By Mansoor Ijaz
I am an American by birth, a Muslim by faith and a New Yorker at heart — I’ve lived and breathed the vibrancy of that greatest city in the world for more than 25 years. Educated at Harvard and MIT and blessed with a Wall Street career that has lasted nearly three decades, I can truly say I have lived the American dream.
A defender of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, I have worked for 20 years to strengthen our democracy by creating a legitimate role and voice for millions of American Muslims. I am an American first, and then a Muslim. I negotiated Sudan’s offer of counterterrorism assistance to the Clinton administration in 1996 when Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and their Muslim Brotherhood followers were still a manageable threat. I reached compromise with the most virulent of Muslim extremists in Kashmir in the summer of 2000 to bring about a comprehensive ceasefire there with Indian security forces. And I helped our government unravel the illicit nuclear arms bazaar of Pakistani scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan from 2000 until he confessed in February 2004. In short, I know every kind of Muslim — radical, modern, activist, pacifist, terrorist and most of all, the hypocrites. I know what they want, how they intend to get it and why they use the methods they do to achieve their goals.
To many of my fellow Americans, my record in dealing with Islam’s many faces made me a lonely voice of reason in the vast sea of darkness that has engulfed Muslim believers since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. To those who considered themselves Muslim first while living in America, I became an “Uncle Abdullah” — an apologist living among infidels who sought to appease them rather than practice our faith strictly. This criticism, it turns out, was leveled by Muslims who were the worst of Islam’s hypocrites because they sought to exploit America’s freedoms while planning its destruction.
That is why I can say it is wrong to erect one of Islam’s most sacred symbols — a mosque — anywhere near Ground Zero.
Cordoba House, as the Ground Zero Islamic Center is to be named, should not be cast as an issue of religious tolerance in America, or the right of American Muslims to build a mosque. It should be cast as a question first of American Muslim responsibility in fixing what has gone wrong inside Islam. Muslims living in America should make clear to their fellow Americans that they understand the cultural and emotional wounds left open by the terrorist attacks.
Neither Cordoba House’s detractors nor its supporters understand this central point in the increasingly polarizing debate.
Newt Gingrich, the poster boy of America’s conservative movement, misses the point when he likens Cordoba House’s construction to putting a Nazi Swastika at Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Dragging religious failures of history into the Cordoba House debate as precedence for resolving what is a battle for the heart and soul of Islam, not just in America but everywhere, is alarmist politics at its worst. Gingrich knows this — he should be ashamed of himself for stooping so low to score cheap political points.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the affable and reasonable Salafist co-founder of Cordoba House, avoids harsh truths about Muslims living in the United States when he pleads for Americans to honor their guarantees of constitutional religious freedom.
Cordoba House is wrong because America’s Muslims do not yet exemplify the time-honored commandments, philosophies and tenets of the great men and women who founded our country — and even more sadly, of the great religion they claim to follow. A mosque is not a monument. It is a place where worshipers gather to strengthen their beliefs en masse — a place where they resolve to practice those beliefs with consistency and vigor. An American Muslim, one who believes in his or her American identity first, could not possibly hope to do that near the place where fellow citizens were murdered by Islamic mobsters seeking vanity and infamy for their crimes.
My personal sensitivities as an American Muslim would forbid this as long as we do nothing to correct the forces that have led Islam’s followers astray. Shortly after the 9-11 attacks, I boarded an airplane from New York to Washington. Several passengers of differing ages, ethnicity and gender vociferously objected to me being on the plane because I looked like “one of those Moslem terrorists.” After a few moments of reflection, I told the flight attendant I would take the next flight. I did not give in to passenger demands or give up my rights — I simply respected the circumstances of the situation we all found ourselves in to give peace of mind to my fellow Americans that we were not monsters in their midst. To do otherwise would have been to dishonor the memories of our fallen citizens, and of our soldiers who fight to their deaths so we can live free.
When America’s Muslims can come together in unison to identify, fight against and defeat the forces of radicalism that have taken over our great religion — battling the cancer from within no matter where it lies in the world — then should we be allowed to build a mosque at hallowed places on American soil because then we are ready, as Americans first, to practice our religion in a way that allows us to go out and be the best Americans we can be.
When America’s Muslims can join hands with Jews and Christians, Hindus and atheists, not to show false friendships or as a convenient post card ad to raise money, but because we are prepared to truly assimilate and integrate our lives into the fabric of the America that gives us our sustenance to live, breathe, work and pray freely, then should we be permitted to build an interfaith community center on the same ground where terrorists defaced our religion.
When America’s Muslims raise the majority of funds required to construct our mosques from their own taxable income, not from dubious foreign sources that also finance the forces that seek our destruction, only then can we earn the confidence of our fellow Americans and help build the trust that binds free societies together.
America’s Muslims failed to rise up to their citizenship responsibilities after the September 11 attacks, choosing instead to play the role of aggrieved, helpless victims. That is what we see again today in the Cordoba House debate — on television, in newspaper columns and on the streets in daily demonstrations — and that is why our voices in America’s body politic are now marginalized. That American Muslims do not take meaningful steps to eradicate radical Islam’s cancer in their communities is a stunning failure of leadership which we must address without delay.
The most glaring truth which Imam Rauf and his supporters seem not to accept is that Islam’s gangsters fear that America has it right: that we as a pluralistic and secular society have perfected the very system Islam’s Holy Scriptures urged them to learn and practice. They want to build their mosques as symbols of Muslim power and glory in America next to the symbols of American power the 9/11 hijackers tore down, not because they have understood that America is in its core beliefs and practices a nation which embodies the best Islam has to offer, but because they seek to take undue credit for what they are no longer capable of doing themselves.
Beware the Muslim in America who feigns understanding and acceptance of America’s core operating system to get what they want, for these Muslims are wolves in sheep’s clothing. There are many law-abiding American Muslims who work hard and earn their keep in America today. But some Muslims I know — many of them pushing for Cordoba House to be built at Ground Zero — believe in Ummah first (their global society for Muslims of all ilks) rather than in a secular and pluralistic America. Until we can be convinced as a society that Muslims believe in America first, it is better that Cordoba House be a plan kept on the drawing board for a future time — a time when Islam and America are able to co-exist because its Muslims are Americans first.
Mansoor Ijaz is an American Muslim of Pakistani heritage. He negotiated Sudan’s offer of counterterrorism assistance to the FBI and CIA under the Clinton administration in 1996 and 1997, and jointly authored the blueprint for a ceasefire of hostilities in Kashmir between Indian security forces and Muslim militants in the summer of 2000.