I read it with tears of joy. I appreciate the authors points or view and am proud that she found America to be welcoming and open.

I think the article lacks the important questions about motives of building a bridge to the West in a place where Cordoba and other investors know it to be hurtful.

I do not think we are any less tolerant and beautiful of a country if we ask for (not demand) respect.

Jennifer Rubenzer / August 20, 2010 8:54 PM

Hello, this is a white bread, corn-fed American logging in to say that I WANT to see the mosque complex built in Manhattan, I WANT Americans to acheive a better understanding of Islam and of Iran. I also hope the operators of the mosque complex will do everything in their power to promote peace and understanding. allowing this project to go forward proves that America is still America. I refuse to see it as hurtful.

corn-fed / August 20, 2010 10:44 PM

A well written and moving story. What is a 'Real' American anyway? All of our ancestors came from somewhere else, some to escape religious persecution. Let's not forget that there are already two mosques operating in the neighborhood.Has this been hurtful to the families of those who lost loved ones? How many religions are represented by those who died? Half a dozen, at least, including muslims. This mosque argument seems to be more about achieving political gain by heartless tea-baggers/ fundamentalist neocons than about any real harm.

Roberto / August 21, 2010 1:06 AM

Houshang, point well taken.

Roberto, I'm part Iranian, part Native American. We're told by scientists that my Native American ancestors arrived here via a land bridge during the last ice age. But that was so long ago, our creation myths tell us our world began here at the beginning of time. Our persecution began when the white man landed here upon our land. So go tell your "escape persecution" myth somewhere else, we know better than you .

Pirouz / August 21, 2010 3:55 AM

Dear Azadeh,

Would you entertain an idea of building a center for Islam, Christianity, Judaism etc. etc. as a symbol of spiritual unity in these troubled times? Would such center not serve the purpose better than just an Islamic cultural center? Is it not time for all of us to come together on this important matter? I would like very much to read your opinion on it. Thank you.

Niloofar / August 21, 2010 4:26 AM

An accurate well written article needlessly criticized by islamic fundamentalist commentators.

Agha Irani / August 21, 2010 8:10 AM

Im sorry, has Iran not been destroyed by Islam..?
I think the old persian culture has been hijiacked by the medieval barbaric religion by Muhammad.
Look, with your eyes.. not with the ideals of your pheasant parents who with little education but with alot of emotion believe that God would be in such a hateful religion like Islam.

I was born muslim, but could not understand the intolerance of this religion.

(Lets see what all war torn countries have in common. Somalia, Darfur, Lebanon, Syria, Indonesia, Yemen, secterian violence in Iraq.
>>>>>>>>>>>>ISLAM

There has never been peace with Islam, since Muhammad murdered the first person who opposed him. How could any progressive minded individual believe islam has any peace in it?

Houshang...keep watching presstv oh i mean hamastv and believe that radical muslims were in fact jews screaming "allah Ackbar" while killing themselves.

Theres not alot of people begging and paying and dying to get to any muslim country, instead most people around the world keep breaking their backs in order to get to the West. Keep Islam over there, where people are easily manipulated is all im saying. It has no place in the west.

Farshid / August 21, 2010 11:15 AM

Azadeh,

As always your writing is powerful and inspiring. We Iranian-Americans are lucky to have you in our midst, and the Citizens of the U.S., even those misguided souls who today fear the Burlington Coat Factory Mosque, are lucky to live in a society that has welcomed you and your mother with open arms.

Thank you for your passion, your insight, and your prose.

one of your many admirers. :)

BT / August 21, 2010 11:47 AM

@Houshang:
Why would you roll your eyes at "morality police" being present in Iran? Have you not been there recently? Perhaps you think that brutally enforcing a ridiculous dress code on half of the population using a bunch of thugs isn't a big deal.

Cy / August 21, 2010 5:09 PM

Succinct and moving. Well done.

It is ironic that the faith that introduced religious liberty and pluralism to humanity is suffering religious prejudice in the first modern nation to institutionalize it in its Constitution.

Islam is the only faith that not merely accommodates, but defends, protects, and materially supports the institutions of other religions.

The Jewish community in Iran is a prominent ~ but largely unknown ~ example. It would be helpful to see something from there in the mainstream media during this conflagration inflamed by America's anti-Islamic parties.

Hajj Dawud / August 21, 2010 5:14 PM

Oh what absolute nonesense Hajj Dawud!
"Islam is the faith that introduced religious liberty and pluralism to humanity"?! You can't be serious. Do you know how Bahais are treated in the Islamic Republic? They are denied an existence, never mind they're own religous sites. After the revolution many of them were executed for their faith alone. Their sacred buildings were destroyed and their children were denied an education. Clerics, who are experts on Islam given that they spend most of their lives studying it, have put it into Iranian law that the blood of a Christian or a Jew is less valuable than that of a Muslim. Enlighten us as to what Islam says about a Muslim person who chooses to become a Christian, say. What about someone who becomes an atheist? I bet you know the shameful answer all too well.

Cy / August 21, 2010 6:31 PM

@Cy: I certainly think it's a big deal. I also think an analytical piece of writing should be a big deal. And so juxtapositions like the "free and liberated" US of A vs. the frightening streets of Tehran are simplistic and juvenile. When there is so much going on behind the veil, and this "free and liberated" country is only a military industrial killing machine from the eyes of a large group of people in the world. When that frightening street has also given birth to quite a complex, intriguing resistance movement which many can actually learn from ... putting these two together the way this writer does did make me roll my eyes. The glorious America vs. decrepit Iran scenario has been played out by Iranian Americans enough already. Iranian raghs o beraghs satellite channels are filled with this fantasy. Maybe this author could run for host? Some highlights in her hair and pouty lips is all she'll need. The degree from Harvard will of course be an added bonus.

Houshang / August 21, 2010 6:52 PM

“The punishment of those who take up arms against god and His messenger and devote themselves to corruption, creating discord on earth, is that they should be killed or hung on the cross or their hands and feet should be severed from opposite sides or they should be exiled-such should be their disgrace in this life, and in the hereafter there is greater chastisement for them, except those who repent before you lay your hand upon them.” 5:33-34.

I have been tying to understand the atrocities done in in the name of Islam since I left Iran. I have asked myself, are they really following Quran or misusing it? I have found many passages such as above in Quran that justifies the actions of those who Muslims dissociate with:The fundamentalist. As if the fundamentalists are not Muslims!!! They actually are practicing the book faithfully.

About the article...it is naive and pretentious...The author is trying to be fair...have a big heart..inclusive..Open minded but for a lost cause: dressing Islam as a peaceful religion. For me it is reflective of the opinion of those who live the sheltered life of academia.

How about being an informed independent thinker and not reiterating the fashionable and predicable as a formula for everything. There is no need to build a mosque across ground zero. An interfaith center? May be. We must focus on this act in relationship to 9/11. We don't need to be kind to the cruel.


Indenpendent / August 21, 2010 8:55 PM

Just relax your independent holiness. I advise you to read up on the history of Christianity as well as Judaism.

You then may return to tell us if you found anything different in the conduct of their misguided faithful. They are all the same product, just painted differently and marketed by Independents like you for an unworthy quick profit.

There is nothing wrong with having a big heart, trying to be fair, and being open minded. I suggest you try it some time. You may even like it.

Are you sure you are Iranian? You don't sound like it.

Ta Ta.

Niloofar / August 21, 2010 10:32 PM

Niloofar, i for one , am sick and tired of your bitter, contemptfull and venom loaded sarcasm. You can not stop spewing your thought out here. If you dont have to add anything , then maybe you should just try to read and move on.

You just like to attack , yell , attack, yell and then when felt embarrassed (if you even be!) about your generalizations, you start using your dark humor and irony against others.
just looking at your last post , anybody can see what is going on in your mind. You say " Just relax you holiness". Is this an intellectual way of addressing a person, any person. You the start advising people about things that are known,unless you think you are the only one that knows everything and needs to advise others. Then you again sarcastically say " may return to tell.... ". Who the hell you think you are that talking like that here?
Then you try , again as sarcastically as possible to say that "There is nothing wrong with having a big heart, trying to be fair, and being open minded. I suggest you try it some time. You may even like it."
And at last, just to make it as stinging as possible you doubt that individuals national identity , o and then you dont even wait for an answer and say "You dont sound like it". Are all Iranian sound alike? Should they all think the same way, argue the same way, ....etc.
I dont wish you to outcasted from here, since that is not how democracy works, but i just wish to hear a more balanced and less sarcastic Nillofar here.
That is all.

PersianTraveler
Ps.
For those of you who need more fun things to read from Niloofar, might want to checkout her other comments on other posts to see the pattern. I could not help but to cringe in disbelieve when she was wishing the death for another poster who had ticked her off!

PersianTraveler / August 22, 2010 4:47 AM

Your style of ridiculing others when you don't agree with them is boring. Your pedantic history lesson gives me a very clear idea of your depth of knowledge,insight and political leanings. I think if you moved a little of your matter from your heart to your brain you could carry on a more invigorating conversation.

Independent / August 22, 2010 4:57 AM

Traveler,

Iam entitled to my opinion and you to yours.Isn't democracy a great tool?

Independent,

Noted, but do pay attention to my pedantic history lesson and you may learn someting.

Niloofar / August 22, 2010 7:11 PM

Thanks Azadeh for sharing your meditation--your reflection on your US highschool experience and pursuit of religious freedom and comparing it with your parents struggle left was very engaging to read. If I have a chance to edit this piece, I would have led this narrative with your personal vignette. President Obama's remarks could have come much later or not at all. I remember when we first met at Harvard, I realized how much our families have in common. Check out my Op-Ed:"Echoes of the past in Ground Zero mosque controversy"

http://ohmygov.com/blogs/general_news/archive/2010/08/18/_5B00_OP_2D00_ED_5D00_-Echoes-of-past-in-Ground-Zero-mosque-controversy.aspx

Nemat Sadat / August 22, 2010 10:06 PM

Niloofar
I bet McCain is gonna have you on his next presidential bid. You just sound like Palin. As superficial and screechy as it gets. Afterall, Persian race is not immune to stupidity of some and adherence of many!

PersianTraveler / August 23, 2010 2:21 AM

Nice job on the article. As always, I'm proud of you.

Bruce Snyder / August 23, 2010 3:14 AM

Thank you,

I am sorry if I pain thee so deep.

"The Islamists' miserable existence is reaching its end. May the good lord have mercy on them despite their immense cruelty to so many innocent people across Iran. May the good lord have mercy on them."

The truth is a bitter pill to swallow.

You are most kind.

Niloofar / August 23, 2010 5:54 AM

Lots of contradictory statements are embedded in Islam. If those Islamo-Lovers don't see them, then they need to wear binoculars. So, these kids who escape the Islamic society and refuge in a secular and democratic country better stop preaching religion which they have defected from in the first place. It is dishonest.

ex-mulism / August 23, 2010 11:46 AM

ex-mulism. Perhaps you need to leave this secular and democratic country where there is freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

GooGoo / August 23, 2010 11:14 PM

congrats Azadeh - a great article and everything was well said. God Bless you :-)

PamyBayy / August 24, 2010 8:37 PM

PersianTravler: McCains next presidential campaign? The guy is older than dirt, let's be realistic, shall we?

As for this article, it comes from a very skewed perspective. Should an Islamic cultural center be built on this land? If they want to..........But, who owns the land? Are they willing to pay full price for such prime real estate? Are they going to buy this property without assistance from the taxpayers?

These questions are extremely important. When you let government into private real estate transactions, you let every joe blow who is giving half their income to government a say in how that real estate is used. Sports stadiums are very similar.

The article should come from the perspective of "why is this an issue". If this group was willing to accept no special treatment from taxpayers and taxpayers didn't "own" the land, there would be no issue. Nobody really cares what others do with their own money or property, but when they start asking them to pay for their desires on certain properties they do care.

muhammad billy bob / August 24, 2010 8:45 PM

How did the Nazis come to power is the democractic Germany? By being allowed to practice their beliefs and grow. They had a hidden agenda and no one took them seriously until it was too late.Yes, we should let people practice how they want to believe and I personally think some times we are to tolerent, but we should also keep a watch on any one who is not giving the same consideration to those who have given their all, such as the people who lost so much in 9/11. They are putting their agenda if front of everything else.

concerned lady / August 25, 2010 3:58 AM

Excellent article! What bothers me is that it sadly seems since 911 this country is more and more filled with HATE. You are right...by NOT allowing the center the 911 murders are WINNING...by further surpressing our freedom of speech and religion.

I can only imagine how happy Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are about this turmoil...just what they wanted.

Tracey Smith / August 25, 2010 6:02 AM

I know that there is freedom of religion in America, but I believe that needs to change because certain freedoms could be potentially harmful to our nation.
I am very worried about the future of this country and the kind of people that will be allowed to live here. I have seen so many changes over the decades. Some good and some bad. Even the English language is not so much prominant anymore. There is a Spanish system in conjunction with English on many forms and documents. My 6 year old daughter has a school class day-to-day schedule attached to her binder that is a dual Spanish/English. I protested by blacking out everything Spanish!!! I am extremely against this Spanish system working it's way into America.
Now I am concerned about the Muslim movement. I hate to say it, but I think the only way America will change for the better is if we get hit again, but 100 times worse than the events of September 11th. I do NOT condone another terrorist attack, but I believe it's the only way this contry will change for the better.
This is why I am a "die hard" conservative republican.

Daly / August 25, 2010 6:08 AM

Terrorists are the not the same as Islamic fundamentalists. The former group has political objectives and the latter has religious concerns. There are terrorists that come from Muslim countries but they themselves are not Muslims since they became educated in the West. We have Christian fundamentalist who believe in shooting physicians who perform abortions and blowing up abortion clinics. How can one associate political violence with religious convictions?

Nanson / August 25, 2010 7:03 AM

concerned: The Nazi's had no hidden agenda. Their agenda was very much open and known. A very slim majority of Germans approved and participated in carrying out this agenda.

Daly: You should go ahead and get started on your amendment to repeal the 1st amendment. And you're going to need alot of help to do this and to kill 400,000 people. Maybe you should try to get some of your spanish speaking neighbors to help you out on that.

Nanson: How can one associate political violence with religious convictions? Because religions are political. The 2 religions you mention were began by politicans. And it's follwers have always been deeply involved in trying to bend the politics of their nations to their founders political beleifs.

muhammad billy bob / August 25, 2010 9:02 AM

An interesting commentary, and ammusing discussion, until I read from Daly. I felt Lady Liberty shed a tear for your narrow and bitter view of America and what you think would make her "better".

For the rest of the discussion there is no winning in the compare and contrast game... we all have blood on our hands, we all live in glass houses...and often peace is only rewarded with brutality and/or eventual corruption. The battle between good and evil may only be the internal battle between peace and greed. But Peace does carefully consider the feelings of others. Greed or Evil does not, only seeking selfish gratification. Is an Islamic Cultural Center being built near Ground Zero planned for the sake of healing the national pain that eminates from that hole in the ground, or for more selfish indulgences? As a contemporary American, without consideration for my ancestory or that of the terrorists, I must admit, to me it does not seem sensitive to build Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero. Either way, the terrorists do not win... we still get to discuss all aspects, disagree and postulate. No one will be forced to visit either site. If 11 terrorist members of my faith had been responsible for the events of 9/11, I would be more interested in members of my faith purchasing a piece of ground and errecting a simple monument with a quote from our sacred text condeming the acts of the fringe... So that others would know, that our faith does not condone what happened, and we are all saddened by it, and we respect all of the fallen.

Grace / August 25, 2010 9:49 AM

Dear Daly,

I would like to ask you a simple question based on the conduct of Timothy McVey who set the bomb that killed 168 people at the Federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on April 19, 1995, and David Koresh of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas,1993.

Would you consider keeping the terrorist Christians out of this country? Would you be just as concerned about the Christian movement?

What kills Daly? The gun or the person who pulls the trigger of the gun?

Was Islam responsible for 9/11 or the pinhead Islamists who killed in the name of Islam?

"...I protested by blacking out everything Spanish!!!"

The answer is not exclusion, killing and destruction; the answer is education, education and education on both sides of the isle.

America is far bigger than what you portrayed her to be. Don't shut the doors on her and consequently on your child. God bless.

Niloofar / August 25, 2010 1:21 PM

From The Washington Post "On Faith" Blog...

Silence is Not Moderation
by Sam Harris

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/sam_harris/2010/08/silence_is_not_moderation.html

"As many have pointed out, the controversy over the "ground zero mosque" is a false one. The project is legal to build, and it should remain legal. That does not mean, however, that any concern about building a mosque so close to ground zero is synonymous with bigotry. The true scandal here is that Muslim moderates have been so abysmally lacking in candor about the nature of their faith and so slow to disavow its genuine (and growing) pathologies--leading perfectly sane and tolerant people to worry whether Muslim moderation even exists."

MarkDC / August 25, 2010 6:20 PM

Daly,

What is the real reason why you do not like the Spanish language? It is an extremely easy language to learn. Much, much easier than English. Are you just that lazy? Or is there some other reason you do not want learn a language that a very large portion of the world speaks?

I suspect you think the U.S. has always been an English speaking country, and should remain so. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the current U.S. was bought, or won as spoils of war from Spanish speaking nations. And before that, obviously, the U.S. was populated by those that spoke many languages, Cherokee, Lakota, etc.But even among the European arrivals there were many languages spoken.

One of the great things the founders of the U.S. did, was to NOT declare an offical state language, religion, or culture.Which was rare at the time, and is still somewhat rare. They left this up to the individual. Who is suprerior to the collective.

muhammad billy bob / August 25, 2010 10:23 PM

Niloofar,

I think it is a little unjust to lump the Branch Davidians in with terroists. They didn't harm others' until the federal government over-reacted and basically invaded their home.

Also, I don't know if they could really be considered Christians. They were a pretty far off shute of Christianity.

muhammad billy bob / August 26, 2010 2:54 AM

Billy Bob,

You are absolutely right and that is exactly the point, "...unjust to lump..."

I have a simple message, those people do not represent anyone but themselves. In other words do not generalize.

Do 18 idiots responsible for 9/11 represent over Billion Muslims? How many people have been killed in the name of freedom and by the forces of freedom? Is a terrorist another man's freedom fighter? Were the Davidians considered good guys until the instant shooting started and they turned evil?

In other words dear Daly, do not generalize.

Niloofar / August 26, 2010 12:01 PM

Niloofar,

Point well taken.

The terrorist/freedom fighter remark reminds me alot of one of my favorite professors in college. He was Lebanonese, and in the mid '80's he used to really get the right wingers riled up. I remember many a great conversation in his office, where he had a little Lebanon flag on his desk.

Anyway, of course, the 9/11 attackers do not represent billions of muslims. But I do think people should be concerned about followers of any religion. These people should certainly be allowed the rights of any human being, but they should not be allowed to infringe on other's rights. Religious groups are quite often the first ones to oppress others. Regardless of which religion, they seek safety in numbers to commit terrible things to their fellows in the name of some god.

muhammad billy bob / August 26, 2010 8:57 PM

Sorry, I do not believe you. All theistic religions are based on a totalitarian world-view that negates humanity and democratic principles. Eventually we must put an end to all of them: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Daishin / August 30, 2010 9:41 AM