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:
- 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?
- 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:
One 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.
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.
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.