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A Muslim victim of 9/11: 'Build your mosque somewhere else'

By Neda Bolourchi
Sunday, August 8, 2010; B05

I have no grave site to visit, no place to bring my mother her favorite yellow flowers, no spot where I can hold my weary heart close to her. All I have is Ground Zero.

On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, I watched as terrorists slammed United Flight 175 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, 18 minutes after their accomplices on another hijacked plane hit the North Tower. My mother was on the flight. I witnessed her murder on live television. I still cannot fully comprehend those images. In that moment, I died as well. I carry a hole in my heart that will never be filled.

From the first memorial ceremonies I attended at Ground Zero, I have always been moved by the site; it means something to be close to where my mother may be buried, it brings some peace. That is why the prospect of a mosque near Ground Zero -- or a church or a synagogue or any religious or nationalistic monument or symbol -- troubles me.

I was born in pre-revolutionary Iran. My family led a largely secular existence -- I did not attend a religious school, I never wore a headscarf -- but for us, as for anyone there, Islam was part of our heritage, our culture, our entire lives. Though I have nothing but contempt for the fanaticism that propelled the terrorists to carry out their murderous attacks on Sept. 11, I still have great respect for the faith. Yet, I worry that the construction of the Cordoba House Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center site would not promote tolerance or understanding; I fear it would become a symbol of victory for militant Muslims around the world.

When I am asked about the people who murdered my mother, I try to hold back my anger. I try to have a more spiritual perspective. I tell myself that perhaps what happened was meant to happen -- that it was my mother's destiny to perish this way. I try to take solace in the notion that her death has forced a much-needed conversation and reevaluation of the role of religion in the Muslim community, of the duties and obligations that the faith imposes and of its impact on the non-Muslim world.

But a mosque near Ground Zero will not move this conversation forward. There were many mosques in the United States before Sept. 11; their mere existence did not bring cross-cultural understanding. The proposed center in New York may be heralded as a peace offering -- may genuinely seek to focus on "promoting integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion through arts and culture," as its Web site declares -- but I fear that over time, it will cultivate a fundamentalist version of the Muslim faith, embracing those who share such beliefs and hating those who do not.

The Sept. 11 attacks were the product of a hateful ideology that the perpetrators were willing to die for. They believed that all non-Muslims are infidels and that the duty of Muslims is to renounce them. I am not a theologian, but I know that the men who killed my mother carried this message in their hearts and minds. Obedient and dutiful soldiers, they marched toward their promised rewards in heaven with utter disregard for the value of the human beings they killed.

I know Ground Zero is not mine alone; I must share this sanctuary with tourists, politicians, anyone who chooses to come, whatever their motivations or intentions. But a mosque nearby -- even a proposed one -- is already transforming the site from a sacred ground for reflection, so desperately needed by the families who lost loved ones, to a battleground for religious and political ideologies. So many people from different nationalities and religions were killed that day. This site should be a neutral place for all to come in peace and remember. I believe my mother would have thought so as well.

The Iranian revolution compelled my family to flee to America when I was 12 years old. Yet, just over two decades later, the militant version of our faith caught up with us on a September morning. I still identify as a Muslim. When you are born into a Muslim family, there is no way around it, no choices available: You are Muslim. I am not ashamed of my faith, but I am ashamed of what is done in its name.

On the day I left Ground Zero shortly after the tragedy, I felt that I was abandoning my mother. It was like being forced to leave the bedside of a loved one who is dying, knowing you will never see her again. But I felt the love and respect of all those around me there, and it reassured me that she was being left in good hands. Since I cannot visit New York as often as I would like, I at least want to know that my mother can rest in peace.

I do not like harboring resentment or anger, but I do not want the death of my mother -- my best friend, my hero, my strength, my love -- to become even more politicized than it already is. To the supporters of this new Islamic cultural center, I must ask: Build your ideological monument somewhere else, far from my mother's grave, and let her rest.

Neda Bolourchi lives in Los Angeles.

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