Mosque Debate: Tempest in a Teapot

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Many facts overlooked by those opposed to Islamic Cultural Center

By Ian Alterman

Alan Chartock’s piece should be must-reading with respect to the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero (“First Amendment at Stake,” Aug.19). I would like to add some facts to the debate:

Most people opposed to the project say that it is “too close to Ground Zero.” Yet before and since 9/11, there has been an active mosque only four blocks from Ground Zero, and no one ever expressed any opposition to it. As well, the congregation of the imam behind the project outgrew its storefront mosque near Canal Street some time ago, and has been using a portion of the Park Place building ever since. Yet no one expressed any opposition to that either.

Only a fraction of the project will be prayer or worship space; the vast majority of the 13-story building will be taken up by an auditorium, a gymnasium, a pool, offices, exhibition spaces and the like. The Board of Directors will be comprised of Muslims, Christians and Jews. And programming will include multi-cultural and multi-religious courses and exhibitions. It will essentially be the Islamic equivalent of the Jewish Community Center or 92nd Street Y.

There will be no domes, minarets or other obvious Islamic architectural elements. The building will look like a fairly plain office building. Thus, most people visiting the memorial and new buildings will not even know it is there.

I would also like to add three comments.

First, the broad-brush claim that Muslims build mosques to mark triumphs is not historically accurate. Although it is true that in some cases conquering Muslims did build mosques, this should not be surprising. In fact, the Old Testament is replete with cases where the Israelites built temples shortly after they conquered an area. And the Christians did similarly during the Crusades. In all cases, this was far more a practical matter than any sense of triumphalism. With specific respect to the name of the project developer, the Cordoba mosque was actually a nearly completed church that was simply converted into a mosque: It was not “built” by the conquering Muslims.

Second, even if we accept that Ground Zero is somehow “sacred ground,” the proposed project is not on Ground Zero, so it is not “desecrating” it in any way. In fact, the new complex actually being built at Ground Zero is expected to have a commercial element likely to include such things as McDonald’s, Starbucks, Duane Reade and other stores. I would suggest that selling Big Macs and chai lattes on “sacred ground” is a far greater desecration than a nearly invisible Islamic center two blocks away.

Third, most of those opposed to the project consider themselves patriots, and ostensibly support the Constitution—and the troops who fought and died (and continue to do so) to defend and protect that Constitution and the freedoms it provides. Yet many of these same people are all too willing to ignore the Constitution—in this case its provision supporting “the free exercise” of religion—when it is inconvenient. Some counter by saying that although Muslims may have a right to build the project, they should not do so out of “respect” for those who died. One pundit responded to this by saying, “In other words, freedom of religion… should be exercised only if first ratified by a ‘popularity contest.’”

Many Muslims died on 9/11, including in the planes (other than the hijackers), in the Twin Towers, at the Pentagon and at Shanksville. And many Muslim first responders (police officers, firefighters, etc.) responded to the attacks—some losing their lives when the towers collapsed. And the vast majority of the world’s one billion Muslims practice their faith privately and quietly; they do not engage in or support violence, and they repudiate the acts of those extremists who participated in the attacks.

In this regard, those opposed to the project are defining an entire religion by the acts of a few. And that is about as un-American as anything I can think of.

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Ian Alterman is a non-denominational protestant minister. He lives on the Upper West Side.

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