Ground Zero remembered, but its real message is being hijacked

The consequences of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. have sucked the world into a frightening debate over religious freedom and how far that value should extend, Lorna Dueck writes.

The consequences of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. have sucked the world into a frightening debate over religious freedom and how far that value should extend.

An Islamic community centre and mosque proposed for a site two blocks from Ground Zero, and a threat to use Sept. 11 as "International Burn a Qur'an Day," show us that the Golden Rule of "do unto others as you would have done unto you" is a fragile currency among the faithful of the world's largest religions. Both Muslims and Christians are rife with fears that undermine the love and peace that faith in God should exemplify.

A Florida preacher who calls for the burning of the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, does not express Christianity any more than did the Ku Klux Klan, who hijacked a Christian cross to make their point. The power of media propelled pastor Terry Jones from being one unaccountable, minuscule player in the farthest margins of Protestant faith, into a global menace. Terry Jones is Christianity's nightmare.

Imams are equally outraged to discover North America is full of Christians who think all they need to understand about Islam can be learned from media reports that link it to terrorism.

Meanwhile, at Ground Zero the truth of Sept. 11's legacy — of what it means to respond to a terror campaign with heroism and love for our neighbour — is a message that gets hijacked. This is the year discussions on Sept. 11 moved openly into religious polarization and Islamophobia, when it should be a day to remind the world of the capacity for good and evil that lie within each human heart.

Lee Ielipi gets that. An educator with the September 11th  Families Association, a long-retired New York firefighter, he's president of the Tribute Center that contains the faces, voices and violence of the 2001 attack. It includes pictures of the 60 Muslims who were among the nearly 3,000 who died in the Twin Towers that day.

"What does a firefighter live for? He lives for you!" he says as he punches the air to emphasize the laying down of life that is required for human safety.

Lee Ielpi, of the September 11th Families Association (right), stands beside his son John's jacket.

Behind him in a glass display case is the FDNY jacket of his son John, who perished in the rescue operation. "He was one of only 174 people who was found whole. They found him after three months of searching, and firefighters always carry out our own, so his brother and I brought him out," said Ielipi.

He leads the September 11 Families Association in its lobbying to have terrorism education part of the school curriculum, all in the hopes of developing a more peaceful, tolerant planet. He will not comment on the proposal for the mosque around the corner, nor the plan to use Sept. 11 as a day to burn a Qur'an. In his mind, the important thing is to consider what it will take to foster a more peaceful planet.  

At the Tribute Center, Canadian Maureen Basnicki, a regular volunteer tour guide, points out the picture of her husband, Ken, one of 24 Canadians who perished in the attacks. Part of Ken's legacy is the Canadian Coalition Against Terror that Maureen co-founded, and while she is not a supporter of a mosque at the proposed location near Ground Zero, she feels the controversy shows how badly we have misunderstood the consequences of terrorism. She argues that sensitivity is so high for the lives lost, plans to construct a mosque in the area are offensive.

Meanwhile, our North American understanding of Islam is so limited that the announced plans to build the mosque are having the exact opposite effect that peace-proponent Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf hoped for. Instead, powerful media pundits have put into their fast-paced commentary a selection of foreign-sounding words, like Qur'an,  taqiyya, kitman, fatwa and jihad, to stoke controversy.

Compile such fear-mongering with glaring examples of international human rights abuses in Muslim majority countries, and Islam knows it is facing the public relations battle of the century.

To overcome it, they will need to reach for the teachings of the prophet Jesus, whom they revere. "Love your enemies" is what Jesus said, even where there is no reciprocal value.

Christians are expected to be zealous when it comes to that command, and it's an impossible quest when our ruling instinct is to be suspicious of that which is different than ourselves. 

Which brings us back to the memories that are to be preserved this day through the tributes for the victims of Sept. 11.

People of all kind died that day in going about the business of what it means to be human. We can honour that crisis in history by facing our fear of those who are different, and continuing to wrestle out the inner strength needed to do to each other only what we would like done to ourselves.