When the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) announced its opposition to the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" last week, Director Abraham Foxman said that "Building an Islamic Centre in the shadow of the World Trade Centre will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right."
In an interview with The New York Times, he acknowledged that such a position might seem to run counter to his group's stated goal of combating bigotry.
"Survivors of the Holocaust," he retorted, "are entitled to feelings that are irrational."
In its coverage of the controversy, the Times offered a bold and perhaps somewhat unsurprising prediction.
"The unexpected move" by the "influential Jewish organisation," wrote Michael Barbaro, "could well be a turning point in the battle," causing public sentiment to turn decisively against the project.
By the end of the day, however, something remarkable had happened. The venerable ADL — with its 97-year record of "defend[ing] democratic ideals and protect[ing] civil rights" — found itself under siege, attacked by progressives and establishment figures alike.
Nobel laureate Paul Krugman called the statement "shocking," "shameful — and stupid."
"Scary Arabs ... want to kill you, all of you, because that is their nature," blogged Alex Pareene at Salon sarcastically.
Contrary to Foxman's remarks, it is not "survivors of the Holocaust" who are raving mad about the "Ground Zero mosque". Nor, for the most part, is it the families of the September 11 victims. The entire controversy has in large part been fabricated and perpetuated by Islamophobic extremists who foment intolerance towards the "other".
In popular discussions, the proposed Islamic centre has usually been considered as a symbol of tolerance in a free society. Mayor Michael Bloomberg underscored this freedom in a passionate defence of the centre: "The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan."
Seeing the centre as primarily a symbol of tolerance, however, for all its merits, risks obscuring a more tangible reality. After all, New York is home to one of the nation's largest and most vibrant Muslim-American communities, recently estimated by the New York City Police Department at over 800,000 strong.
These are hard-working citizens who contribute to the fabric of American society on a daily basis; men, women, and children from all over the world lured to the greatest city on earth.
Who are these bloggers with their hate-filled, vitriolic rants? Do they live in our neighbourhoods, take our subways, or send their children to our public schools? Do they pass by the wreckage of Ground Zero on a daily basis?
On that day, when hundreds of thousands of Muslim-American New Yorkers came face to face with unimaginable death and destruction, walking away with a renewed commitment to embodying a message of tolerance amidst a society engulfed in hate — on that day when many Muslim-Americans lost their lives along with Christians, Buddhists and Hindus — where were these hate-mongers then?
Individuals for whom "New York" is nothing but an abstraction and a cheap talking point — what gives them the right to determine how we honour the "memory of 9/11"? Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer was right; it is such hate speech that truly "disgraces the memories" of the victims of 9/11.
Archaic notions of ‘us' vs ‘them'
So many in our society remain mired in archaic notions of "us" vs "them", of "the same" vs. "the other", failing to realise how useless these constructs are in this day and age. Last month, for example, Senator Charles Schumer told a gathering of Orthodox Jews that it makes sense to strangle "them" economically, referring to the people of Gaza.
He failed to realise, of course, that there are thousands of Palestinian-Americans, loyal hard-working citizens, who live in our midst, some even in his very district. What a surprise, Senator — "they" turn out to be "us".
Similarly, there are those who say "don't let those Muslims build a mosque near Ground Zero." Do they realise that there are already more than 100 mosques in New York City? And no, this isn't a plot to take over America — the oldest was built more than 70 years ago.
And then there is my generation, those who were born and raised in this country, brought up in the uniquely diverse milieu of New York.
"Those Muslims hate our way of life," we are told. Such an ignorant statement shows that some people cannot accept the simple fact that Muslims can be Americans and so many Americans can be Muslims; that Muslims can be New Yorkers and New Yorkers — 800,000 of them — can be Muslims.
We have found the other — and they turn out to be none other than us.
Hamdan Azhar is a PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Chicago. He holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Penn State. He is a product of New York City public schools and is a native of Brooklyn.