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NYC's 'Neighborhood of Conscience'

August 20, 2010

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he wrote about African philanthropy.)

Cordoba_house Lower Manhattan is many things to many people: hub of global finance, a mosaic of ethnic enclaves, funky residential neighborhood with breath-taking views of New York harbor, and, of course, backdrop for the most devastating of the September 11 terrorist attacks. But thanks to a series of unrelated real estate transactions over the years, it has also emerged as the world's first "neighborhood of conscience." That term was coined in the 1990s after the Rockefeller Foundation invited a seemingly disparate group of nonprofit visionaries to its conference center in Bellagio, Italy -- a group that included the leadership of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, Russia's Gulag Museum, and the District 6 Museum in South Africa, among others.

At that meeting, these nonprofits found common cause: a shared commitment to relating the past to the present, building "lasting cultures of human rights," and engaging "ordinary people in dialogue on social issues...through the establishment of sites [of conscience]."

In recognition of its importance, the sites of conscience movement has attracted the support of a number of foundations and philanthropies over the years, including the Compton Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Lambent Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Oak Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

The emergence of Lower Manhattan as a neighborhood of concience has occurred organically, with many nonprofits and cultural groups having set up shop or established memorials over the last decade on the footprint of what was once New Amsterdam. They include:

The newest group looking to establish a presence in this storied neighborhood is, of course, Cordoba House. Unlike its predecessors, however, plans for the 13-story Islamic community center and mosque have generated a firestorm of controversy. On Tuesday, New York governor David Patterson offered to mediate a solution to what has turned into a regrettable stalemate between the community center's supporters and First Amendment advocates on one side and opponents of the so-called Ground Zero mosque on the other.

Many veterans of the New York nonprofit scene, including myself, have worked with Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and a board member of Cordoba House and can vouch for her unquestioned integrity and inspiring work on behalf of Muslims in America. Just as important is her long-term commitment to build lasting bridges between the American Muslim community and members of other faith communities. (Ed. note: Khan is married to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder and CEO of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and, with his wife, co-organizer of the Park51 project.)

Cordoba House's leadership, mission, and plans for the site on Park Place all make it worthy of a location in Manhattan's neighborhood of conscience. That's presumably why the local community board's financial committee voted unanimously in support of the new center and mosque.

We in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector have much to gain from increased engagement with the nearly seven million Muslims who call America home. When I served as a program officer at the Ford Foundation responsible for the foundation's grantmaking to strengthen global philanthropy, I was often reminded by my Turkish colleagues that the very first foundations were established in Anatolia over a thousand years ago.

Please join with me in calling on Governor Patterson and other civic-minded Americans to lend their support to reaffirming Lower Manhattan as the world's first "neighborhood of conscience."  I, for one, will be sending a check to Cordoba House.

(Photo Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)


Journey Into America: The Challenge Of Islam
by Akbar Ahmed
Brookings Press, 2007

What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam
by John L. Esposito
Oxford University Press, 2002

The Island At the Center of the World
by Russell Shorto
Bantam, 2004

-- Michael Seltzer

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Posted by Brigid  |   August 20, 2010 at 06:02 PM

For a great article on Islam + architecture in relation to the World Trade Center, see this">http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2010/08/capitalisms-mecca.html">this link.

Let's just say the fact that the controversy over a building for Muslims, and that WTC was destroyed by radicals associating themselves with Islam, is irony indeed compared to the architecture of the towers.
- Brigid

Posted by Mary Ann Newman  |   August 21, 2010 at 12:31 PM

The city that grew from south to north on the island of Mannahatta was founded on the principles of freedom to worship and separation of church and state. It is intrinsically a neighborhood of conscience and it is poetic justice that it is home to a series of institutions that continue to uphold and pay homage to these ideals. Thanks to Michael Seltzer for framing this important aspect of the discussion. I would gladly join in the campaign to call downtown Manhattan--all of Manhattan!--a "neighborhood of conscience."

Posted by Michael Bartlett  |   August 21, 2010 at 01:07 PM

Excellent comparative analysis. First amendment rights are broad and at the core of our American values. Even Justice Scalia sides with first amendment rights that include the right to burn the American flag, as disgusting as it is.

With that being said, I believe and I think Michael would agree, the location of the mosque is a local community matter and much debate is warranted and this goes beyond the elected leaders. I'm not sure that we have had enough debate at this point, I feel a certain acceptance (or mutual dissatisfaction) by both sides of the debate will be needed before moving forward on a location.

Posted by DJ  |   August 23, 2010 at 12:16 PM

In Seltzer's world, it seems bridges only go one way. Nobody denies their right to build, or their right to worship. However, if Mrs. Khan really wanted to build bridges, it would be a tremendous goodwill gesture to recognize the legitimate issues opponents of the plan have, and voluntarily move the building elsewhere.

It's very hard to engage with people when you have just offended a large segment of them. I'm afraid I'll have to cut my check to the opposition in this case.

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   August 23, 2010 at 01:02 PM

Many thanks to Brigid, Mary Ann, Michael and DJ for adding their comments to my article.

What is most needed now is as many platforms as possible for honest dialogue and conversation. My prime interest is shedding 'light' rather than 'heat' on the issues that have surfaced over the placement of a Muslim cultural, educational and spiritual center in Lower Manhattan.

In response to DJ's particular comment, Daisy Khan and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, have been building two-way bridges every day of their lives, which is why the US State Department has sent him on several international public speaking tours. Here is a link to State's website on one such engagement.


Nicholas D. Kristrof in his Sunday New York Times column yesterday makes a similar point.he called them 'the real thing'.

Michael Seltzer

Posted by S Rashid  |   August 23, 2010 at 02:35 PM

Michael, thanks for your informative post. New York City never ceases to amaze me with its diversity and rich cultural history. Integrating the Cordoba House into the 'neighborhood of conscience' would be an important platform for the dialogue and listening that is needed in today's world...

Not to mention the swimming pool, auditorium, arts center, basketball court, and culinary school that is needed downtown. I would guess that this is why the local community board overwhelmingly voted to support this project.

To commenter DJ, I agree it is necessary for supporters to listen to opponents' respectful concerns. I also agree with you that it's very hard to engage people when you start out offending them. I hope you see that many cordoba house supporters have been offended by the insulting and inflammatory rhetoric that some opponents have been using. I ask you to see this from a slightly different perspective...

I am a Muslim who lives in downtown NYC who would benefit tremendously from this project. I would love to go to Friday prayers at the Cordoba House and then shoot some hoops with my Mulsim and non-Muslim friends and maybe even learn how to make falafel afterwards. I attend Masjid Al-Farah (Imam Feisal leads this Masjid) and went last week to Park 51 for Friday prayers. The sermons have never been even close to extreme. Instead they are about compassion, humility, spiritual development, tolerance, and kindness to your fellow man. This is the true Islam. We reject the extremists who distort our faith and commit murder.

I am open to this project moving to another location as you suggest, but can you guarantee that another location in downtown NYC will be far enough away from Ground Zero? Can you guarantee that the zoning will be approved and that there will be no problems with landmark status? What do you do to compensate the developer who has already invested significant money in advancing the current project? I am not being flippant, but instead I am just bringing up certain practical issues that would need to be addressed.

Who knows, maybe different stakeholders can come together and find a new location that suits everyone. No matter what happens, I hope we can build the two-way bridge that you refer to.

Posted by DJ  |   August 23, 2010 at 02:49 PM


If they are indeed "the real thing", then they seem to have made an unfortunate unforced error, and shown some measure of insensitivity in regards to choosing the building site. Or perhaps it is more accurate they misread the situation.

But I do appreciate the thought, to have honest discussion on this issue, because there's precious little of that to be found.

Posted by DJ  |   August 23, 2010 at 04:52 PM

"I am open to this project moving to another location as you suggest, but can you guarantee that another location in downtown NYC will be far enough away from Ground Zero? Can you guarantee that the zoning will be approved and that there will be no problems with landmark status? What do you do to compensate the developer who has already invested significant money in advancing the current project? I am not being flippant, but instead I am just bringing up certain practical issues that would need to be addressed"

>>> S Rashid-

All entirely fair and reasonable issues to mention. I agree that any move would have to have these issues addressed in a speedy manner to the developers satisfaction.

Posted by S Rashid  |   August 23, 2010 at 08:59 PM

DJ, you may be right that there was a misreading of the situation and/or an 'unforced error' (your choice of words here are good and also make me wish they were building tennis courts too). However, there is a practical and boring explanation to their choice of location that has nothing to do with insensitivity. The building was cheap, available, near multiple subways and downtown. It filled a need in a neighborhood that requires services to support its growing residential population and a prayer space for the numerous Muslims who live and work downtown.

I truly believe that the developer, Imam Feisal, and Ms. Khan view this project as a way to condemn the extremists who kill and promote hate. I think they believed that people would understand that they strive for peace, community, and interfaith dialogue and would appreciate their intentions. Maybe it was naive, but I don't think it was deliberately insensitive.

Posted by Caterina Bertolotto  |   August 25, 2010 at 09:24 AM

Bravo Michael for building bridges for a consciousness of unity, that can manifest in institutions in lower Manhattan. Should I hate Germans forever for killing my partisan uncles? My best friend is a German woman who suffered tremendously for the loss of her father (when she was 5) and maybe he was the one who shot my uncle, because he was forced to, as a soldier, or indoctrinated he was doing the right thing... I believe in forgiveness and making peace. I know we women can feel the unity of all people and go behind flags of division. I think it's important to raise above, and show the world, and the extremists, who we are and what we stand for.

Posted by Pat  |   August 25, 2010 at 10:47 PM

Michael - Thanks very much for such a research-driven and thoughtful perspective on this situation. It is a sad commentary on the state of our democracy that the partisan and ill-informed yet vehement objections to this projects receive so much media coverage. If anyone knows how to get this information to the NY Times and other outlets, it should definitely be forwarded.


Posted by Hadas Ziv  |   August 26, 2010 at 10:13 AM

I have read your article and found it so relaxing to know there is still sanity around, and people who see people and not "threats" all around. I hope it will be resolved and the center will be established.
Hadas Ziv, Tel Aviv

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   August 26, 2010 at 11:22 AM

Many thanks to Pat and Hadas for continuing this dialogue of conscience and reason. Yesterday's brutal assault of a Muslim New York City cab driver and reports of a Florida minister's plans to burn copies of the Koran too vividly demonstrate how the situation has gotten out of hand. Time magazine's cover article on Islamaphobia in America raises some hard questions that must be addressed as part of this conversation.

On the hopeful side, yesterday's gathering of interfaith leadership in support of the plans for Park 51/Cordoba House on the steps of City Hall is a great step forward.

I find myself looking for as much literature as possible that helps extend the public's knowledge of Islam. Another helpful text is:ISLAM: Religion of Life, by Abdul Wadod Shalabi (www.startlatch.com).

Let's keep the discussion going!

Michael Seltzer

Posted by Gretchen  |   August 26, 2010 at 02:45 PM

Michael makes a good point about the institutions in Lower Manhattan that tell stories about various cultures and events...in fact, the entire history of Lower Manhattan itself is one of diverse people. The NY Times just published an interesting piece on Little Syria as Lower Manhattan was known at the turn of the last century...

however I am not sure I "buy" that the proposed Cordoba center is a center of conscience...but that's a detail. It does not matter.

The Cordoba Center has every right to be there nor does it show any lack of sensitivity to the events of 9/11. To equate Moslems with terrorists is like saying that all Catholic priests are sex offenders...it's blatantly wrong and offensive.

Good for Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Christie, the only elected officials who seem to have the courage of their conviction....

Gretchen Dykstra, Founding President, 9/11 Memorial Foundation

Posted by DJ  |   August 30, 2010 at 11:52 AM


You cite two isolated instances (one unfortunately violent, done by a mentally disturbed man, not even conclusively linked to the controversy) as proof the situation has "gotten out of hand"?

You gotta be kidding me. You'd think there were ongoing pogroms with that kind of alarmism. If anything, the national debate is pretty civil overall.

This is not an "islamaphobic" nation. Look at the number of annual instances of anti-islamic incidents starting post 9/11 onwards. It's basically in line with other similar types of incidents.

"Islamophobia" - much like "racist" - are just words being bandied about to try to stop the debate.

Posted by Shahnaz Taplin Chinoy  |   August 30, 2010 at 04:35 PM

Thank you for providing a historical perspective on the community center/mosque at Park 51. I appreciated you sharing the concept of "sites of conscience" embraced by major foundations and non-profits after 9/11. The proposed efforts to locate a multi-purpose community center, rooted in interfatih bridge building, conforms to the thinking behind sites of conscience and is led by two visionaries Imam Feizal and Daisy Khan who have both a comittment and track record supporting a tolerant and peaceful Islam.

Posted by Bea Kreloff  |   September 04, 2010 at 07:00 PM

I can't believe that we need this discussion on what is right in New York. We live in a community that we chose to live in because we believe in the right of people to worship what they believe in. I am a first generation Jewish immigrant and am appalled not only about the Cordoba house hysteria but about the whole immigration attitude in this country. We are all immigrants, whether first or tenth generation how dare any of us deny immigrants who need protection, safety, and support. I know Michael that you are trying to keep this dialogue at a civilized level but I cannot help but express my disappointment at the muck that has arisen from this incident.

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   September 05, 2010 at 02:24 PM

Tikkun magazine has published an important article titled "What If They Opposed A Shul" . I urge all to read it (the link is below). The author brings an important voice and perspective to this ongoing discussion. This is time for people of faith, believers in the constitution, and any others that seek reason over bigotry to raise their voices.


Posted by DJ  |   September 08, 2010 at 04:29 PM

"This is time for people of faith, believers in the constitution, and any others that seek reason over bigotry to raise their voices"

So much wrong in so few words.

First of all, I'm tired of such casual throwaway lines like "seek reason over bigotry" - congratulations Michael. The man who wanted to shed "light" instead of "heat" over this issue has just casually dismissed people he disagrees with as bigots. Well, your honesty (finally at least) is appreciated.

As for "believers in the Constitution" - yet another canard. You know very well that the debate isn't about CAN they build (they absolutely can), but SHOULD they build. Two very different things.

Posted by Ruth Browne  |   September 09, 2010 at 01:08 PM

Thank you for your courageous stance in support of Cordoba House. We should be seizing opportunities to create cross cultural exchange and understanding, especially in these times. As MLK said injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere and we cannot afford to tolerate injustice anywhere.

There are anti-racist, culturally evolved and progressive people everywhere that support the establishment of Cordoba House. I encourage more to let their voices be heard.
Ruth Browne

Posted by Allison Jeffrey  |   September 10, 2010 at 06:14 PM

Thank you, Michael for your comments and support of Cordoba House. Aside from the fact that the center has every right to be at its proposed location, I think that the best thing we can do to fight terrorism and to heal is to welcome Cordoba House into the community close to the former WTC and support its success. The more our cultures intermingle, the more we can educate each other and enjoy the richness of our many ethnic diversities.

Unfortunately fear drives many to associate Islam with the attacks on the WTC, but as Imam Faisal Rauf mentions, "the 911 conspirators no more represent Islam than the abortion clinic bomber, Eric Rudolph represents Christianity". I applaud his courage and hope he'll continue to stand strong.

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