In case you have been on vacation from cable television and twitter for the last month or so, the summer's domestic political headlines have been dominated by a dispute over a proposed Islamic community center near the site of the World Trade Center attacks that has come to be known, variously, as Park 51, Cordoba House and, most popularly, the "Ground Zero Mosque." A Muslim organization has proposed building a 13-15 story community center on the site of a building that was damaged by debris from one of the attacks. According to the proposal, while most of the building would be used for sports, education and cultural programs, two floors would be devoted to a space for prayers, among other uses. The site is owned by a Muslim developer, and people have been meeting there regularly for prayers for a number of months. Critics say the project is insensitive to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Some also question the real agenda behind the project, intimating that the Imam behind the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is not the man of peace he claims to be.
The story has morphed from a local zoning dispute to a national debate on religious freedom and the proper way to respect the suffering of the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It has generated everything from impassioned pleas for and against the project by 9/11 victims and their families, to rhetoric from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich that was so heated that it drew rebukes from prominent conservatives who are usually his political allies (He said putting a mosque near Ground Zero was like "putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.") When President Obama weighed in with an endorsement of the right of Muslims "to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with laws and local ordinances," he took a beating from political opponents, and political allies such as Senate Majority leader Harry Reid were quick to distance themselves from him.
In this post, I don't want to debate whether the Park 51 initiative should go forward, although I am certain the very mention of this topic will lead to some debate. The post to start that conversation was published on Blogher last month, by community member Sabrina Enayatulla, and I recommend it.
Rather, I want to have a conversation about how we as bloggers approach a controversial, complicated subject such as this if our goal is to generate more light than heat. It's a hard story to do well, frankly, not only because of the emotion and political maneuvering surrounding it, but also because most Americans (including most journalists) don't know much about Islam and its many variations. There are so many examples of good and bad reporting and analysis on this story to discuss and learn from, and so many helpful resources that don't seem to be fully utilized, that story supplies a rich case study in the hazards of trying to report accurately on the volatile mix of religion, politics and national security. It's especially difficult to produce credible, independent reporting on the topic even the terms of the debate are freighted with ideological baggage.
Given the hazards, the first imperative in researching this issue is to separate fact from spin, and to ferret out the presuppositions and rhetorical strategies at the heart of the debate. The more I delved into this subject, the more that I realized that it's not just an argument about a local issue. It's about who gets to define what it means to be American, and how we decide on the ideas and values we will assimilate into our American identity. In order to fully explore how that larger issue applies in this particular case, I realize that I need at least three posts, not one. This post is about the challenge of finding non-ideological, well-founded ways to describe what's at issue and what it means.1. What, exactly, are we arguing about?.
On August 19, the Associated Press issued a memo to its staffers offering guidance on how to refer to the proposed Islamic community center that has come to be known, variously, as Park 51, Cordoba House and, most popularly, the "Ground Zero Mosque." According to the AP, all future dispatches should make it clear that the project is near the World Trade Center site, but not at the site.
The AP guidance does, however, refer to the project as a cultural center and mosque - a term used by almost everyone but Feisal Abdul-Rauf, the Imam at the center of the initiative itself. He, in fact, insists that it is not a mosque according to this May 20 press statement:
This is a subtle but important example of the kind of confusion that has clouded the debate over the appropriateness of the project, Why does this subtlety matter? According to this August 13 article in the FT.com, as well as this Sarah Palin-endorsed thinkpiece from the Ottawa Citizen condemning the project, the distinction matters because a mosque is a worship space that must accept all Muslims, and which non-Muslims are generally not permitted to enter. As the authors of the Ottawa Times piece, Raheel Raza and Tareek Fatah warn, "Let's not forget that a mosque is an exclusive place of worship for Muslims and not an inviting community centre." FT.Com quotes Rauf's wife and business partner, Daisy Khan, explaining the distinction this way:
“We insist on calling it a prayer space and not a mosque, because you can use a prayer space for activities apart from prayer. You can’t stop anyone who is a Muslim despite his religious ideology from entering the mosque and staying there,” said Imam Rauf’s wife and partner, Daisy Khan, who runs the American Society for Muslim Advancement, from an office housed on the Upper West Side’s famed Riverside Church. “With a prayer space, we can control who gets to use it.”
Nuance matters in good writing, and in political debate. If you're going to have an argument, you should at least be talking about the same thing.
In this instance, Khan and Rauf draw a distinction between a mosque and prayer space. Their opponents might see it as a distinction without a difference. That's a researchable question that's worth reporting. If the AP and others are going to keep calling it a mosque, I hope they address this distinction.
Is the Park 51 project at Ground Zero or near Ground Zero? Would it be visible from the site of the eventual World Trade Center memorial? Through twitter, former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin made it clear that she's sticking with the term "Ground Zero Mosque" despite what the AP says. Why? Eric Erickson at Red State says it's because the fact that it was damaged in the attacks makes it part of Ground Zero. AP and others focus on its distance from the former World Trade Center site itself, where the National September 11 memorial will be built. While most of us can't go to lower Manhattan and judge the distance between the two sites for ourselves, there are some resources that can help us make an independent judgment. For example, JTA, which bills itself as "The Global News Service of the Jewish People" sent a cameraman to walk the distance between the WTC site and the Park 51 project:
In addition, I've plotted the locations on Google Maps, along with that of one of the other nearby mosques referred to in this New York Times article.
Based on the map and the video, I understand the AP's reasoning. Although it's true that the Park Place building sustained damage on 9/11, "Ground Zero" evokes the site of the actual former WTC complex. Using terms such as "near the former World Trade Center site is clearer. Using the term "Ground Zero mosque" can lead to the erroneous conclusion that the building is closer to and more visible from the memorial site than it actually is.
For the last few weeks, I've been coming across statements such as this one from CBN:
"Polls show more than two-thirds of Americans oppose building a mosque so close to target of the Sept. 11 attacks. Some Republicans believe Obama's position has given them another advantage ahead of the midterm elections."
But when you actually examine the polling data, that conclusion isn't so clear. For example, Time.com released a poll August 19 saying that 61 percent of the respondents in a national poll oppose the building of the Park 51/Cordoba House project. But Time doesn't tell us the questions that were asked, and as Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com points out, that matters. Silver looked at polls taken shortly after Pres. Obama's remarks endorsing the right of Muslims to build a place of worship in Lower Manhattan and found that indeed, about two-thirds of poll respondents think the project is a bad idea. However, he said, a Fox News survey found that while opposition to the idea of the project runs high, two-thirds of its respondents in its survey agreed that the sponsors of the project have the right to move forward. Based on that, Silver concludes:
"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."
And here's another data point. An August 17 Gallup Poll found that while about a third of respondents said they "strongly disapproved" of the President's remarks, 41 percent said they diidn't know enough to venture an opinion. Not exactly definitive.
Watch the shifting grounds of debate
After Pres. Obama made his Aug. 13 comments on Muslims' right to worship, critics such as Rep. Peter King (R.-NY) were quick to say he missed the point:
"No one is saying there's not a right to build the mosque. But the fact is, with rights go responsibilities. And it's just incredibly insensitive to be constructing a 13-story mosque literally in the shadows of Ground Zero."
However, Obama prefaced his comments about the Park 51 project by saying that there had been efforts around the country to stop mosque-building projects. That contention is borne out by reports such as this August 7 New York Times story, which notes:
"In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself. They quote passages from the Koran and argue that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law."
Opponents of the Park 51 project have,raised the issue of sensitivity, as King said, but some have also questioned the motives of the project's backers in precisely the way the article describes.
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg also characterized the issue as a matter of religious freedom in his speech endorsing the project in early May. In an approving post on her site, Daily Gotham, Liza Sabater posted Bloomberg's remarks, including this excerpt:
"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 1780's – 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 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."
One of the ways that we make sense of something that is unfamiliar is to liken it to something familiar. It's also the way that we persuade others about the nature of a new thing. Thus, it's not surprising that so many of the parties to this argument use analogies to make their point. However, for analogies to work as part of a logical argument, they have to be valid comparisons.
For example, Colorlines' Michelle Chen caught this exchange between CNN's Don Lemon and Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Corps. After Lemon asked Patel whether it might be more sensitive to 9/11 survivors to move the project farther away, Patel said it was un-American to tell someone that they can't create a worship space in a location they own because of their religion. Lemon responded:
"Lemon: [interrupting] I understand that, but there’s always context, Mr. Patel … this is an extraordinary circumstance. You understand that this is very heated. Many people lost their loved ones on 9/11 —
"Patel: Including Muslim Americans who lost their loved ones…
"Lemon: Consider the context here. That’s what I’m talking about.
"Patel: I have to tell you that this seems a little like telling black people 50 years ago: you can sit anywhere on the bus you like — just not in the front.
"Lemon: I think that’s apples and oranges — I don’t think that black people were behind a Terrorist plot to kill people and drive planes into a building. That’s a completely different circumstance.
"Patel: And American Muslims were not behind the terrorist plot either."
One could argue that Patel's analogy here is strained because segregation had the force of law behind it, while the law is on the Park 51 proponents' side in the current controversy. However, the analogy is arguably effective in making Patel's point because he is able to defend the comparison.
Here's another example. On the August 16 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, Park 51 opponent and Republican congressional candidate the Rev. Michael Faulkner offered this analogy:
"It would not be fair for the Ku Klux Klan to erect a statue or a monument near the bombs (ph) in the South that were burned during the Civil Rights movement."
The guest host, Michael Smerconish, doesn't ask why it's valid to liken the people behind the Park 51 project to the KKK. Instead, he offers his own analogy:
"[W]e all remember when Pope John Paul II asked the Carmelite nuns to retreat from close proximity to Auschwitz. I mean, was that the right thing for him to do? And if so, then isn‘t it equally correct for there to be a request that this mosque not move forward? "
The Wall Street Journal's William McGurn thinks that's an apt comparison, and said so in an Aug. 8 column
"Let's remember what this means. By their own lights, the nuns believed they were doing only good. They may have had a legal title to be where they were. And it is likely that they never would have been forced to move by local authorities had they insisted on staying."
Certainly a less inflammatory comparison. However, Pope John Paul led an institution that, by his own admission, had been criticized for failing to speak out against the Holocaust. Imam Abdul Rauf is not like a Pope - he's not even the head of his own Sufi Muslim order - if such a thing can be said to exist. And while moderate Muslims have been criticized for not being sufficiently vocal about terrorists operating under the mantle of Islam, Rauf's bona fides as an opponent of terrorism include his outreach work with the Bush and Obama State Departments, as well as repeated verbal condemnations of terrorism.
Whatever the resolution of this particular zoning dispute, we Americans will have to become more sophisticated about the nature and diversity of Islamic practice and thought in America. Toward that end, I want to spend the next two posts talking about the complex figure of Imam Rauf, and the "clash of civilizations" thesis that critics such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali argue is at the heart of this and other related disputes. (Ali's article is a strong and accessible explication of this thesis. It's well worth reading for a lower-decibel explanation of the thinking behind the arguments of Newt Gingrich and others.) (h/t Little Green Footballs)
- Kari Ansari: Why We Should Welcome More Mosques in America
- Religion Newswriters Association: Muslims at Ramadan: Assimilation and Controversy
- Anushay Hossain: The Ground Zero Mosque is Not a Mosque
- Aziz Poonawalla: Q&A with Sharif el-Gamal with Sharif el-Gamal about Park 51
- HeatherRayne:Mosque. Enough Already
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