Whose Hallowed Ground? The Phony but Harmful Controversy of the “Ground Zero Mosque”


Not too long ago I wrote about the phenomenon of pseudo-events, stories with little to no meaning which are trumped up in various media outlets that eventually distort the framework through which we see an event taking place. These are often called, just as aptly, non-issues. In terms of their actual effects on the real world and their significance to a debate over a particular issue, these events are absolutely irrelevant.

This has, and I risk sounding like a broken record in saying so, become characteristic of much of the journalism that dominates the coverage of social and political issues. Actual tenets of policy and their merits don’t so much matter as much as what some deranged congressman has to say on Twitter, which in turn becomes the centerpiece of coverage and an all out war of unknowledgeable talking heads ensues.

The so-called Ground Zero Mosque is a non-issue par excellence. Something so incredibly simple as a community centre being built on Park Place has generated an unceasing cycle of fear-mongering and emotionally charged bigotry from one side of the political spectrum and outright cowardice from the other. What ought to have been a self-evidently acceptable use of private property for freedom of assembly and religion has suddenly exploded into a substance-free and unnecessary debate about what type of rights Muslims should really have in America, and whether or not they deserve to set foot on the hallowed ground that once housed a Burlington Coat Factory.

All of this has allowed for grandstanding on the part of countless politicians desperate to show that they are either tough in the face of Muslim threats to America or at the very least that they “respect the right of freedom of religion,” but would rather that certain people refrained from exercising that right. This entire war of words, which reveals an utter disrespect for individual liberty and the First Amendment, is based on a non-issue. The issue of the “Ground Zero Mosque” literally doesn’t exist. Hendrik Hertzberg explains in the New Yorker:

…for a start, it won’t be at Ground Zero. It’ll be on Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site (from which it will not be visible), in a neighborhood ajumble with restaurants, shops (electronics, porn, you name it), churches, office cubes, and the rest of the New York mishmash. Park51, as it is to be called, will have a large Islamic “prayer room,” which presumably qualifies as a mosque. But the rest of the building will be devoted to classrooms, an auditorium, galleries, a restaurant, a memorial to the victims of September 11, 2001, and a swimming pool and gym. Its sponsors envision something like the 92nd Street Y—a Y.M.I.A., you might say, open to all, including persons of the C. and H. persuasions.

Given these facts, it would appear that the problem is solved, but the unfortunate truth is that the ensuing debate over this non-issue has revealed a real issue, namely in the attitudes that pervade this entire debate, attitudes which undermine the very values of coexistence and religious freedom. The overall tone of the discussion concerning the Cordoba House, from both Democrats and Republicans, has operated under the framework that certain groups of people, due to the actions of a few who happen to have the same faith that they do, or rather some perverted version of it, ought to only enjoy a right that every one else does to a lesser extent.

A society that adopts freedom of religion, as America does despite the words of demagogues, automatically acknowledges that no form of belief enjoys privilege over another and that no individual is less a citizen than another whatever they may believe, especially if they have done nothing to indicate that they are disrespectful of the dignity and autonomy of their fellow citizens. To single out a group as so many have done throughout this entire controversy is to imply that they are less worthy citizens and are on a lesser moral platitude than those with a different belief system. Such an attitude is not characteristic of a free society and is the most revolting aspect of this debacle.

This is not an issue concerning terrorists or the war on terror, but rather a matter of whether or not politicians and citizens in America, New York in particular, are truly willing to uphold the liberties extolled by their founders and their Constitution. The dominant modes of thought pervading this debate indicate that such values are not prized as highly as we might have hoped. Nonetheless, I believe that the premises underlying these exclusionary attitudes are mistaken, and that a shift to a more conciliatory position is worthwhile.

One of the common positions in the Cordoba controversy is the faux-conciliatory position that while building a religious establishment is within the right of every American, those involved in this particular project ought to move a little further away from Ground Zero out of sensitivity to victims of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In other words, “practice your religion, but do it somewhere else.” Underpinning this assertion is the notion that Ground Zero is hallowed ground, a unique and sacred location that would be defaced by a building like the Cordoba House. Keep in mind that Cordoba is not being built at Ground Zero, but the attitude that it should be moved further away from the site maintains traction.

William McGurn articulates this position in the Wall Street Journal, drawing a parallel with an incident in the 1980s concerning a convent being built near Auschwitz. McGurn writes,

In the 1980s, Carmelite nuns moved into an abandoned building on the edge of the former Nazi death camp to pray for the souls taken there. As with the dispute over the mosque near Ground Zero, the convent’s presence escalated into a clash not only between different faiths but between competing historical narratives. As with today’s clash too, it seemed intractable until the Polish pope stepped in.

For Jews, Auschwitz is a symbol of the Shoah, and the presence of a convent looked like an effort to Christianize a place of Jewish suffering. Suspicions were further aroused by a fundraising brochure from an outside Catholic group, which referred to the convent as a “guarantee of the conversion of strayed brothers.” The protests mounted over the course of several years and various interfaith agreements, and pointed to the real strains that remained between Poles and Jews over a shared history with very different perspectives.

Many Catholics, not just in Poland, could not understand how nuns begging God’s forgiveness and praying for the souls of the departed could possibly offend anyone. There was also a nationalist element. Many members of the Polish resistance had also been murdered at Auschwitz. And again like our present controversy at Ground Zero, intemperate reactions and statements from both sides only inflamed passions.

So what did Pope John Paul II do? He waited, and he counseled. And when he saw that the nuns were not budging—and that their presence was doing more harm than good—he asked the Carmelites to move. He acknowledged that his letter would probably be a trial to each of the sisters, but asked them to accept it while continuing to pursue their mission in that same city at another convent that had been built for them.

I’ll accept McGurn’s argument that it is not right to encroach on a site of such historical significance, but reject the notion that this logic transposes to the area surrounding Ground Zero in a way that excludes Muslims. Ground Zero is indeed hallowed ground and will always represent one of the great tragedies of history and September 11th will always be a day on which the darkest depths of evil revealed themselves, a fact which should never escape memory.

Like Auschwitz is hallowed ground for those of the Jewish faith, Ground Zero is also hallowed ground for a particular group: Americans. This group includes an incredible diversity of cultures, ethnicities, ideologies, and belief systems, and not one is less American than another. Every single one of these groups, Muslims included, were among the victims of the crimes of 9/11 and every single one of those groups are accounted for among those who grieved on that day.

As mentioned earlier, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, entailing that America belongs equally to citizens of all faiths. To say that a community centre run by Muslims is an insult to those who died on 9/11 is to assert that Americans who happen to be of that faith are less American or less worthy citizens, and to fall back on the justification that those who brought down the Twin Towers were themselves Muslim and that this ought to preclude other Muslims from practising their faith on private property is outright bigotry, a slap in the face to the values that so many politicians and leaders claim to defend.

In some cases, perhaps it is perfectly fine to request that individuals or a group show restraint in actions or expressions out of sensitivity, but it is hard to see how such an argument carries weight in this case, given that those involved in the Cordoba project bare no responsibility for terrorism,  nor is there any reason to believe that they are defacing the memories of those lost on 9/11. This is simply the building of a community centre in an area of New York that is as diverse as similar neighbourhoods in other big cities. The idea that this is a victory for terrorists or an insult to America is without basis.

The argument that Cordoba House should not be built has largely been based on what it is not and still makes no sense. It makes even less sense when one considers what Cordoba is, and when one considers the values at stake given what Cordoba actually is, the case for this establishment is strengthened. As indicated in the aforementioned piece by Hendrik Hertzberg, Cordoba is a community centre, which despite an Islamic prayer room, will be welcoming to people of all faiths and social backgrounds, and in times of great division and intolerance, this is a cause worth fighting for, and though I might be stretching a bit in making this claim, I believe this is a cause that Pope John Paul II, a wise man, would have believed in despite McGurn’s assertion.

Furthermore, consider the words of an even wiser man. Upon returning to his show after September 11th, Jon Stewart said the following (I’m paraphrasing):

The reason I don’t despair is because, this attacked happened, it’s not a dream, but the aftermath of it, the recovery, is a dream realized. Whatever barriers we put up are gone…we’re judging people by not the colour of their skin but the content of their character. All this talk that these guys are criminal masterminds…it’s a lie. Any fool can blow something up…but to see these guys, these firefighters, literally with buckets, rebuilding…that’s extraordinary. That’s why we’ve already won. You can’t shut that down.

While there was tragedy on 9/11, there was also triumph in the form of such a wide variety of individuals working for one another’s welfare. People of countless backgrounds rallied for the well-being of people they didn’t even know, risking their own lives in the process. What took place at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the attacks represented humanity at its finest and served as a blunt reminder that unity and outreach across the lines that divide us are always superior to division and hatred. A community centre welcoming to all individuals, which additionally opens up the potential for dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims is a worthy initiative which would uphold the ideal realized in the aftermath of 9/11.

Religion can indeed be incredibly divisive and has been at the root of immense acts of evil throughout history, but in the final analysis it is only what we choose to make of it, whether it be a means of division and hatred, which it is at its worst, or a force for unity among a society and a means to serve your fellow man, which it is at its best. Intolerance will only breed confrontation, and a lack of understanding across groups will only create further division, something which we ought to know quite well at this point.

Cordoba is a community centre, a place for outreach, not a terrorist training ground. It is being built by Americans who are entitled to their Constitutional rights no less than any other citizens. This is something we must either accept or go on creating a false issue which encourages immaturity and political grandstanding. This issue is, as I’ve said, not about terrorists out to destroy America, but rather a challenge for all Americans to stand up to the task of upholding their own supposed values and find a means to coexistence.

I’ll give the last word to one of the few politicians courageous enough to do the right thing in the midst of this heated controversy. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in an eloquent and sincere speech, which can be read in it’s entirety here, says the following:

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.

“For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right.

***

As I mentioned, this controversy is the type of non-issue very popular in political coverage. Ed at Gin and Tacos has this piece about what exactly makes these issues so appealing and why they ultimately amount to arguing over nothing. Very much worth reading, as is all of Ed’s writing.

Dick Cavett is characteristically wise and eloquent in his take on the issue. I came across Cavett’s piece shortly after I completed writing my own, but Cavett renders my own take redundant.

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5 Comments

  1. Sapan

     /  August 22, 2010

    Would make an excellent newspaper column piece Ravi!

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading, Sapan! Glad you enjoyed the piece. Though I don’t see this being published in any newspaper I know.

      Reply
  2. Raj

     /  August 22, 2010

    My thoughts exactly, although you write more eloquently than I think. Excuse my way too often vulgar mind, but you’d think there’s been enough examples where demagogy has raped liberty up the arse. If liberty is the lifeblood of American longevity, then this (non-)issue is a great example of America’s sometimes cannibalistic tendency.

    But what does one DO with a non-issue? Write about it? Kind of akin to telling tweeners to shut the F**K up about Justin Bieber.

    Reply
    • You’re probably right that liberty is given up far too easily, probably because they are valued so little in the first place that people don’t even realize that they are devaluing them with their actions. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

      I’m not sure I understand your Justin Bieber analogy, but it is important to speak out against these types of non-issues and use whatever means you have to add some reason to the whole debate, and writing is just about the only tool most of us have, though I’m not under any illusion that I’m going to suddenly change the world with my writing.

      Reply
  1. The Message is the Message « We are Living in a Society

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