First published in DNA, click here to read.
The controversy over the construction of an Islamic Centre near New York’s Ground Zero has got everyone excited. Media, bloggers, activists and even president Obama have jumped in and out of the fray, with those opposing the centre being labeled “fascists” by the liberal media.
The right way to understand the controversy is through its symbolism. September 11, 2001, (9/11) was the first major terror attack on US soil.
There’s symbolism in this date. Apart from 911 being an emergency dial-up number, September 11, 1683, was the date on which a Christian army defeated the Muslims in the Battle of Vienna. The battle was won by Polish, Austrian and German forces commanded by the King of Poland, against an army of the Ottoman Empire commanded by Grand Vizier Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha. The importance of this date could not have been lost on those who planned the 9/11 attack — an attack to defeat Christian America!
The Islamic Centre at Ground Zero was initially proposed to be called ‘Cordoba House’. Cordoba (Muslim Qurdubah) is a city in Spain that symbolized Islam’s inroads into the Christian world. The Arabs conquered the Iberian peninsula in the early eighth century and the St Vincent Church was torn down and replaced with one of the largest mosques of Islam. When the Christians reconquered Cordoba in 1236 they converted the structure into a Cathedral and set up an altar in the middle. In the 16th century it was given its current look.
This is why even Christians who have not opposed the construction of mosques earlier are upset about Cordoba House.
They understand the significance of why Muslims (subliminally) want a mosque at Ground Zero. 9/11 is perceived as an Islamic attempt to take revenge for the loss in the Battle of Vienna, among other things.
Naming the building ‘Cordoba House’ reminds the Americans of the 800-year Muslim rule over Spain, just as two pilgrim places in north India do — the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and the Krishna Janmabhumi. The original Kashi Vishwanath Temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb and even today you see the Gyanvapi mosque standing on the old temple platform behind the current temple built by Ahilyabai Holkar (1780). The two domes of the temple were covered by gold donated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1839). At the Krishna Janmabhumi in Mathura, too, there is a mosque.
Just as these two temples have enormous symbolic significance for Hindu devotees, the symbolism of an Islamic Centre so close to Ground Zero can be a painful memory for those who lost dear ones on 9/11, and for those who understand the symbolism of that date. Constructing a mosque near where the Twin Towers stood is a reminder to the traumas of 9/11.
The supporters of the Ground Zero mosque have made the following arguments in their favor. One, it would promote inter-faith understanding between Muslims and the majority Christian community. It would be a blow to all fascist Muslims who proclaim that the US is anti-Muslim. It might result in fewer American Muslims taking to terror and make society more inclusive. It also affirms every American’s constitutional right to religion and its propagation.
Opponents to Ground Zero could counter these by saying the mosque might be, in the Muslim mind, a symbol of Muslim victory over the Christian west and America in particular. The mosque will be on the same lines as the Babri Masjid in India, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Salimya mosque in Istanbul.
A few questions arise: when it comes to inter-faith understanding and pluralism, why do liberals living in democracies repeat these words as gospel but rarely use them when it comes to non-Muslims living in Muslim majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia and the Indian state of J&K?
More importantly, Cordoba House is an attempt to rewrite history. One hundred years from now Americans will only see the mosque, and the Twin Towers will be distant memory. Two hundred years later, Americans might doubt if the Twin Towers ever existed. Babar’s general similarly attempted to rewrite history by destroying the Ram Temple at Ayodhya. If the temple had existed, no Indian court or political party would have doubt the existence of Sri Ram!
Some liberals may wonder why the past is so important when there are more pressing concerns in the present. When posed with a similar question, Swami Vivekananda said: “Nowadays everybody blames those who constantly look back to their past. It is said that so much of looking back to the past is the cause of all of India’s foes. So long as they forgot the past, the Hindu nation remained in a state of stupor and as soon as they have begun to look into their past, there is on every side a fresh manifestation of life. It is out of this past that the future has to be moulded”.