Ground Zero Mosque

The perceived culture clash between the United States and Islam is coming to a head over a community center near a sensitive site

Protest at Ground Zero: anti-mosque protestors displaying controversial slogans | Photo:David Reali

The United States is currently engaged in a debate that has been transformed from a local deliberation into a fight for the very soul of American values. The proposed construction of an Islamic community center at Park 51 in Manhattan has sparked fierce and impassioned debate, encompassing issues of constitutionalism and religious freedom, as well as basic emotional sensitivities. The supporters use constitutional rights as their principle weapon; the detractors attack what they perceive as a lack of consideration for the victims of the September 11 attacks, as well as fears of Muslim domination and terrorist activity.

The issue arose as a purely local one, as New Yorkers debated whether the center was in the best interests of the community. Was it culturally relevant? Did it pose a threat to public peace and safety? Was it offensive to 9/11 families? As New Yorkers began to hash out these considerations, national attention grew rapidly. Perhaps this was inevitable; issues involving Islam and 9/11 are so politically charged that the longer the debate dragged on, the more it would become a national one.

The resolution of this controversy could become a watershed in Muslim-American relations. Those in support claim that it will – in keeping with long-standing American values of religious freedom – send a powerful message to the Islamic world that Islam and America are not incompatible.

But at a grassroots level, sensitivity to 9/11 victims is an extremely emotional issue. And while many Americans have expressed their support for religious freedom and for Muslims’ right to build mosques and community centers, they don’t want it quite so close to Ground Zero. But in fact, the media buzz phrase, “Ground Zero mosque,” is a misnomer. While the building site is in close proximity to Ground Zero – two blocks – it is not on the site of the World Trade Center.

Furthermore, the proposed facility is an Islamic community center, and while it was recently confirmed that it will indeed house a mosque, it will also contain a library, swimming pool, daycare center, basketball court and cooking school, with social facilities “open and accessible to all.”

Ultimately, the arguments against are emotional in nature, the pain of wounds not yet healed, the memories of recent loss still keenly felt. From a constitutional standpoint, established rights are clear: there is protection both of religious freedoms (even for a ‘controversial’ religion such as Islam) and property rights (the organizers already legally own Park 51), thus there is little room for appeal. The case is so tight in fact that conservative UCLA constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh recently told Time that the case for allowing the center’s construction is “open and shut.”

The conservative backlash seems to unite behind one central characteristic: Islamophobia. Seminal Republican voice Newt Gingrich called the center “an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” Anti-Islamic sentiment has in fact been a hallmark of conservative politics for a while now, combined with its underlying fallacy – that of equating Islam with jihadist terrorism.

The simple notion of the center being insensitive to 9/11 survivors implies that Islam itself, and not a radical group are jihadists, was responsible for the tragedy.

This notion illustrates the deep social schism between populist America and Islam. Historically, Muslim-Americans have, until recent times, thrived in American society. American Muslims, compared to their counterparts in Europe, have been relatively economically secure, and have been relatively private concerning their traditions and worship. A Zogby poll in 2004 put Muslims well above the national average in education and affluence. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens and Joseph Rago even stated that Muslim-Americans are “role models both as Americans and Muslims.”

Perhaps because of the ease with which Muslim-Americans have assimilated, Islam has remained a mysterious and foreign religion to most Americans, resulting in Islam being identified with the conservative cultural revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, Osama Bin Laden and other leaders of radical Islamism. Because Islam was largely absent from American public life – but never absent from America – Hezbollah bombings in Beirut, U.S. hostages in Iran and ultimately, al-Qaeda’s attack on Sept. 11 became the only definition of Islam for many Americans.

But the rhetoric against the Islamic center’s construction in downtown Manhattan is perpetuating America’s misunderstanding of Islam. One conservative commentator attempted a constitutional argument as follows: [the First Amendment] goes on to say that we must protect ‘the right of people peaceably to assemble…’ The terrorists are not assembling peaceably.”

The implication that ‘where there is Islam there is terrorism’ – in addition to being extremely offensive – is fundamentally wrong. As polling and research shows, most Muslims, especially American Muslims, were particularly horrified by the 9/11 attacks, and do not support any form of terrorism. In fact, Reuters recently reported that many in the Middle East are against the construction of the center out of fear that it will further enrage Americans against Islam, a reaction similar to assimilated Jews in Europe and the U.S. who preferred to keep their heads down.

The spiritual leader of the center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has also come under fire. Some have alleged that Rauf had associations with groups involved in terrorism or terrorist financing, though none substantiated. Rauf has also taken fire for not explicitly denouncing Hamas as a terrorist organization.

But upon closer inspection, what becomes clear is that Rauf has little interest in politics or labels. “I’m not a politician,” he says, “I’m a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or an enemy.”

Rauf is the author of the book What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right With America, which draws connections between the liberal and republican values of U.S. political thought and the moral tenants of Islam. He is a long-standing participator in the Aspen Institute’s Muslim-Christian-Jewish working groups, whose goal is to foster religious tolerance and cooperation. He has also been one of the FBI’s principle consultants on how to go about combating jihadists without offending Muslim- and Arab-Americans.

That Rauf is now being accused of being a militant Islamist is a critical development, and again highlights the need for proper information as a basis for fruitful debate. Although he has been intensely involved in social programs to break down barriers and unify Americans – Muslim, Christian or otherwise – and has consistently, and publicly, denounced terrorism and political violence, Rauf is still confronted with fear and suspicion.

Nonetheless, supporters of the Islamic center insist that Rauf’s message lies at the very heart of what makes America who it is. In a recent speech on the issue, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that America “would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting,” if the center was prevented from being built.  Rauf, in a recent speech in Bahrain, expressed happiness at the public debate, hoping it will foster better understanding between religions, and saying that governments in many Islamic countries can learn from the concepts enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence and the rights protected in the U.S. Constitution.

Another element of resentment that many feel is the perception that an Islamic facility so close to Ground Zero would be a symbol of victory for radical Islam. Some commentators – based on a superficial reading of Islamic history – interpret the center as the latest in a long tradition of Islamic monuments built on the victory grounds of Muslim conquest, starting with Muhammad’s victory in Medina in the 7th Century. But supporters of the site stress that this interpretation is skewed and counterproductive. To be sure, conservative commentators will interpret it as, according to Gingrich, “pandering to radical Islamism,” and jihadists are also likely to celebrate it as a victory; but liberal commentators maintain that it will also be a victory for America – that, even in the face of public opinion, remains faithful to the moral principles of the American founding.

The United States is not the only Western country struggling to come to terms with its Muslim population. The recent controversy in Switzerland over the referendum banning the construction of minarets, as well as France’s banning of the hijab, has highlighted that there are still deep-seated social tensions between Europeans and their local Muslim communities.

In Austria in 2009, the government ruled in favor of the construction of an Islamic center on Dammstraße in Brigittenau, amidst intense protests and counter-protests, with the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and Communists (KPÖ) on one side and the far right (FPÖ) and national liberals (BZÖ) on the other. Although in that instance, the City of Vienna gave permission for the facility to be built, a more recent debate has arisen over the construction of minarets and the application of the adhān (call to prayer), and has been met with more resistance from regional governments. As in Switzerland, fears of changing the cityscape have prompted resistance even from those left-wingers.

For the Austrians, like the Swiss and French, efforts to accommodate Islam are acceptable until they start to alter national identity. Diversity is encouraged, but for many Europeans, having a muezzin echo through cities like Vienna, with noise ordinances that forbid things like car horns and outdoor seating after 10:00 p.m. is too much of a concession. It changes the identity of a city, and Austrians, for one, are extremely proud of their heritage, and wish to keep the ambiance of their cities intact. Hearing the adhān five times a day is not Viennese.

For European cultures forged over centuries of collective national experience, through various political systems, immigrants are generally welcome, however a certain degree of assimilation is required.

But this is different for the Americans, who see themselves as a nation of immigrants, where national myths are defined by inclusion. In practice this is often far from the truth, but the social idealists and political theorists in equal measure urge that these concepts be protected, regardless of a fickle, ill-informed American public. American identity should not be about preservation of a culture, but the inclusion of cultures. It is on this basis that the most pervasive and convincing arguments for the Islamic center have been made.

In the end, the decision as to whether to allow the construction of the Islamic center in lower Manhattan could have far-reaching consequences for America’s relationship with the Islamic world. The question has stratified the American public, and has raised important questions about America’s collective identity. The center’s detractors say that it is insensitive and arrogant, and fear that it is a sign of Islam’s encroachment on mainstream American society.

But supporters stress that because of America’s rocky relationship with the Islam, this precedent will show American at its best, and send a powerful message to the Islamic world that the United States is not its enemy, which, given the last ten years, is becoming a near-impossible sell.

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