The Mosque by Ground Zero: A Lesson from the Crusades
Nine years after September 11, 2001, we are still facing one fundamental question. Who is our enemy? There are two answers. One based in the truth. One based in a lie.
One answer is that Islam itself is the enemy of America and Western civilization. That all Muslims are terrorists, or at least sympathetic to the use of terrorism to advance their political agendas. After years of hearing news stories about Muslim terrorists from the shoe bomber to the underwear bomber to the Times Square bomber, it is completely understandable that many Americans find that answer to be a simple statement of obvious fact.
It is an understandable perspective. And it is a complete lie.
The truth is that our enemy is actually a small group of radical, sociopathic and extremely dangerous individuals who happen to call themselves Muslims. The vast, vast majority of 1.5 billion Muslims have nothing to do with this extremist death cult that makes a mockery of their faith. This global Muslim community is in fact our most effectively ally against these monsters that seek to destroy both America and mainstream Islam – it was a Muslim vendor that tipped off the police about the suspicious SUV in Times Square, a fact that remains unknown to most Americans.
Of course, the lie is easier to believe and requires one only to sit back and look at the surface of events, rather than take the time and effort to dive beneath the stormy waters of the news to learn what is really going on in this world. Truth is a treasure that is often buried in a minefield of complex facts that is just too much trouble to explore for most people. And so the lie continues that Islam itself is the enemy, that Muslims are collectively responsible for the handful of terrorist serial killers that claim to be one of them.
The conflict between the truth and the lie is now reaching its apex in the public sphere of the media, which profits from the Manichean worldview of “us versus them.” The announcement by the Cordoba Initiative, a progressive, peaceful Muslim group, that it plans to build an Islamic Center two blocks away from Ground Zero in New York has finally brought this conflict out into the open.
Predictably, politicians and media blowhards are seizing on this development to cry out that “the terrorists have won.” Congressman Peter King (R-NY) calls the plans for the mosque “offensive and wrong.” Brian Kilmeade on Fox & Friends asked whether it was “almost taunting to put a community center right by the attack perpetrated by a group of extremist Muslims.” And Steve Doocy (also on Fox) questioned whether the mosque’s presence was “a great insult.”
These are also the same individuals in the media who have perpetuated the lie that Muslims are not speaking out or fighting against terrorism. So when a progressive Muslim group like the Cordoba Initiative arises, its existence is problematic for the black-and-white worldview of the Islamophobes. When a Muslim group stands tall and says it rejects terrorism and wants to create an Islamic Center dedicated to building bridges of love and community between people of faiths, its existence provokes outrage. For the very presence of a progressive, peaceful mosque near Ground Zero invalidates the claim by both the Muslim fanatics and their mirror images among the anti-Muslim bigots that America and Islam are enemies.
I promise you, Al Qaeda and its supporters have no love for the Cordoba Initiative, which they view as a bunch of weak, liberal Muslims who are putting out the fire of their twisted vision of jihad and replacing it with calls for brotherhood with “infidels.” I know this from personal experience. After I published my first novel on the birth of Islam, Mother of the Believers, I received death threats from Muslim extremists, who see me as a traitor and apostate, using my position in the media to promote peace rather than a war of civilizations. And at the same time, I have been flooded by emails from Islamophobes who like to believe that I am some kind of sleeper agent infiltrating Hollywood to promote a false vision of a peaceful Islam while hiding my true “Islamist agenda.”
So I understand the pain of the organizers of the mosque, who are now forced to defend their integrity from all sides. Good people like Daisy Khan, whom I know and admire, and progressive Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who must endure insults from extremists in all camps that do not wish to see a mosque dedicated to supporting peace and fighting fundamentalism.
But let me make one thing clear — as an American, I really do understand why there is outrage over the building of this mosque near Ground Zero. I remember walking around in a daze that terrible day in 2001 when fire rained from the sky, trying desperately to get in touch with family and friends in New York to see if they were alive. I know that most of those who express revulsion to the idea of a mosque near Ground Zero are coming from an authentic place of sincere emotion. They naturally equate the terror of September 11th with Islam, because the murderers themselves that day did that.
But I also know that these monsters had no more to do with my faith than the Crusaders did with true Christianity.
And it is instructive to look back to the Crusades, another time Muslims and Christians were trapped in a “holy war” whose legacy would poison relations between these two religions of Abraham for centuries. When we examine the history of the Crusades, we find remarkable parallels with events in the news today. A civilization that was the global leader in art, science, education and culture was forced to repel vicious attacks from impoverished and backwards countries, led by fanatics targeting innocent civilians in the name of God. But in those days, the advanced civilization was Muslim and the terrorists were Christian.
In my upcoming novel, Shadow of the Swords, I examine the Crusades from a Muslim point of view. I begin with a terrifying memory of the First Crusade in 1099 C.E., which remains very much imprinted on Muslim cultural history. A time when Christian warriors descended on Jerusalem and slaughtered its 70,000 inhabitants – men, women and children. Muslim civilians were butchered in the name of Christ, along with Arab Christians who had the misfortune of being dark skinned and looking like “the enemy.” The Jews of Jerusalem were herded by the Crusaders into the city’s main synagogue and burned alive. According to the Crusader’s own chroniclers, the streets of Jerusalem ran with blood in rivers.
But the annihilation of the civilian population of Jerusalem was not the worst crime of the Crusaders. In the village of Ma’arra, Crusaders cannibalized the local population – eating men, women and children in an orgy of horror that has never been forgotten by the Islamic world. To this day, the Crusaders are referred to in the Middle East as “the cannibals.”
I think any Christian who reads this will be revolted by the sordid story, and will automatically denounce these monsters as having nothing to do with Christianity — even though the Crusaders would have disagreed. To these medieval terrorists, their brand of horror was true Christianity, of which they were proud. Incredible as it sounds, these barbarians sincerely believed they were doing the will of Christ.
The Crusaders were, of course, wrong. And despite the scars these terrorist acts left on the Muslim psyche, Muslims have never blamed the entire Christian community for the actions of these monsters, nor do Muslims today believe that mainstream Christians are of the same character as the Crusaders.
And the proof that Muslims always understood the difference between these vile “Christian” terrorists and true Christianity can be seen in how the Muslims chose to treat the Christians of the Holy Land after the Crusader kingdom was defeated in 1187 C.E. Saladin, the Muslim leader who retook Jerusalem after the pivotal battle of Hattin, was in a position to avenge the horror perpetrated by the Crusaders, not just a century before, but in his contemporary times. For the Crusader kingdom was still led by vicious killers, men like Reginald of Kerak, the Osama Bin Laden of his day. Reginald was a French nobleman consumed with such hatred of Muslims that he launched regular terrorist attacks on caravans passing near the kingdom, massacring civilians without remorse or pity. Reginald even organized a raid into the Muslim holy city of Mecca and was set upon invading Medina and desecrating the grave of Prophet Muhammad until Saladin’s forces routed him.
Reginald’s fanaticism was viewed with dismay by more moderate leaders in the Christian camp, who feared that these extremists tactics would create such outrage that the divided Muslim forces would find common cause and march upon Jerusalem. Their fears proved correct, and Reginald’s savagery gave Saladin the rallying cry he needed to mount a unified military response, which toppled the century-old Crusader kingdom.
When the Muslim army bore down upon the gates of Jerusalem, the Christian population prepared itself for what they expected would be terrifying retribution. And yet, at the moment of his greatest victory, Saladin remembered the rules of war established by Prophet Muhammad over five hundred years before. Instead of doing to the Christians what they had done to the Muslims, he gave the Christian population a general amnesty. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, they had turned the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s holiest sites in the city, into a church, and banned Muslim entry into the city. But when Saladin took Jerusalem back, he chose not to do the same to his Christian adversaries. He guaranteed protection for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the right for Christian pilgrims to visit the Holy Land. Saladin further allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem after Christians had expelled them.
Saladin’s magnanimity was renowned by medieval historians, even among Christians, who were perplexed that an “infidel” would show mercy while the “true believers” had chosen barbarity. Saladin’s example single-handedly shattered many Christians’ negative perception of Islam and made them question whether the cruel and backwards version of Christianity that they was being sold by the Church of the time actually reflected the teachings of Christ.
Saladin’s willingness to overcome the emotional need for revenge and the foolish simplicity of judging an entire community by the action of an evil few marked him as one of the greatest men of history. Saladin was tested by God and history, and he was found worthy.
So now, eight hundred years later, we in America are being similarly tested. We are under attack by a small group of deadly Muslim fanatics. We can choose to use that as an excuse to brand the entire Muslim community as our enemy Or we can follow the best that is in our historical tradition and differentiate truth from falsehood. We can scapegoat a billion innocents, or we can work with those people to unite against a few extremely dangerous and destructive individuals.
How we as Americans choose to react to the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero will reveal who we are as a people. And the judgment of history will place us either in the company of villains like the Crusaders, who cared not for the difference between the innocent and the guilty, or in the company of noble heroes like Saladin, who are honored even by their adversaries.
I have lived in America long enough to know that despite the Crusader rhetoric in the media, we are a nation of Saladins at heart.