E Pluribus Unum

  • Monday, August 16, 2010
  • Payton Bartee
  • The World Trade Center/mosque debate is a pretty incredible national discussion right now. I'm going to try and save my own personal comments to the end, and present some documented facts at the outset. No matter the situation, it is important to be educated about an issue of which you're passionately opinionated. Hopefully most of us have done our research on this mosque, but some choose to simply spread hate. I will say flat out that I sympathize with the families and people affected by 9/11. It's easy to diagnose the ethical problems people have with the proposed mosque--some people argue that it is offensive, a proverbial slap in the face to victims of 9/11. Even if that isn’t the Islamic group’s intention here, I completely understand this reaction.

    The fact of the matter in this 'ethical argument,' however, is that ethics ultimately have no bearing on law. The First Amendment is about as transparent in this arena as it can get: if New York City allows houses of worship in the area, it cannot legally stop the mosque from being built without violating the most sacred right U.S. citizens enjoy daily.

    Some facts (with occasional commentary thrown in after)
    • First and foremost, the Cordoba House will be built on the site of the old and unoccupied Burlington Coat Factory. It is not being built on the WTC site. No one perished on this ground, as it is two blocks from the WTC (and not even visible from Ground Zero)
    • Somebody looked up an aerial photo of the Cordoba House on Google Maps, or check it out yourself: the address is 45 Park Place, but the buildings on Vesey and Barclay Street are kind of in the way.
    • Here's a picture of the final architectural design; looks like an ordinary, 12-story building to me

    So, in summary: it's not as close to WTC as media says, it doesn't resemble a mosque in structure, and the building that is being demolished to make room for this giant "mosque" housed…a mosque. This isn’t a new establishment, just a much larger version of what was already there.

    • Within three blocks walking distance of Ground Zero, the NY Daily News counted 17 pizza shops, 18 bank branches, 11 bars, 10 shoe stores and 17 separate "female" salons...not to mention a few adults stores and strip clubs

    I know it's New York, and there's probably establishments of that variety on every block in lower Manhattan. But it kind of takes away from the "sanctity" of the surrounding area, no? Ground Zero is flooded by a sea of filth, yet no strong Christian opposition to any of those existing so close to the site.

    Personally I think this is the biggest and most important point of this entire story. Muslims have purchased land to build a building in which Muslims will pray and have services, amongst many other activities open to all. The people who frequent that mosque will not be forcing anyone else to worship there or to listen to their prayers. This is exactly what the First Amendment is meant to protect. People walk by all sorts of things on their way to and from Ground Zero, including profane and offensive graffiti. Having to walk by a beautiful mosque should be no more offensive than having to walk by a beautiful Catholic chapel.

    History gives us something else to chew on; Timothy McVeigh, a Christian, blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing many children as well as adults. The Episcopal Cathedral right across the street was heavily damaged in the blast. Yet not one person objected to its being rebuilt near that Memorial because a Christian had committed that terrorist act.

    • The founder, Imam Rauf, calls the project a community center for all faiths. In addition to housing a mosque, the building will include fitness facilities (swimming pool, gym, basketball court), a 500-seat auditorium (Tribeca!), a restaurant and a cooking school, exhibition space, a library, art studios, prayer space (Muslim AND non-denominational), childcare facilities, and a 9/11 memorial
    • Rauf worked with GWBush on middle-eastern peace during his two terms
    • To everyone saying 'Ask the families!'--NY mayor is doing that

    Colleen Kelly of the Bronx lost her brother on 9/11. Her comments were poignant: "The mosque is in many ways a fitting tribute. This is the voice of Islam that I believe needs a wider audience. This is what moderate Islam is all about."

    Essentially, public opinion on this issue is divided into thirds. About a third of the country thinks that not only do the developers have a right to build the mosque, but that it's a perfectly appropriate thing to do. Another third think that while the development is in poor taste, the developers nevertheless have a right to build it. And the final third think that not only is the development inappropriate, but the developers have no right to build it -- perhaps they think that the government should intervene to stop it in some fashion.

    Obama's remarks, while asserting that "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," and that the "principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are," simply reflected the view that the developers had a First Amendment right to proceed with the project -- a view that at least 60 percent of Americans share. True, Obama could have hedged a little bit more, by saying something along the lines of "they have every right to build it, but I hope they will consider another location". On the other hand, it is not as though he said "this is a wonderful thing, and I'm going to make sure to take Sasha and Malia there once it's built." Instead, he acknowledged the sensitivity over the Ground Zero site, calling it "hallowed ground", but couched the controversy in terms of the First Amendment.

    The President was asked again on Saturday for his thoughts on the issue: "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding."

    Obama said that "my intention was simply to let people know what I thought. Which was that in this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion."


    I think a key question underlying the Ground Zero mosque debate is whether Americans are under the impression we are at war with Islam. Because that perception determines our direct feelings for the religion, as well as if we avoid or provoke a clash in the discrepancy.

    Outlawing any Muslim presence from the neighborhood because of the actions of 19 terrorists succumbs this nation to the same flawed ideology of the terrorist who label all Americans as evil. The numbers are revealing; at least 23 Muslims were included among the victims of the 9/11 terrorists. Equating Islam as a whole to the terrorist acts of 19 individuals perpetuates the ignorance Americans have of this world religion. Maybe the presence of a mosque would provide people an opportunity to meet true Muslims, whose name (if you haven't forgotten) at its root word is "peace." By issuing a building permit to Americans who want to build a community center, we uphold the freedoms that define our nation and prove the ideologies of terrorists to be a lie.

    If Islam is the enemy, then further action has to be taken by the government, and we should not stop at Cordoba. To follow suit, we would need to outlaw new mosques from Boston to San Francisco. Or we could get extremely dicey and reenact our treatment of Japanese-American Buddhists in WW2, putting them in camps and such. But if the enemy is terrorism, then we should realize that we only incite and inspire that enemy when we act as if we are at war with the religion of Islam.

    The Constitution

    Muslims clearly and unquestionably are entitled to the protections of religious freedom the Constitution offers. From this truth, any action to preclude disrupt plans to build the center would be "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion by Muslims. Even if we accept the judgment that some interpretations of Islamic belief were among the motivating factors behind the 9/11 attacks, we cannot overlook the Constitutional freedom that is guaranteed to Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and others.

    If Americans still believe that the Constitution truly matters, we should celebrate a desire to build a mosque in New York City. Otherwise, we will have not only abandoned our Constitution, we will have adopted the ideology of those in Iran who would not want a church or synagogue to be built in Tehran.

    My thoughts

    As a Christian, it would be incredible to experience an America in which religious faith can be expressed comfortably and confidently. Yes, the freedoms provided by the Constitution are there in plain writing, but we still have strings attached to our American culture. For example, neighborhood families being comfortable welcoming Muslims to the backyard BBQ in a post-9/11 world (without being suspicious just because of some fanatics) is a tall order, but more my idea of the American dream than Apple or Abercrombie could ever provide. Are our ideals as Americans, Christians, and freedom lovers really so fragile that they can’t deal with a public exercise of expression? Phil Collins might be the only one to agree with me, but the people fighting the mosque are showing their true colors in not showing confidence in their ideals.

    So what is everyone scared of? Literally speaking, a mosque downtown gives people access to Islamic teachings, and if they are the violent religion their detractors claim, then wouldn’t we want them out in broad daylight for the public to see? And if those same detractors turn out to be wrong, then no harm, no foul. Perhaps letting them build the center would symbolize something different to people in the U.S., such as what Bloomberg suggested when he said it would represent tolerance. To me, it would be an incredible symbol of American confidence in our values. It would show that as a nation, we prize these beliefs even when it pains us to do so.

    Some will argue why Groud Zero, and not somewhere else? If the city allows religious congregations in the area, they can’t keep out a mosque, simple as that. Motivations of the builders or anyone never really factor in, because adversely the government has no right to decide just because of a bad feeling. Also, the minute we empower government to shut down mosques, we empower it to shut down other things...like churches.

    Coming to a close, I think many people in this country imagine that this "mosque" (not a mosque) will tower over the NYC skyline like Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence. Anything over a dozen stories would tower over everything else in most towns, and even small cities in the US. But really, it’s not the height of said “mosque” that offends people, it’s the proximity. It feels to some like dancing on the graves of those whose lives were lost at the hands of terrorists who used Islam to justify their unspeakable deeds. And maybe that’s what people are projecting onto this Islamic center. It is near a location that is considered ‘hallowed ground’ in that it is a clear physical symbol of an attack on our nation: our first real gaping wound, and a fresh one at that. But the current the location also makes it the best place to redress the horror. It has the potential to be a place of permanent penance and an olive branch of peace. Remember, the WTC was specifically chosen because it functioned as a symbol in a pluralistic society. That fact is now lost on those who now wish to exclude a group related to the attackers only because of some loose affiliations of faith. Segregation of even one such group invalidates that which you claim to be--one nation made up of many geographical parts, varying nationalities, and faiths.

    This is un-American to all but those who really don’t understand what American virtues. America isn’t about being a leader in war, space, culture, or technology. It really is best summed up as, “E Pluribus Unum.” THAT is how we are unique. Kudos to the media for grossly ballooning this topic into a nationwide debate. While I agree this is an ethical controversy, it's more of a Constitutional/American issue. It doesn't help that for much of the conservatives out there, critical thought is easily replaced by fear when Islam is thrown in. Taken for what it truly is, the Cordoba House should be built without controversy and without causing pain. It will provide a multicultural, interfaith space to discuss peace and understanding, and assets to the community...wherever it ends up being built.


    Copyright 2010 occasional contemplations