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Is a Mosque Near Ground Zero a Bad Idea?

Authors: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations Daniel Senor Richard Land, President, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Chris Seiple, President, Institute for Global Engagement Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities, Reed College, Author of "A History of Islam in America"
Interviewer(s): Toni Johnson
August 23, 2010

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Plans by the Cordoba Initiative to build a community center that includes a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero in New York have sparked a heated national debate. Some argue vehemently that the group--started after 9/11 to promote religious and cultural understanding--should not attempt to build a mosque so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks, while others see it as an affirmation of American values.

CFR President Richard Haass notes that the mosque debate has an international dimension in that it could "take a toll on prospects for U.S. policies throughout the greater Middle East." Chris Seiple, president for the Institute for Global Engagement, says if the country "cannot embody a principled pluralism in this conversation" at home, then it should not be attempting to promote such ideas abroad. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, associate professor of religion and humanities at Reed College and author of A History of Islam in America, argues that by "defending religious freedom on a national stage, American Muslims are actively defining precisely what it means to be American."

But Daniel Senor, CFR adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, says the mosque could be seen as "a monument erected on the site of a great 'military' victory" by those "who are swayed by the most radical interpretations of Islam." And Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for Southern Baptist Convention, argues the mosque "symbolizes that the trauma of 9/11 is still a raw and unhealed emotional wound in American society." Both argue in favor of building the mosque farther away from the site of the attacks.

Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations

We tend to think of foreign policy as something conceived and carried out by diplomats in the State Department, but in many cases the most significant foreign policy is that done by Americans going about their lives. Call it foreign policy by example.

Thanks to satellite television and the Internet and foreign visitors, what happens here in the United States quickly spreads to the rest of the world. The debate over the proposed Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero in New York City is a domestic debate, but one with international repercussions. The initial reaction in the Arab and Muslim worlds has thus far been relatively muted. There are expressions of respect for American tolerance in allowing a Muslim religious institution to be built near so sensitive a site. And there is concern that the negative public reaction in this country might set back the cause of Muslim integration in the United States.

Anti-Americanism has unfortunate potential: It can breed tolerance of or, worse yet, support for radicalism and terrorism, and it can stimulate opposition to American policies as well as to local leaders in Arab and Muslim-majority countries who associate themselves with the United States.

The danger is that a third reaction will gain hold abroad. What I have in mind is anti-Americanism, a possible response to increasingly strident statements by Americans that appear to be anti-Muslim. And such anti-Americanism has unfortunate potential: It can breed tolerance of or, worse yet, support for radicalism and terrorism, and it can stimulate opposition to American policies as well as to local leaders in Arab and Muslim-majority countries who associate themselves with the United States. This has the potential to take a toll on prospects for U.S. policies throughout the greater Middle East, including U.S. efforts designed to promote peace, stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, and isolate Iran.

That would be tragic. The central issue that needs to be aired is what more can be done to discourage individuals from committing acts of terrorism in the name of Islam. Ideally, such actions and such individuals would be delegitimized by their fellow Muslims, who are in a unique position to challenge them. But this requires that those Muslims--many of whom live in America--who represent a more modern and tolerant vision of Islam have the opportunity to show that there is a better way. It is time to move ahead with the community center--either as planned or nearby--and get on with this larger debate.

Daniel Senor

Supporters of the Ground Zero Mosque typically cite religious freedom. I do not object to the mosque because it is a mosque, nor do I have any wish to curtail Islamic freedom of worship. Where a particular facility is sited is not a matter of religious liberty. My concern is that two blocks from Ground Zero is an inappropriate and insensitive location for this center.

In the minds of those who are swayed by the most radical interpretations of Islam, the "Ground Zero Mosque" will not be seen as a center for peace and reconciliation. It will rather be celebrated as a monument erected on the site of a great "military" victory.

In the minds of those who are swayed by the most radical interpretations of Islam, the "Ground Zero Mosque" will not be seen as a center for peace and reconciliation. It will rather be celebrated as a monument erected on the site of a great "military" victory. This reality is clear enough after studying the recruitment propaganda used by terrorist groups that exists on the web and elsewhere. Progressive Muslim leaders who reject the link between Islam and the radicalism espoused by al-Qaeda must be wary of helping to further this rhetoric, even inadvertently.

My deeper concern is what effect the Ground Zero Mosque would have on the families of 9/11 victims, survivors of and first responders to the attacks, and New Yorkers in general. Many understandably see the area as sacred ground. Nearly all of them also reject the equation of Islam with terrorism. But many believe that Ground Zero should be reserved for memorials to the event itself and to its victims.

Another site--not just away from Ground Zero but also closer to residential neighborhoods--would serve the institution and the city better. Worshipers would be closer and the communities that need help would also benefit from proximity. New York City's elected officials and business and civic leaders should help Imam Rauf select and secure another site, to overcome regulatory hurdles, and to make up for any lost time.

Simply choosing another site would meet my concern about symbolism without curtailing worshipers' freedom by one iota.

Richard Land, President, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty

The controversy over the new mosque, proposed in the immediate proximity to Ground Zero of the 9/11 attacks, symbolizes that the trauma of 9/11 is still a raw and unhealed emotional wound in American society. It is perhaps most analogous to a similar sneak attack on American soil at Pearl Harbor, HI, on December 7, 1941. These two events, both costing approximately three thousand American lives, were premeditated attacks by enemies of the United States. The fact that they occurred on American soil, and not at some overseas site, brought them close to home.

If those desiring the mosque truly are seeking greater interfaith understanding and reconciliation, they will hear the pain and concern expressed by their fellow Americans and will graciously agree to move their mosque two or three blocks farther away from Ground Zero.

Even sixty-nine years later, it would be unacceptable for most Americans to have a Japanese Shinto shrine within sight of USS Arizona. There is a Shinto shrine in Honolulu approximately three miles from the USS Arizona, and that is as it should be. Japanese-American followers of the Shinto religion have the right to have places of worship in close proximity to where they live. They do not, however, have the right to build a shrine right next to the USS Arizona. That ground has been hallowed by the deaths of the American sailors who perished there.

Similarly, Americans have overwhelmingly decided that Ground Zero is hallowed ground consecrated by the nearly three thousand people who died there. And while the overwhelming majority of Muslims--American and otherwise--repudiate the radical Islamic Jihadism of those who perpetrated the attack on the World Trade Center, it is still the case that it was done in the name of a perverted understanding of Islam. If those desiring the mosque truly are seeking greater interfaith understanding and reconciliation, they will hear the pain and concern expressed by their fellow Americans and will graciously agree to move their mosque two or three blocks farther away from Ground Zero.

Chris Seiple, President, Institute for Global Engagement

This discussion has been reduced to a false choice between constitutional right and earnest emotion. We must engage the emotion in order to sustain the right. If I had to choose today, I would of course support the Lockean principles of conscience and property. But I don't think we need to choose just yet.

The folks I know--from across the political and theological spectrum--have never been more disappointed in the state of our public discourse. They seek an honest discussion. And if peace-building is the purpose of the proposed mosque, then the building is now less important than the conversation it has catalyzed and how we treat each other.

If peace-building is the purpose of the proposed mosque, then the building is now less important than the conversation it has catalyzed and how we treat each other.

Indeed, if we cannot embody a principled pluralism in this conversation--agreeing to disagree with respectful and mutual courtesy over our deepest differences--then how dare we promote such ideas abroad? Why should Muslims work with us overseas, on any issue, if the perception grows worldwide that Americans cannot treat their fellow American-Muslims with respect?

Make no mistake, the conduct of this conversation speaks to the essence of our beliefs, our resulting way of life, and therefore the reason we send our troops overseas.

So why not take a step back, take a deep breath, and have an intentional, national conversation? (As I have suggested at the Washington Post and on our Facebook page.) As a result, we might increase mutual understanding and respect, according to the best of our faith traditions and the best of America . . . and maybe all parties can agree on the most appropriate site for the mosque.

If we can seize this moment, and be the best of who we are, we will also ensure our ultimate victory over the terrorists.

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities, Reed College, Author of "A History of Islam in America"

The planned Park 51 project [the site for the intended community center] symbolizes the role religious minorities have historically played in shaping American national identity. If we step back from the current hysteria and look at the debates surrounding this project through the lens of the history of American Islam, remarkably what is lost by many is that in defending religious freedom on a national stage, American Muslims are actively defining precisely what it means to be American.

Defense of the First Amendment on the national stage shows that [Muslims] continue to believe that as long as they play their part as citizens, their mosques and Islamic centers will be accepted for what they are--American institutions.

This is not the first time American Muslims have played a significant role in shaping America's national identity. During the civil rights movement, they struggled to help realize the ideal of racial equality, and their activism has been emblematically memorialized in American history through Malcolm X (Malik al-Shabazz). During the protests against Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, American Muslims played an important role in preempting the divisions that this affair engendered in Europe. They defended freedom of speech while appealing to non-Muslims to understand their religious sensibilities. American Muslim activists sought a balance between freedom of speech and cultural sensitivity.

I suspect that many who defended freedom of speech over religious sensibilities during the Rushdie affair are now arguing that the planners of this project forgo their right for the sake others' sensitivities.

There is an important lesson about American Islam in this irony. In their long history of both positive and negative engagement with non-Muslims, American Muslims have generally believed in an American sense of fair play. Today, their defense of the First Amendment on the national stage shows they continue to believe that as long as they play their part as citizens, their mosques and Islamic centers will be accepted for what they are--American institutions. The resolution of this controversy lies in this realization.

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