The ‘Mosque’ Controversy

What’s quickly become known as ‘the mosque at ground zero’ controversy should be a local story about land use and zoning, has blown up into a national disgrace that says a lot about the current state of religious intolerance, Islamophobia and racism in the U.S.     As Keith Olbermann cogently pointed out, there is no “mosque” (it’s an interfaith community center) and it’s not “at Ground Zero” (it’s several blocks away in a former Burlington Coat Factory).  I was here on 9/11 and watched those towers fall to the ground.   I’ve also watched as a particular group of survivors from that day, often referred to as “The Families,” have been valorized in the press and by themselves beyond all reason.  This group, “The Families” never includes any of the relatives of the workers from the restaurant at the top of the towers, many of them undocumented immigrant workers.

In many ways, the objection this project in lower Manhattan (aka, the ‘mosque’) is one that appeals to the lowest common denominators of racism, religious intolerance and Islamophobia.   But, there are other voices.

Earlier this month, Mayor Bloomberg (not always my favorite flavor) gave this speech which was brilliant, i thought, and hit just the right note:

“We’ve come here to Governors Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam, and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted. We come here to see the inspiring symbol of liberty that more than 250 years later would greet millions of immigrants in this harbor. And we come here to state as strongly as ever, this is the freest city in the world. That’s what makes New York special and different and strong.

“Our doors are open to everyone. Everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and it’s sustained by immigrants — by people from more than 100 different countries speaking more than 200 different languages and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker.

“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001.

“On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn’t want us to enjoy the freedoms to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams, and to live our own lives. Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that even here — in a city that is rooted in Dutch tolerance — was hard-won over many years.

“In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue, and they were turned down. In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies, and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.

“In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion, and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780s, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, which still stands just one block north of the World Trade Center site, and one block south of the proposed mosque and community center.

“This morning, the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted to extend — not to extend — landmark status to the building on Park Place where the mosque and community center are planned. The decision was based solely on the fact that there was little architectural significance to the building. But with or without landmark designation, there is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building.

“The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“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.

“On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’ (Bloomberg’s voice cracks here a little as he gets choked up.) ‘What beliefs do you hold?’

“The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.

“Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation, and in fact their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. But doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together, and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any ways consistent with Islam.

“Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.

“Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest.”

Much of the fury around this faux-issue has been generated by the vengeful rhetoric of George W. Bush immediately following 9/11 and his misguided “war on terror” and attack on Iraq. Bush’s rhetorical legacy continues in Sarah Palin’s bumbling vitriol.  If Bush had given this kind of speech immediately following 9/11, I believe we’d have a safer world and dramatically less of the Islamophobic racism fueling this controversy.    Very recently, President Obama has defended the notion of a mosque in downtown Manhattan, and then seemed to equivocate on it.   One of Obama’s strengths has been his pitch-perfect ability to reach that note of America’s highest ideals and, drawing on Lincoln’s rhetoric, to appeal to the better angels of our nature. If ever there were a time for Obama – and each one of us – to appeal to the better angels of our nature, it is now and around this controversy.


  1. ThirtyNine4Ever

    I don’t understand this controversy at all, is this the best the right can come up with? This and repealing the 14th amendment? I fully expect to be waking up soon…

  2. Joe

    ThirtyNine, I agree. The neo-fascist right really does want a right-wing government, federal and local, to back off the Bill of Rights in many areas. This is getting too much like Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

    And the ignorance generated by the Fox/Rush etc propaganda networks is astounding, as we now have a poll showing that the percent of Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim, was not born here, has gone up in the last few years, now down.

  3. ChrisSchaef

    “Much of the fury around this faux-issue has been generated by the vengeful rhetoric of George W. Bush immediately following 9/11 and his misguided “war on terror” and attack on Iraq.”

    Um…really? Did you ever even watch a speech that George W. Bush gave? Or did you just stereotype him and assume you knew exactly what he thought. Criticize the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq all you want, but Bush ALWAYS made a distinction between Islam and those who use Islam for terror.

    You are totally right that this issue has gotten out of hand. Gingrich, Palin, and Geller (who got this started) have been xenophobic and ignorant in their comments. However, your ignorant comments about people you disagree with puts you in a similar boat. First of all, you should know what they say. Secondly, you should recognize that reasonable people can have disagreements. Ross Douthat disagrees with you, and you can’t just swear that off as racist, xenophobic rhetoric:

  4. ThirtyNine4Ever

    Douthat’s rhetoric is definatley misplaced, this is an argument over if they should have the right to build their place of worship, not over assimilation or even over if it is a good idea to pursue that particular place of worship, just over if they should have the right to build it. I don’t know if bringing up opion collums from right wing collumnitst, no matter how well written, are going to convince people here. Douthar isn’t exaclt anti-racist or for that matter pro-feminist, pro-homosexual rights or pro-enviroment. He does write for the Times, which used to mean something.
    As for Bush Jr., you have a point, he really wasn’t anti-islamic, but where is he on this issue? He is silent, probably doesn’t want to hurt his speaking fee.

  5. Jessie Author

    Yes @Chris, I watched plenty of GeoWBush’s speeches, all the way through. The one I was referring to was at the outset of the Iraq war in which he referred to that as a “crusade”. Many people, not just me, heard that as anti-Islam language. However, I’m happy to concede the point that reasonable people can disagree. As to GeoWBush, there appears to be quite a disagreement brewing about the current turn toward a “Clash of Civilizations” perspective among those on the right, as Josh Marshall explains in ” a recent post at TPM.
    @ThirtyNine4Ever – Agree, Douthat isn’t exactly anti-racist. That’s an understatement.
    About his argument, I think that Douthat is deflecting the real issue which is a municipal land use issue, and promoting the idea that this is about ‘assimilation.’ It’s part of his usual rhetorical strategy of redirecting the argument so he can reframe it in his own terms. It’s an old debater’s trick, and I’m not falling for it.

    • DJohnson

      I have heard no one – on the Right or otherwise – suggest that the Muslim group should not be allowed to build. What I have hear, and what I also believe, is that the group should choose not to build. That it’s in bad taste, that it’s intentionally provocative, inappropriate, and disrespectful.

      Let’s remember that Ground Zero is famous because Muslim fanatics hijacked airplanes and flew them into buildings, killing thousands of people, *in the name of Islam.* Muslims should be ashamed of what it represents.

      Although Americans respect the rights of minority groups, those groups also owe the majority a debt of tolerance. A majority that is not Muslim.

      • Joe

        Actually some have. E.g., Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Fox “news”:
        “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.”
        Also, would you ban Christian churches building church or rec centers near the building Christian terrorist Tim McVeigh bombed in Ok City? That would be consistent.

        • No1KState

          But there’re Confederate flags all over the country, some in places of honor. Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama display the confederate battle flag explicitly in their state flags. There’re monuments to confederate soldiers all across the South, and even a suggestion of Confederate Month. Maybe that’s okay because blacks form a minority, but the Northern States would be a majority and it’s against the North and the country that the South fought and seceded. What about that?

          Besides, Muslims died who had nothing to do with the attack. What about honoring them? What about demonstrating the power of the US ideal?

          Like Jessie points out, it’s not even a mosque. It’s not even at ground zero. There is a prayer room in the Pentagon and there’ve been no problems with that. And most importantly, it’s private property. It’s only subject to the zoning laws of NYC – and correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing the majority of people who died at Ground Zero were New Yorkers? If NYC is okay with it, the landmark commission voting unanimously to build, why can’t everybody else be okay with it?

          Lots of people do hateful things in the name of a religion. That’s their own issue, not the religion’s. I know those who feel Islam is a violent religion by nature site as evidence passages from the Koran. But there’re a number of “shalt be put to death” passages in the Mosaic law, yet no one would argue that Judaism is a violent religion by nature.

          Being that I, and much of the local community in fact, was opposed to the NRA rally after Columbine, I can sympathize with those opposed to building the center. Funny how things work, you know. For some reason, I still think what the NRA did was tasteless. But it’s not because they support gun rights, but that they efforts help create laws that make it easy for kids to get their hands on guns. But for some reason, I just can’t rouse the same indignation at the center being built a couple of blocks from ground zero.

          I’m not sure I’d be upset even if it were an actual mosque on ground zero. Unless, of course, the group building the project were known as al-qaeda supporters. The members of the Cordoba initiative want to help increase understanding and knowledge between people of different faiths. I’m actually okay with that.

          As for the notion of granting the majority a debt of tolerance, I sure wish there had been some of the sentiment in Congress the past year and a half.

        • DJohnson

          Hey, Joe.

          It seems pretty clear from the context that by “right” Gingrich means the moral right, not the legal right, which they obviously do have. Surely you don’t think Gingrich supposes it would be illegal for some Japanese group to build a Hello Kitty kiosk or sushi bar by the promenade to the USS Arizona.

          What does a Christian church have to do with the Oklahoma City bombing? I assume you’re implying that there is a parallel between the role of Christianity in that attack and Islam in the September 11 attack. That’s absurd.

          1. If Timothy McVeigh was a Christian (was he?) his stated reason for the attack was not Christianity. If you’d suggested that the John Birch Society or even the NRA should not build near the site, I would agree with you.

          2. Christianity is the largest religion in American, and it has been a fundamental part of the culture of our country since its inception (whether you think that’s good or not). To suggest that America has had a Christian problem is a bit of an oxymoron.

          Just to be clear: I wouldn’t “ban” anything. I believe that it’s entirely appropriate for New Yorkers and other Americans to object to the building of this center, to protest it, and to discourage it using peaceful means. The fact that the Muslims who want to build it have not taken the hint should make it clear that they are not acting in good faith.

          How clever of you to put “news” in scare quotes! Because Fox doesn’t report news, they make stuff up, right? That’s genius, seriously.

  6. cordoba blue

    I have to agree with DJohnson on this one.For the following reasons. First of all, the Muslims who live in this country came of their own volition, by choice. They knew, coming here, that they would be a minority group. They chose to come anyway because of various reasons. Probably because of better economic opportunities. They, unlike African Americans were not dragged here in chains. Therefore, it is incumbent upon them to show some respect for the dead citizens of their chosen nation.
    I can’t think of any other country whose citizens would not be uneasy, to say the least, if a mosque were built so close to a site where thousands of people died and the deaths were committed by people of the faith who worshipped at a mosque.
    This is not about racism. Americans of almost every ethnic group died in 9/11. So it’s not just white Americans who are offended. This is not about white America. It’s about a mix of ethnic groups honoring their dead and asking, not telling, but asking for some degree of sensitivity from Muslims. Again, if you choose a nation to be your nation, and move there voluntarily, you have some responsibilities also. America is not supposed to be all things to all people. Racism needs to be combated, where it truly exists. But I don’t think it exists here. If the Muslims in America are content here and don’t want to return to the Middle East, then it’s simply the right thing to do to respect the other ethnic groups who are their fellow citizens in America. One way they can do this is please don’t build a mosque so close to Ground Zero and then call it racism if Americans are uncomfortable.

  7. cordoba blue

    Muslims who live in America have chosen to live here. They were not brought in chains like African Americans. They moved here knowing they would be in the minority. I can’t think of any other country in the world whose citizens would not be uneasy about constructing a mosque next to a site where thousands of Americans from many ethnic groups died by the hands of people who worship at mosques.
    This is not about racism. This is not about white Americans merely objecting to people practicing a faith that is not practiced by the majority of white Americans. It’s about being sensitive to your chosen nation. If Muslims really enjoy living in this country, then it’s not asking them to be sycophants to simply respect that country’s dead. This is not a form of oppression as Muslims are welcome to build mosques anywhere else. Just not near 9/11. If you have chosen a country to be your nation, of your own volition, then you have some responsibilities to that country as well as that country having responsibilities to you.
    America does not owe the entire world everything the entire world needs to be happy. That is totally unrealistic and impossible to achieve. Again, this is not about racism or intolerance. The Muslims who live here obviously feel more comfortable here than in their “original” homeland. If this is the case, then mutual sensitivity is required of both parties: your chosen nation and yourself.

    • Jessie Author

      Wow @cordoba you’ve really bought the right-wing rhetoric about this thing hook, line and sinker, eh?
      You wrote: “Muslims are welcome to build mosques anywhere else. Just not near 9/11.”
      No, they’re apparently not as that link I posted in my previous reply showed. This anti-mosque-building is now part of a larger pattern of intolerance happening around the U.S.
      I’m not sure where you live or if you’ve ever visited Lower Manhattan, but “9/11” is not a place, it’s a date. The former World Trade Center actually included a mosque within it. And, Muslims died that day in the attacks. From my perspective, I think they should build another one right in the middle of it.

  8. cordoba blue

    Asking people to not build mosques in other locations is indeed racism. I just read your comment Jessie. However, the 9/11 issue is not, in my opinion, a racist issue.

    • No1KState

      White Christians weren’t the only ones to die on 9/11. But no, it’s not racism. It’s Islamaphobia, bias based on religion.

      And it NOT a mosque.

      The right to religious freedom is about sensitivity, it’s about the Constitution. There’s no Constitutional or legal mandate the immigrants be sensitive “our country’s dead.” In fact, the Constitution was written to protect the rights of the minority. So long as we’re not breaking the law, the minority is under no compulsion to be sensitive to the whims and capriciousness of the majority.

      It’s their country, too, now. Their country’s dead. How else would Muslims, wherever they were born as not all are immigrants, some have roots in America going back decades and centries – but how else would Muslim respect the dead of their country than by building an Islamic memorial. I don’t know what one might look like. Maybe an obelisk with a crescent moon, I don’t know. But the point is the way Muslims would show respect for their country’s dead would come from the Islamic tradition.

      And it’s NOT a mosque! And it’s not AT ground zero!

  9. cordoba blue

    This is not about religious perscecution. Muslims should be able to practice their religion as they see fit. This is about the placement of a building within a stone’s throw of a horrible act perpetrated against Americans in the name of Allah. Why is it difficult to see how the myriad ethnic groups who died in that situation would be sensitive about [and yes it is a mosque as well as a day care and cultural center] the PLACEMENT of this Allah-worshipping place?
    Everything boils down to sensitivity. Why this particular space for a mosque? Why push for this? With how many millions of square miles in America, a mosque next door to 9/11? Like there’s no where else to go? It’s pushing the envelope and I don’t think this “push” is lost on the people who want this.
    It’s all about pushing people’s buttons when they are trying to, literally, see how far they can go. And your point? That civil rights means being able to spit in the face of a memorial to a country’s dead?
    Let’s discuss the pushing issue/civil rights issue for a minute. For example, of course black Americans were offended by Dr. Laura’s rant. Because she pushed. She wouldn’t stop until somebody said, “Ok. Enough. Please go home.” I think waving the Confederate flag is pushing the envelope also. Why do people do this? Like, it’s some kind of living dangerously game?
    Because Dr. Laura has a constitutional right to say what she thinks does not mean she has exhibited considerate, sensitive behavior. Because Southern states have a right to wave a Confederate flag does not mean they are being thoughtful and sensitive to a group of Americans who were the victims of genocide under that very flag. Why is this situation different? Because Muslims are a minority group? So minority equals just, no matter what? I think everybody could use a few sensitivity cards. Please take one. Thanks.

  10. cordoba blue

    By the way, I don’t think it’s being whimsical or capricious to listen to what the majority of Americans think is a fit environment to honor their dead. No, there’s no legal mandate that says immigrants be sensitive to their adopted country’s dead. But how many people from any other country would appreciate it if I had a toga party complete with wine and chips right on top of their ancestors’ cemeteries? Try doing that in Tokyo sometime and see what happens. Nothing against the law, of course, just HORRIBLY INCONSIDERATE AND CRUDE. And it would probably get me arrested. What do you think?


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