Choosing Freedom not Fear: Dispute about Muslim Community Centre near Ground Zero

Editor’s Choice

23 August 2010
Choosing Freedom not Fear
Dispute about Muslim Community Centre near Ground Zero

By Joshua M. Z. Stanton
Terrorism is brutal and devastating, and its ultimate goal is fear. Terrorists hope to set allies against each other and build tension between compatriots. The atrocities carried out by terrorists on September 11, 2001 were particularly devastating and, in many ways, the fear generated by the attacks is still being felt today.

Since this spring, critics have condemned a proposed Muslim community centre in Lower Manhattan, formerly known as the Cordoba House. The community centre’s leaders recently changed its name to Park51, referring to its address at 51 Park Place, in part to emphasise that it will be located several blocks from Ground Zero and that it is hardly the “Ground Zero Mosque” it had been branded.

When built, Park51 will feature “a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores, [and] restaurants” and will be a “cultural nexus” for New York City, according to one of its sponsoring organisations, the Cordoba Initiative, which promotes positive Muslim–Western relations and interfaith dialogue.

A terribly irony

Though hosted by a Muslim group, and indeed equipped with a Muslim prayer room, it will be open to all New Yorkers and full of all the facilities of a top-notch community centre.

In spite of Park51’s clear value to the city and its citizens, its location several blocks from Ground Zero has prompted protests that aim to keep some Muslim Americans from practicing their faith in freedom and peace, and from opening their doors in a truly American way to welcome guests from all faith traditions.

The terrible irony is that under the guise of fighting extremism, some critics of Park51 are unwittingly furthering the agenda of the terrorists who attacked us so viciously on 9/11. The terrorists wanted us to be afraid. They wanted us to put our rights in jeopardy. They wanted us to believe that not all religions are welcome in America. They wanted us to undo ourselves by debasing our own principles.

Undermining democratic freedoms

Although the First Amendment of the US Constitution makes clear that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, it is ultimately up to American citizens to ensure that the principles enshrined in the Constitution are applied in full. When a religious group, in writ or practice, is kept from establishing a gathering place for the community, those ideals are undermined.

The protests against Park51 are all the more severe, as they undermine the freedom of a religious community seeking not only to build a gathering place for itself, but to provide a space that is open to Americans of all faiths.

As Americans, we must stand with Park51 as part of a free society. A new movement is afoot to do just that. Known as Religious Freedom USA (, the group seeks to protect all Americans’ right to religious freedom and is focusing its efforts specifically on Park51.

Protecting religious freedom

With a strong and diverse base of support in its board of advisors, Religious Freedom USA plans to unroll an online video campaign to amplify the voices of current and emerging leaders who are empowered by their faith and patriotism to support religious freedom and Park51. The video campaign will then be used to galvanise support across New York City and beyond for rallies and public demonstrations in support of Park51, and advocacy efforts spanning college campuses and congregations, seminaries and civic organisations.

As one of Religious Freedom USA’s co-founders, I have found my work both profoundly patriotic and deeply religious. As a Jew and future rabbi, I cannot pray with a full heart when others in the very same city are kept from gathering to do the same, especially when they seek to open their doors to others.

The great 1st century BCE Rabbi Hillel is famous for his saying, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; but if I am not for another, what am I?” I respond with his last line: “And if not now, when?”

Protecting religious freedom for all begins now. It begins at Park51. It begins with Religious Freedom USA.
© Common Ground News 2010

Joshua M. Z. Stanton is co-editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue ( and a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow at Hebrew Union College in New York City.

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/, Germany   –   21 Aug 10

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The Future of Hezbollah: Hemmed in on All Sides

Editor’s Choice

10 August 2010
The Future of Hezbollah
Hemmed in on All Sides

Given rising tension with Israel and possible indictments of its operatives by the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri, Lebanon’s powerful Shia political and paramilitary organization has never looked more uncertain.
By Paul Salem

The most immediate question concerns the possibility of another Israel-Hezbollah war, fears of which have mounted throughout this year, fuelled by reports of new missile transfers to Hezbollah and intermittent threats from Israel. Those who foresee war argue that Israel is unwilling to tolerate a heavily armed Iranian proxy on its border while tensions with Iran over the nuclear issue remain unresolved.

Although war is unlikely in the coming months, if sanctions on Iran don’t bear fruit by early 2011, Israel might feel the need to act. If it launched military strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations, Hezbollah would likely join the fray and Israel would have to engage Hezbollah at the same time. Alternatively, Israel might launch a pre-emptive war against Hezbollah in order to rob Iran of a nearby retaliatory capacity.

Arab-Israeli peace as a distinct possibility?

Hezbollah is preparing intensively for such scenarios, building defenses, digging tunnels, and assembling a powerful missile arsenal. But, although Hezbollah’s preparations are likely to ensure its survival, it would be hard-pressed to justify to the Lebanese public a strategy that led to two ruinous wars in the span of five years. In the end game of such a war, Syria might be asked by the Arab countries and the international community to take greater responsibility in Lebanon, in order to contain Hezbollah and its military profile.

Moreover, if peace prevents a slide into war, Hezbollah has another problem. Although a real breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli peace process appears unlikely, United States envoy George Mitchell is still talking of Arab-Israeli peace as a distinct possibility in 2011. Sources within the US administration hint that President Barack Obama might announce the outlines of an Arab-Israeli settlement sometime later this year.

Security of “all states in the region”

An accord between Syria and Israel is a key element of all proposed scenarios for Arab-Israeli peace. In exchange for giving back the occupied Golan Heights, Israel and the US will insist on the disarmament of Hezbollah. Indeed, within the context of the Arab Peace Plan, announced in Beirut in 2002, the Arab states take it upon themselves to ensure the security of “all states in the region” – code words for dealing with the threats from Hezbollah and Hamas – since the region includes Israel.

Although both Hezbollah and Iran still argue, perhaps correctly, that Israel will not give back the Golan Heights or allow the emergence of a Palestinian state, the possibility of peace cannot be ruled out. If it does occur, Syria will push Lebanon into a peace treaty with Israel and lean on Hezbollah heavily to adjust to the new realities.

Given its popularity among Lebanese Shia, Hezbollah could continue as an influential political party, but it would have to abandon its role as a major proxy force for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Nevertheless, Hezbollah faces severe political trouble, too. Although no official announcement has been made, there are reports that Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, might conclude his investigation and issue indictments in the fall.

An Israeli plot to undermine the Islamic resistance?

In a speech on July 16, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged rumours that the Tribunal might indict members of his party, but charged that the Tribunal was part of an Israeli plot to undermine the Islamic resistance in Lebanon and has no credibility. He argued that the indictments would probably be based on cell-phone records, and that Israeli agents had penetrated the Lebanese cell-phone network. Indeed, the Lebanese authorities recently arrested a high-level official at one of the country’s two cell-phone companies, alleging that he was an Israeli agent.

In describing the tribunal as part of an Israeli plot, Nasrallah warned the government and other parties in Lebanon against cooperating with it, or accepting its verdicts. He reminded his audience of the street fighting in Beirut in May 2008, and made clear that Hezbollah would not shy away from another fight if necessary.

While Hezbollah has tried to convince other Lebanese that its presence helps maintain the country’s security and stability, regional and international developments suggest that it faces mounting challenges. And, although the future does not look bright for Hezbollah, it is not likely to relinquish its power without a fight.
Paul Salem is Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut., Germany – 6 August 2010

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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The regime in Iran isn’t about to fall

Editor’s Choice

26 July 2010
The regime in Iran isn’t about to fall

Fareed Zakaria
AS Barack Obama goes through one of his most difficult periods as president, you might wonder what it would have been like if the other guy had won. We will never know, of course, but in one area, John McCain provides us with some clues. He would have tried to overthrow the government of Iran.
In a speech on June 10, later published as a cover essay in The New Republic, McCain urged that we “unleash America’s full moral power” to topple the Tehran regime. The speech highlights one of the crucial failings of McCain’s world view, one in which rhetoric replaces analysis, and fantasy substitutes for foreign policy. By now, it’s become something of a mantra among neo-conservatives that we missed a chance to transform Iran a year ago. Reuel Marc Gerecht, writing in The New York Times, compares Iran’s Green Movement to “what transpired behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s” and accuses Obama of being passive in the face of this historical moment. Bret Stephens, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, imagines that a more forceful Western response could have set off a revolution.
I have been deeply supportive of Iran’s Green Movement. I wrote glowingly about it, highlighted it on television, and showcased its advocates. But I do not think there is much evidence that it was likely to overthrow the Iranian regime.
To believe that, one has to believe the government in Tehran is deeply unpopular with a majority of Iranians, holds onto power through military force alone, and is thus vulnerable to a movement that could mobilise the vast majority in Iran who despise it. None of this is entirely true. The Iranian regime has many, many opponents, but it also has millions of supporters. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have actually lost the presidential election of 2009, but it was a close contest in which he got millions of votes. What little polling has been done in Iran, coupled with the observations of people who have been there, all suggest that the regime has considerable public support in rural areas, among the devout, and in poorer communities.
Newsweek’s Maziar Bahari, who was jailed by the government for four months on trumped-up charges, believes that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, remains the single most popular political figure in Iran.
McCain reveals a startling ignorance about the Iranian regime when he argues, in his speech, that it “spends its people’s precious resources not on roads, or schools, or hospitals, or jobs that benefit all Iranians — but on funding violent groups of foreign extremists who murder the innocent.”  While Tehran does fund militant groups, one of the keys to Ahmadinejad’s popularity has been his large-scale spending on social programs for the poor. The regime lays out far more money on those domestic programs than on anything abroad.
The comparison of Iran’s Green Revolution to the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe is mistaken. In 1989 dissidents had three forces on their side; nationalism (because communism had been imposed by force by a foreign power), religion (because communism repressed the church), and democracy. The Green Movement has only one; democracy. The regime has always used the religiosity of the people to its advantage, but it has also become skilled at manipulating nationalism.
In May, the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty was awarded to Akbar Ganji, one of the bravest advocates of nonviolent agitation and secular democracy for Iran. Ganji was jailed for six years in Evin Prison, mostly in solitary confinement, for his writings against the government. In his acceptance speech, Ganji explained that US foreign policy does have an impact on Iran’s freedom movement but not quite in the sense that neo-conservatives mean.
“Even entertaining the possibility of a military strike, especially when predicated on the nuclear issue,” Ganji said, “is beneficial to the fundamentalists who rule Iran. As such, the idea itself is detrimental to the democratic movement in my country.”
The regime bends international issues to its favour, and has become vocal about what Ganji calls the “gushing wound of Palestine … [which] worsens the infection of fundamentalism.” He pointed out that Tehran continually reminds Iranians of America’s “double standards” in opposing Iran’s nuclear program while staying silent about Israel’s arsenal of atomic weapons.
Ironically, those hoping to liberate Iranians are the very same people urging punitive sanctions and even military force against Iran. Do they think that when the bombs hit, they will spare those who wear green?
Fareed Zakaria is Editor, Newsweek International.
Newsweek International, USA   –   25 July 10
©Newsweek International. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement.

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