Building Hope, Building Community, Building Beauty: Park51 in 2011

Even though we New Yorkers shiver with the cold and complain if our streets remain unplowed, a New Year begins; offering at least a symbol of hope. And along with hope, many of us may perceive new opportunities; a time to build.

Work begins on the Park51 Community Project. For the moment, angry voices fade further into the background and we are able to focus more clearly on the emerging vision of this new community resource. I find I am especially interested that Park51 will offer food for body, mind, and soul. Recreational facilities will complement the spiritual space.

As a Muslim, I relate this holistic approach to the central Islamic concept of Tawheed— the sense of inner unity, and the integration of the human person into right relationship. We are not simply minds and bodies, consumers or voters but exist in many deeper dimensions. You and I can recognize our essential nature and our purpose in life. For Muslims, this means developing a relationship to God.

However you see it, many of us find that maintaining a sense of peace and unity within the self is challenged by the stress of modern life. To address such stress, spiritually-based healing traditions have long existed within Islamic culture. Some of these teachings even inspired some schools of psychology in the West. While these traditions are currently less common in the Muslim world, this is not irreversible. Together, Muslims and people of all backgrounds can work to build awareness. Human needs are individual, but we all share the deepest needs.

In the last 20 years, the New York City Muslim community has grown very quickly. But unlike the awe-inspiring mosques in historically Muslim countries, most of our local mosques show little regard for beauty. When I visit other houses of worship in interfaith programs, I am always impressed. Should I look down my nose at such beauty? We Muslims now need to consider how physical space speaks to the whole person through arts, architecture – even lighting. We need to include the dimension that speaks to the heart. Truly, most of us need exterior conditions to remind us to be in touch with something greater than ourselves. Otherwise, after prayers we quickly — almost instantly– forget that state of unity. Our cell phone rings!

In the latest (Jan 2011) issue of Tribeca Tribune, I see that a local beauty shop has included a quote from the Sufi Muslim poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, in their advertisement: “Let the beauty we love be what we do.” What a message for us all — we can all be in the beauty business.

Also in that issue, I see an article about the Jewish Community Project opening a new space at 105 Chambers street, with classes for adults and children. How wonderful that all these projects are developing at the same time, serving the needs of a growing downtown population!

Though perspectives on Middle East conflicts will vary, there is and will continue to be much common ground for us all as neighbors. Park51 will be part of that common ground. It can spread the good news of co-existence that fear mongerers would ignore. And we don’t need to wait. Until January 29, Soho Photo gallery is showing photos taken by Norman Gershman of Albanian Muslims who sheltered thousands of Jews during World War Two, inspired by Islamic teachings.

Some day, similar bridge building events will also take place at Park51! Let’s work together for that day.

Adem Carroll is a New York Irish Muslim with a background in human rights and community education in Istanbul, Marrakech and New York. After 9/11, he directed disaster relief and civil liberties projects with ICNA Relief USA. From its inception in late 2003, Adem Carroll helped guide Muslim Consultative Network, serving first as Board Chair and then Executive Director through summer 2010. In addition to having written numerous articles, he has co-produced a radio show on Immigration on WBAI radio since 2004.

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