The “Ground Zero Mosque”: What is the true motivation behind this debate?

Park 51, formerly proposed as Cordoba House, has been dubbed by opponents as the “Ground Zero Mosque” due to its proximity to the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  Park 51 is located on Park Place, a few blocks north of the ground zero site.  I have been getting into extensive discussions about this controversy over the past few days, which motivated me to write this post.  I think that the way in which Americans approach this issue is critical because our actions and words send a strong message to the world, a message that will be heard both by terrorists and by peaceful members not only of Islam but of all religions.  The way America handles this debate may have profound and lasting impacts.

A Few Key Background Facts:

A few often-omitted facts in the discussion are that the building is already being used for Muslim worship (See ABC News Fact Check: Islam Already Lives Near Ground Zero) and that another mosque, Masjid Manhattan, founded in 1970, is located less than a mile from ground zero, also has Islamic classes at a location 2 blocks from Park Place, and 4 blocks from ground zero.  The history of Islam in the neighborhood around ground zero clearly predates not only the 9/11 attacks, but even the construction of the World Trade Center, the first building of which was completed in 1972.

Polls about the “ground zero mosque”:

There are several polls circulating in the news, claiming that a majority of Americans oppose the building of this Islamic center, but the way in which the polls have been worded has been criticized.  As an example, consider the following two questions:

  1. A group of Muslims wishes to build a mosque and Islamic community center near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  Would you support or oppose such actions?
  2. A group of moderate Muslims who condemn terrorism have worshipped in a privately-owned building near the site of the World Trade Center since before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  The building they currently worship in was damaged in the 9/11 attacks and is now mostly vacant.  The group of Muslims wishes to rebuild the building to create a new worship space and an Islamic Community Center, both of which would be open to the public, including non-Muslims.  Do you support or suppose such actions?

How do you think most Americans would answer the first question?  What about the second?  Which question do you think was closest to what was asked in the poll?

Constitutionally Protected Freedom of Religion and Peaceful Assembly:

An American FlagOne other key piece of information here is that the proposed Islamic center is on private property, and there are no legal grounds on which to oppose the mosque without bringing into question the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, which is one of the oldest and most fundamental aspects of the values underpinning American democracy.  Here is the first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Source: Bill of Rights, U.S. National Archives & Records Administration.

Opponents of the mosque, when presented with this excerpt from the constitution, often acknowledge that people have a right to build a mosque or Islamic center, but that they are personally opposed to the mosque and think it is bad taste or sends a bad message.  Why do they think it sends a bad message?

What is behind the opposition and protest?

At the core of the opposition to this Islamic center seems to be the idea that building an Islamic center near ground zero is offensive or disrespectful to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks because the attacks were carried out in the name of Islam.

Green Crescent and Star

The star and crescent is one of the most widely recognized symbols of Islam.

But the Muslims behind the Park 51 project had no agency in, no involvement in, and no connection whatsoever to the 9/11 attacks.  By opposing their mosque and Islamic center, opponents are identifying them as members of the same group–Islam–as Islamic terrorists.  Is this a correct identification?

Identifying extremists as “legitimate” members of the broader religion they claim membership in:

What if someone were to identify peaceful Christians with the violent actions of a white supremacist group like the KKK, or anti-abortionists who murder doctors, as both of these groups identify themselves as part of Christianity.  I am Christian, and the actions of these groups go against the very core of my beliefs–Jesus’ commandment to love all people.  I do not see these people as Christians, only as violent, hateful extremists who have chosen to label themselves with the same name as my faith.  Yet I am completely powerless over these groups’ actions–anyone can choose to identify publicly as Christian, adopt some Christian practices superficially, and commit whatever horrible atrocities they choose to–people even twist around Bible verses to support their violence and hate–and I can’t do anything about it.

It is thus unfair (and I would say disrespectful and offensive–certainly very bad taste) to lump me, or all Christians, in with the same group as these violent and hateful extremists.  And for this same reason, it is completely unfair, offensive, disrespectful, bad taste, and I would even say wrong to be opposed to this “ground zero mosque” because doing so identifies all Muslims with Muslim extremists.  If you do not make this identification, the mosque would not be offensive but, rather, would carry a strongly positive message; the connection of “Islam” would be in name only, and the deep issue (violence vs. peace) would be completely separate.  The mosque would be a monument to peace and thus would be respectful to and supportive of the victims and their families.

Making the identification between Islamic terrorists and Islam as a whole is wrong on many levels:

  • It takes power away from peaceful Muslims, many of whom are American citizens, and who did not do anything wrong and had no agency in the terrorist attacks.
  • It is stereotyping of the worst kind – identifying non-violent members of a group with violent members, without even examining these people or their views individually or giving them a chance to show the world what they stand for.
  • It encourages discrimination and even hate crimes against peaceful Muslims – because people react so strongly to the violence of the 9/11 attacks, identifying innocent Muslims with the terrorists makes these people likely to be the victim of discrimination and hate crimes.  In 2005 the New York Times published an article Reported hate crimes against Muslims rise in U.S., demonstrating that this is a real problem and outlining how since the 9/11 attacks, Muslims across the U.S. have faced violence, threats, and even profiling by police.
  • It gives extremists and terrorists too much power – by opposing the ground zero mosque we have enabled the terrorists to give all Muslims, including peaceful ones in the U.S., a bad name.  It has also made the terrorists succeed at their mission: promoting fear and terror.

What message does opposition to the mosque send to the world?

The Christian Science Monitor has published an article: Could opposition to Ground Zero mosque bolster the thing opponents fear? which argues compellingly that opposition to the mosque could actually fuel extremism because it sends the message that Americans are reacting negatively not to violence or terrorism, but to the idea of Islam itself.

What message do we want to send?

We want to send the message that the U.S. supports freedom of religion, and respects all peaceful forms of religious practice and worship, including Islam.  We want to send the message that we do not believe violence to be a legitimate expression of any sort of religious faith, and that violent extremists are not true representatives of the religion they identify with.  And we want to send the message that we are strong, and that even horrible acts of violence cannot shake our commitment to freedom of religion and our respect for all peaceful forms of religion.

What can you do?

  • Always make a clear distinction between Islam as a whole and extremist Islamic terrorist groups, in your thoughts, words, and actions; do not make any statement or take any action that implicitly identifies Islamic terrorists as part of the legitimate religion of Islam as a whole.
  • Check basic facts in a controversial case like this “ground zero mosque”, before jumping to conclusions–especially when polling is involved.  After doing your research, let people know about key facts, such as the fact that the building is already being used for Muslim worship, that the building is on private property, that the Muslims in this particular community are moderate and have no connection or relationship to the 9/11 attacks, and that Islam has a long and rich history in the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Talk to your friends about this controversy and let them know that you believe that this mosque and Islamic center can be interpreted as respectful to the victims of 9/11, and send a strong positive message both to peaceful Islam and to Islamic terrorists that the U.S. cannot be driven to crumble by violent opposition, and that we stand for peace and freedom.
  • Learn more about Islam before making generalized statements about it; read about Islam, and if you have the opportunity, get to know some Muslims and ask them about their faith.  Become aware of the diversity of viewpoints and beliefs within Islam so that you can grow past stereotypes you may hold.  It is easy to demonize an alien culture that you have no contact with, but bridging cultural gaps and looking at people from different cultures as human beings ultimately makes it easy for us all to overcome violence and live peacefully and in harmony with each other.
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8 Responses to The “Ground Zero Mosque”: What is the true motivation behind this debate?

  1. Great read. Kuddos to you Alex 🙂

  2. Sephy says:

    Very good points and very well written!

  3. leormaizel says:

    I think this post is absolutely spot on. There is simply no question that Imam Rauf and the other partners in the Park51 project have a constitutional right to build a religious/community center on that private property. There is also no question that Muslims across the United States have the right to build Mosques in their communities, whether that be in Murfreesboro, Temecula, Sheboygan or New York City. The critics of the project have at least acknowledged this much.

    But the level of hatred, delegitimization and phobia of Muslims today is an even greater worry. I may be young still, but I remember not too long ago reading in elmentary school textbooks that the 3 major Western religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. How have we gotten to a place in our national discourse where the very legitimacy of Islam is now in question? How have we gotten to a point where statements like these beginning to circulate, “They are not a religion. They are a political, militaristic group.” (http://www.dnj.com/article/20100809/NEWS01/8090314/Mosques-across-America-face-opposition).

    The kind of vitriolic rhetoric being leveled at Muslim Americans today must be a concern for every conscientious citizen, for if this minority can be so easily de-humanized and de-legitimized, who’s next? Have we not learned Pastor Niemoller’s lesson:

    “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

    Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

    It is true–one cannot deny the fact that Muslim extremism exists and its ideology and values are anathema to those of Western society. But the opponents of this project have cited reasons for their opposition which simply don’t make sense.

    Firstly they claim that building this “mosque” may create more extremists and foster terrorism–but if extremism is what we’re fighting, and if the aim of Park51 is to bridge between communities of different faiths in generous dialogue, isn’t this exactly the weapon against extremism we should be using?

    Secondly they argue that Shariah law, advocated for by orthodox Islam is incompatible with our Constitution. But what these critics don’t take into account is that ANY religion practiced in its orthodox and extreme form is incompatible with the Constitution. Just look at the metaphysical world view that subordinates women to men, that calls for the stoning of homosexuals, etc. in Judaism and Christianity and you’ll notice that if we practice these religions’ dictates to the letter, we’ll cease to be a country of liberal rights and inspired by enlightenment values.

    As a final note, in 1993, my Israeli cousin, Eran Behar and his friend were murdered by Islamic Jihad while hiking in the Judean Desert (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wadi_Qelt). Although he was a victim of Islamic Extremism, there would be nothing I would appreciate more than if the Palestinian Authority or a particular Palestinian Community would build some sort of interfaith community center on that location (that may be a problem, since it’s in the desert, but the point is the same) with the stated aim of bridging between our mutual differences.

  4. Matt says:

    Very nice, thank you for putting a voice to truth!

  5. Cis says:

    Until just a few days ago, I had no idea that this building is not just a mosque but a multi-use building with meeting rooms, a pool and a basketball court, all open to the public. I also read a few days ago that, despite the geographical proximity, you can’t actually see Ground Zero from this particular site. Your remarks cast further light on what the real issues are here. How have we allowed ourselves to be so deceived by the misrepresentations in the mainstream press on this issue? And why is the press doing this? Thanks for helping define the issues much more coherently.

  6. Kelly says:

    Thank you Alex for your very well thought-out post. I’d like to highlight the work of Irshad Manji, a devout, outspoken “modern” Muslim, professor at NYU Wagner School of Public Service and Director of the Moral Courage Project at NYU. She’s written the NY Times bestseller “The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in her Faith.” I honestly hadn’t read any of the book until today, and just read an excerpt of the book online for free (http://feminist.com/ourinnerlives/features_manji.html). The book is directed towards her “fellow Muslims,” and reveals fascinating truths and intricacies I’ve never encountered before. Take, for instance, this excerpt:

    “And as the critics probed Islam, I picked up on some jaw-dropping aspects of my religion. How many Muslims know the degree to which Islam is a gift of the Jews? The unity of God’s creation, the inherent and often mysterious justice of God, our innate capacity, as God’s creatures, to choose good, the purposefulness of our earthly lives, the infinity of the afterlife — these and other biggies of monotheism came to Muslims via Judaism. This discovery astounded me because it suggested that Muslims need not be steeped in anti-Semitism. If anything, we have reason to be grateful rather than hateful to Jews.
    Nor, until educating myself, did I appreciate that Muslims worship exactly the same God as do the Jews and the Christians. The Koran affirms this fact. Truth is, though, I had to read a recent book by religion scholar Karen Armstrong before that point penetrated my madressa-molded mind. (What can I tell you? Deprogramming is a many-splendored thing.)
    Armstrong emphasizes that the Prophet Muhammad didn’t claim to introduce a new God to the entire world. His personal mission was to bring Arabs into the “rightly guided” family of Abraham, the first prophet to receive the revelation that there’s one sovereign God. Growing up, I never heard Abraham’s name in a history lesson. A glaring omission, given that Abraham’s progeny went on to found the Jewish nation. Being the debut monotheists, Jews laid the groundwork for Christians and, later, for Muslims to emerge. So, you see, Muslims didn’t invent one God; we renamed Him Allah. That’s Arabic for “The God”—the God of Jews and Christians.”

    So…what should we do now? I think for one, we should all start by reading Irshad’s book and educating ourselves about Islam, and spreading this information on to others (her website is http://irshadmanji.com/). There will always be more questions…we just need to remember to keep asking them (out loud) and not let this conversation go silent or be overcome by complacency. I found this key, from the above quoted text: “Deprogramming is a many-splendored thing.” We’d all do well to have a wake-up deprogramming of things which have been indoctrinated to us through our oftentimes narrow-minded American culture.

  7. Sufism World says:

    I totally agree with this article and comments made here. If everyone took interest in each others cultures and religions then really the world would be a better place, but then there would be no wars, no arms deals, no controlling of other nations assets, etc. The perfect world will never exist.

    This really is not an issue about a building or a place of worship but rather a clash of ideas, ways of life and religions. As long as this debate and hatred is alive around the world, the elite (politicians, bankers, industrialists, etc) will get richer – thats a fact.

  8. Ninja says:

    This is such an excellent post. Very eloquent, succinct, and TRUE. Tip of the hat to you.

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