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     Volume 9 Issue 38| October 01, 2010 |


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Mausumi Mahapatro

The latest morality play is set in America near the place where thousands shrieked in terror, thrust into untimely deaths inside a monumental building on the brink of full-blown collapse. One can only imagine what passed through the minds of those hapless enough to have died on this fateful day, time and place: God, perhaps, or simply a blind, godless seizure of terror as for a man who wakes up to find himself pitch blind or deaf, or both. Our Kafka heroes would understand the absurdity of such circumstance that catapults the mundane, daily office-going venture into a searing, frantic journey into the jaws of death.

So when an Imam obtains a license from the City Council to construct an Islamic Center so near the place where terror struck, it is only a natural human inclination for those who lost their dear ones to that fateful day to vent anger for the sake of all the lives lost. Bigotry is not at all unnatural.

Possible ground for Park 51.

Present day morality deems it necessary to avenge crimes of brutality or those that are epic in their proportions; hence an electrocution, or a war, or the displacement of an entire people in the name of justice. For Palestine, what a twisted game of justice dealt for the perpetrators not to pay (eternally) for the crimes of the Holocaust but rather an unfortunate nation cornered by geography and the history of religious circumstance. Justice seems to have lost her compass and her skills in arithmetic at that! In less than a month's time following the fateful day of September, the United States went to war with Afghanistan where the number of lives lost far exceeds some three thousand lost in the chambers of the erstwhile modern grandeur of the World Trade Center.

But for how long must a crime be avenged and what moral code must we refer to in deciding what we owe to those who are no longer with us? Hamlet chose to avenge the death of his father; Antigone sought a proper ritual end to her brother's life. Both felt a deep moral compulsion to act in reverence to the dead. But if such reverence spawns a festival of deaths, incessant to the point of numbing disbelief or doleful apathy, when does retribution cease to become a moral exercise, if ever it was so?

The arguments have all been placed: that, it was Al Qaeda that is to blame, not Islam; that such a center will promote moderate Islam and inter-faith peace; that Muslims also died on September 11th; that freedom of worship cannot be forfeited and so on. These rational arguments and principles perhaps hold no credence to the families of those who were laid to rest nearly a decade ago; anger, bitterness, and the innate human need to remain loyal to the dead whom we loved, honoured or held as our own kind cannot be untangled through the cold machinery of logic. The opposing camp also has their arguments: that it would represent a victory of Islam (over Christianity) and that it would dishonor those who died.

For a nation despised by so many, the very existence of such a debate bears testimony to some level of moral progression, albeit far from complete. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Council have spearheaded a progressive movement for understanding across faiths that is hard to fathom in another nation in the present day. Take for example Gujarat, India where subsequent to the Hindu Muslim riots and the carnage that ensued, the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, was reelected despite his infamous involvement in the pogroms against Muslims, and remains the longest serving Chief Minister to that state. Or the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) movement to build a Ram Temple at the site where the Babri Mosque was demolished by angry mobs. It is hard to foresee Manmohan Singh seeking to rebuild the Babri Mosque in a quest for peace and understanding unless perhaps a ghost appears to him in the form of Mahatma Gandhi.

Ground Zero.

Nevertheless, America is hardly the purveyor of morality in a world gone awry. Perhaps we are all being far too sentimental over Park 51. As it is, it seems rhetorical to presume that the construction of a $100 million dollar Islamic Center near Ground Zero can promote greater inter-faith understanding or assuage Islamic militancy, though on principle, its construction should not be blocked in a nation founded on the basis of freedom and pluralism. It would seem more likely, however, that the elimination of the roughly $3 billion dollar annual disbursement of aid to Israel would make far greater in-roads in promoting peace and harmony across faiths. Unfortunately, very little national or global debate seems to be coming forth when it comes to these matters.

And so, we appear to be more comfortable discussing and debating mere symbols of inter-faith accord than with the construction of peace itself.


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