When Pope Francis meets with other faith leaders at the 9/11 Memorial on Friday, Imam Tahir Kukaj hopes that the onlookers’ attentions will be on the deeper meaning of religion instead of the politics that usually accompanies such big public events.
The Muslims, like other religious groups in the city, divide between those who put politics at the center of their social involvement, and others, like Kukaj, who put the cultivation of the soul as their first civic duty.
Yet, Kukaj is not civically inactive. For example, he is a member of Mayor de Blasio’s Clergy Advisory Council of New York City. However, he is foremost concerned with mending the cultural fabric of the city as a way of building a better society.
The imam of the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center on Staten Island foresees that the Pope’s appearance with other leaders will be “another push towards understanding and inspiration for those doubting” and a call for the general public to “take religion more seriously.”
Kukaj will be one of the myriad of local representatives of world religions who will stand with Pope Francis before the foundation wall that kept water from seeping into the original World Trade Center that is now part of the September 11 Memorial Museum. While there, the religious gathering will pray for peace and pay respect to the nearly 3,000 victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
The setting of this service is rife with reminders of the conflict that can occur at the intersection of religions, such as the initial attack from the terrorist Muslim group Al-Qaeda, or the backlash against the plan by peacemaking Muslims to build an Islamic Cultural Center two blocks away from the 9/11 Memorial.
But having representatives from across the religious spectrum stand alongside Pope Francis will “make them feel like brothers and sisters instead of enemies.” The imam points out that that their unity is not artificial symbolism. Religious people are united in believing in a deeper meaning to the world and a common beginning and destiny of humanity. Their deepness of soul makes them related in the here and now.
Kukaj represents a sentiment among some NYC Islamic leaders that mixing politics and religion is a recipe for corrupting religious faith.
He perceives that Pope Francis is also fed up with bad politicians vying for their own self-interest resulting in bad policies that worsen global situations. Deaths like that of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, who washed up dead on the shores of a beach resort of northeast Turkey on September 2nd, are the results of policies made by governments who “make a business of people’s blood” and “bad religious leaders” who support such wicked policies for their own selfish gain by manipulating a populace’s trust in them. These “shouting voices” then drown out the voices of true religious leaders, who may lead the people towards more peaceful living, the imam believes.
He blames the media too for pursuing their selfish desire for more readers, viewers and ad revenue by marketing religion as aggressive and violent. The media typically draws particular attention to the “shocking actions” of extremists and hate-mongers. Consequently, editors and producers are hot to focus on a relatively number of Muslim terrorists who make for a good headline and high eyeball count but ignore the day-in and day-out good works of the vast majority of Muslims.
During the controversy in 2010 over the proposal to build a mosque near Ground Zero, scores of media showed up to cover two minuscule anti-Muslim churches in order to generate headlines about a dramatic conflict between Christians and Muslims.
In the meantime the feelings of dozens of religious congregations near Ground Zero were given very little media attention. Revered Gabriel Salguero, pastor of a nearby church on the Lower East Side, gently chastised, “We should be careful not to conflate the 9/11 attacks and attackers with all followers of Islam…We must love our God, our neighbors, and even those with whom we disagree… In this situation, we are called to love the family members of the victims of 9/11 and also love those who wish to build a mosque near Ground Zero.”
Since the mosque controversy, Kukaj has been very active to make sure that the Muslim community doesn’t just defensively close into itself. A random selection of his efforts reveal his strategy of linking up with other religionists and standing against terrorism.
In January of 2012, Kukaj spoke at the Rabbi Marc Schneier’s Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s “Weekend of Twinning,” an event in which mosques and synagogues are paired to explore each other’s weekend observance and find commonalities between the two.
Then, on Christmas Day of 2013, the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center partnered with Our Lady of Good Counsel Roman Catholic Church to serve holiday meals to the homeless.
Earlier this year, Kukaj was one of the New York City imams who quickly denounced the attack in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. He has also led the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center to a partnership with other faith groups to deepen their relationships.
The Pope’s visit, with the ever-present camera-eyes that accompanies Pope Francis wherever he goes, will capture images of good, peaceful convergences of religion. Kukaj expects that Pope Francis may make a statement that Muslims are people of peace, which “on an occasion like this is very much welcome.”
At the same time, Kukaj is also encouraging the attendees of his mosque to remember that Muslims have to continue to do good works for their communities on their own initiative “instead of waiting for others to say they are good people.”
“What’s good for others is good for us. What’s bad for others is bad for us,” Kukaj surmised. “What’s good for the city is good for us.” The focus must be kept not on the polarizing politics, but on the good works that can come from religious action.