Tuesday, August 24, 2010

At the Heart of Ground Zero


20 AUG 2010 19:1426 Comments

[ 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.

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