A Mosque in New York City

In December 2009 the New York Times ran a story entitled "Muslim Prayers and Renewal Near Ground Zero" about plans to build an Islamic center – also known as the Cordoba House and Park51 project – at 45-51 Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center.  The building had been purchased earlier that year by a group of Muslims and had been used as a place of prayer (the location is not designated as a mosque, but is used as overflow prayer space for a nearby mosque in the TriBeCa neighborhood).  According to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the cleric leading the project, building an Islamic center would send "the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11" and that he wanted "to push back against the extremists."

At the time, the project received tacit support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg – according to a spokesman for the mayor, "If it’s legal, the building owners have a right to do what they want."  (Subsequently, Bloomberg has said that the "proposed mosque and community in Lower Manhattan is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime.")  At least one New York Rabbi, Arthur Schneier, has no ill will towards the project: "He [Feisal Abdul Rauf] subscribes to my credo: ‘Live and let live.’"  And Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Department of Religion at the Chautauqua Institution (a place that provides an atmosphere in which artists and scholars, young and old, left and right, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, and atheist can explore, exchange, and grow – all unencumbered by the divisiveness found elsewhere, and encouraged by the acceptance and welcome we offer one another) believes, "Building so close is owning the tragedy. It’s a way of saying: ‘This is something done by people who call themselves Muslims. We want to be here to repair the breach, as the Bible says.’"

It’s also worth noting that Abdul Rauf is a Sufi Muslim (which is more spiritual in nature rather than strictly ritual – an important distinction from almost all of the radical Muslim clerics) who has devoted his career to interfaith understanding.  Moreover, his wife, Daisy Khan, is on an advisory team for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. According to Lynn Rasic, a spokeswoman for the memorial, "The idea of a cultural center that strengthens ties between Muslims and people of all faiths and backgrounds is positive."  Even conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham said in an interview (as guest host on Fox TV’s "The O’Reilly Factor") with Daisy Khan, "I like what you’re trying to do."

Fast forward to today.  The proposed Islamic center is at the center of a national controversy – according to a CNN poll 68% of Americans are opposed to the project.  Earlier this week, President Obama declared his support for the project.

"As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.  This is America.  And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."

Not surprisingly, Republican Representative Peter King believes "President Obama is wrong.  It’s insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero."  (Other notable Republicans who have expressed opposition include Senator John McCain, his vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, just to name a few.)  Surprisingly, however, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also disagrees with the president and "thinks the mosque should be built someplace else."

It shouldn’t shock anyone that Republicans would seize the so-called "ground zero mosque" (and just to be clear: it’s more than a mosque – it’s an interfaith community center – and it’s not at ground zero – it’s two blocks away, which in Manhattan real estate can be another world) for political opportunity.  But it’s hard to understand how Republicans (who at least pay lip service to conservatism) can be opposed to the owners of private property exercising their rights (as long as they are in compliance with local zoning and ordnances).

Understandably, there is a lot of emotion surrounding the issue.  But most of that emotion is the inability to separate Islam from the 9/11 terrorists who carried out the attacks against the World Trade Center towers in the name of Islam.  But all Muslims are not terrorists.  And by all accounts Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is hardly a radical Imam spouting "Death to America!"  (In a CBS60 Minutes interview shortly after 9/11 when asked if the U.S. deserved to be attacked, Abdul Rauf answered: "I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States’ policies were an accessory to the crime that happened" – perhaps impolitic to say so soon after the attacks, but nonetheless the truth about U.S. policies.)  Indeed, conflating Islam with terrorism perpetuates the mindset of the Bush administration that led us into a wrongheaded war in Iraq.  It should speak volumes that a former advisor to President Bush, Mark McKinnon, has criticized Republican opposition to the project: "And here we are, reinforcing al-Qaeda’s message that we’re at war with Muslims."

OK, but shouldn’t we be more sensitive to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks?  Michael Burke, whose brother was a New York City firefighter who died at the World Trade Center, expresses the sentiments of many victims opposed to the project:

"Freedom of religion or expression and private property rights are not the issues raised by the proposed mosque near ground zero.  Decency is; right and wrong is.

"In today’s world, many believe that their ‘rights’ supersede all other considerations, like what is respectful, considerate and decent.  A mosque and Islamic community center steps from ground zero in a building damaged in the attacks is simply wrong. It is disrespectful. It is astoundingly insensitive.

"It naturally provokes anger and when it does, its proponents are shocked. This project lacks common decency."

[As an aside, I wonder how many of the same people who are angered by the idea of a mosque in the vicinity of ground zero don’t understand how Muslims are angered by the presence of the U.S. military in their countries, i.e., American cultural centers at gunpoint.]

Interestingly, however, people opposed on the grounds of sensitivity don’t seem to think that existing mosques in the vicinity of ground zero are somehow insensitive (Masjid Manhattan is four blocks from ground zero and Masjid al-Farah is about 12 blocks from ground zero).  So if the argument of "sensitivity" prevails, the logical extension is that there shouldn’t be any mosques anywhere near ground zero.  According to former New York Fire Department Deputy Chief Jim Riches, whose son Jim was killed, "I don’t want to have to go down to a memorial where my son died on 9/11, and look at a mosque."  That sentiment was echoed by C. Lee Hanson, whose son, daughter-in-law, and baby granddaughter were killed, "When I look over there and I see a mosque, it’s going to hurt."  Do those feelings only apply to the proposed Islamic community center that includes a mosque?  One would think it wouldn’t matter – that a mosque is a mosque, old or new, to the victims.  Yet there’s no hue and cry to raze Masjid Manhattan or Masjid al-Farah.

And if ground zero is sacrosanct, why not in all of New York City?  After all, the entire city felt the impact of 9/11 and I’m sure its victims don’t just reside or work in and around ground zero.  And the victims of 9/11 aren’t just limited to New York City, so why not make all of America off limits to mosques?

Because we are a constitutional republic and two constitutional amendments are germane.  The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble."  It doesn’t make an exception for Islam.  And the Fourteenth Amendment states: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."  Again, it doesn’t make an exception for Muslims who are citizens.

Tim Brown, a New York City firefighter steadfastly opposed to the mosque declares, "They will never build this mosque," and argues, "The families lost their loved ones to terrorists, Islamic, Muslim terrorists who do not believe in religious freedom."  That is exactly why we need to be true to our Constitution and uphold the right of religious freedom – even so near the World Trade Center.  That’s what it means to be America.  And – contrary to Newt Gingrich’s assertion, "The ground zero mosque is a political statement of radical Islamist triumph" – to give in to Islamophobia by equating an Islamic cultural center that includes a mosque with the 19 hijackers and terrorism more generally would be what gives bin Laden and his ilk their victory.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.