Controversy at Ground Zero
By brent parrish
August 16, 2010
Debate over the proposed “Ground Zero Mosque” construction a few blocks from the fallen World Trade Center (WTC) towers has saturated news headlines for the last few weeks. The Muslim center is slated for construction in a former Burlington Coat Factory store, and it seems most Americans are far more comfortable with the idea of purchasing fleece at a reduced cost than providing Muslim Americans a place of community and outreach.
When a CNN/Opinion Research poll released Wednesday asked whether one favored or opposed a “mosque” being built two blocks away from the WTC site, nearly 70 percent of Americans responded with disapproval. Very little new information has entered the debate besides the generic rhetoric of protestors and supporters. But would the public opinion be changed if the facts surrounding the “Ground Zero Mosque” were presented more clearly, or even at all?
In reality, all the facts have not been presented fully or accurately to most Americans—highlighting the ever-growing problems with contemporary journalism via pundits. If disseminated more broadly, these facts would presumably reshape the debate toward a more fruitful discussion of the role of freedom of religion and Christians truly embracing Christ’s commandment to love thy neighbor.
Is it really a mosque?
The mainstay of the debate centers around what is being built on the site. Families of 9/11 victims regard the site as a sensitive place where massive pieces of the airplane wreckage fell. Since then, the owners could not even sell the badly damaged property, until now.
Formally named the Cordoba House, the “Ground Zero Mosque” is now referred to as Park51 after its physical address at 45-51 Park Place. The name, Cordoba House, references Cordoba, Spain, where during the 10th and 11th centuries the Muslim Caliphate served as an epicenter of interfaith dialogue and peaceful coexistence. The Cordoba House was designed after a Jewish community center in Manhattan and modeled much like a YMCA, featuring amenities typical of exclusive resorts, including an arts institute, a culinary school and food court, fitness facilities and swimming pool, daycare center, bookstore and conference rooms. Thus, this “mosque” has become the premier face of Muslim-American outreach to other Americans, provoking a serious backlash at their “insensitivity” for its close proximity to the WTC. These various components hardly resemble the mosques of the Middle East, and should put some Americans at ease.
A look at the worship center’s essential components, however, shows no minarets or muezzin calls to prayer. While the center does contain a large worship space to accommodate up to 2,000 Muslim worshipers, it does not seem appropriate to label this singular feature as its overall grand scheme. Many hospitals around the country contain chapels, though we do not label the entire hospital as a church. A church I grew up in met for a number of years in a school auditorium, yet no one protested the school as a religious worship center. Likewise, it seems unfair for Americans to selectively categorize the Cordoba House in such a way.
Who will run the Cordoba House?
A lesser-discussed but nonetheless important fact is who stands behind the controversial project. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, author of What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right with America, leads the Cordoba Initiative and will be responsible for the center’s operations and spiritual leadership. The group sponsoring the building of the controversial “Ground Zero Mosque” is not an extremist but rather an intelligent “moderate Muslim.” Imam Rauf is a leading scholar in a branch of Islam known as Sufism, which is particularly controversial among Muslims.This sect of the religion of 1.2 billion people is often described as the mystical side, focusing on the inner orientation to peaceful worship of Allah. Many Muslim leaders—both Sunni and Shi’a—deny that Sufism is orthodox or even a part of Islam. Its defenders cite that its adherents range across all Islamic sects, races and nationalities, and can be traced back to the cousin of the religion’s main prophet. Imam Rauf’s Sufism will play a major key element in the teachings and general personality the community center will exhibit, and should be considered when discussing whether or not Americans should allow such an endeavor.
In many of the recent objections to the Cordoba house, dissenters have argued they do not feel a mosque should be allowed to exist in such close proximity to the “hallowed ground” of the former World Trade Center towers. Some on the future extremes of the political spectrum are even labeling this as a Muslim invasion of lower Manhattan. However, do the facts really suggest this?
Many high-profile politicians and pundits have argued that two blocks is simply too close to the WTC, and have suggested between five blocks and as far away as Harlem might be more appropriate—an entire debate within itself! Yet these figures fail to acknowledge the long history of practicing Muslims and mosques in the area. For more than 30 years, a mosque (recently led by Imam Rauf) has been in operation only 12 blocks from Ground Zero. Masjid al-Farah, or “Masjid Manhattan,” is a small mosque that has quietly and peacefully operated without raising any suspicions or objections.
Historically, foreign immigrants overwhelmed lower Manhattan, especially during the Industrial Revolution and the years leading up to World War II. Many of the Arab immigrants in New York City settled around the area where the World Trade Center would eventually be erected. As the Arab population rose, the neighborhoods gave way to the name “Little Syria.”
While the completion of the Brooklyn Battery tunnel heralded the eventual diminishing of the name Little Syria, many Arab families still remain prominent in the area. Rather than an “invasion” of lower Manhattan by elusive Islamic jihadists, the Cordoba House provides a place of community and a house of worship for the many Muslim-Americans already residing in the area.
How, then, should we respond?
So what do the myths surrounding the debate of the “Ground Zero Mosque” mean for Americans? To believe these myths is to rely solely on the emotional wounds still left from the violent assault on our nation and freedoms instead of approach the situation as an opportunity to demonstrate our resolve to protect our distinctly American values, even when unpopular.
More specifically, what does this debate mean for Christians who are called to serve as salt and light to the world? Though we must not diminish the reality of the threats of radical extremism to this nation, as Christians, we must retain our integrity and faith in God’s providence. The true test of our faith rarely comes in times of peace or tranquility, but rather in moments of adversity. Just as the early church wrestled for their freedom of religion against Roman persecutions, so we face the same struggle today. Faithful Christians must always find ways to express the love Christ called us to, even (and maybe especially) toward our Muslim-American neighbors.
Brent Parrish (MTS, Boston University) is a religious writer who specializes in conflict resolution and Christian Ethics.