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Mosque on Ground Zero: Is It Really Such A Great Idea?

(First published in Urban Times on 23rd Aug 2010)

There’s a lot of talk about a potential mosque at Ground Zero. America is divided around the issue, with progressive people from both sides arguing for the proposition, saying it’ll be good for the country, and resistant people from both sides arguing against it, saying it’s inappropriate. For a quick overview of the issue, Lexington at the Economist rounds it up nicely, presenting an interesting argument in an article aptly named Build That Mosque.

Reading the article — or the title alone — one can see that further to the nice roundup it offers, Lexington’s end position is in favor of building the Mosque — which is an interesting point in itself. The fact that The Economist, a right-leaning publication, argues for the Mosque exemplifies the fact that this is not a question of right and left politics per se, divided along straightforward bipartisan lines. This is a subtler, more complex issue.

Which is exactly why building that mosque is neither as simple nor as constructive as it seems.

The argument is simple. Imagine ten crazy Christian Fundamentalists entering Mecca, posing as Muslim. They walk inside, among the crowds, take their M16s from under their loose garments and start shooting everyone around them. By the time local security forces take them out, 210 people have been killed and a further 544 have been injured.

Now imagine for a moment that international armed conflict has been averted. Let’s just focus on the on-site aftermath and logistics. Mecca, wounded and scarred, tries to put the incident behind it and resurrect itself, get back on track. Millions of believers are called on pilgrimages as a sign of solidarity to their fallen Muslim brothers; mullahs preach fervently; the money is flowing in from sympathizers and charities; international organizations are lending a hand. The place gathers itself up, eager to put the trauma behind and move on.

Now amid all the hype, amid the sympathy and solidarity, the representative of the Catholics in Saudi Arabia comes to the site and announces that he wants to build a Christian Church right next to Mecca to show that Christian religion is not to blame and that it doesn’t support terrorism. On the contrary it condemns terrorism, the Catholic representative says. Therefore, in good faith, and as a act of kindness, Christianity wishes to build a Church right next to Mecca, reminding its Muslim cousins — and everyone in the world — that it is a peaceful religion which does not condone extremist acts of violence.

Imagine that happened… How do you think the Muslim world would react? How would they respond? Would they accept such an offer or not? If not, why not?

Preaching Is Easy

The imaginary situation raises questions of practical concern. Things are not that simple or easy to push under the carpet, goodwill or no goodwill, progressive society or not. Sometimes theory and abstract politics are not enough. Sometimes things have to be grounded in reality. Rather than have abstract morality get away with the situation, pushing us down roads that sound great on paper, it’s more prudent and advisable to exhibit some realism and react according to the situation on the ground rather than according to the ground in the situation room, or the academic book, or the chairman-and-board committee. Let the policy be dictated based on human parameters rather than humanistic ones. Let strategy be in touch with the field.

Careful examination of the situation — plus a small analogy in reverse i.e. imagining a ground zero in Mecca and the building of a church there — will do that, making it clear why building a mosque on Ground Zero is not a sound idea, why it’s not beneficial for anyone, why it will plant the foundations of rapprochement on very shaky foundations. It is a provocative measure, possibly well-meant and apolitical — although many would disagree — and in direct disregard of reality, sideswiping the feelings of millions of ordinary people and replacing their perspectives and feelings with a morally-superior agenda that vies to restore peace by enforcing it. A top-down peace directive that is based on indiscriminate interpretations of freedom of religion, all souped up and packaged so as to pass as an act of right, while acting with complete disregard for the delicate balance of the sensitivities involved. A balance that seems to display more sensitivity toward the religion associated with the attack — unjust and inaccurate as that association may be — than toward the group who suffered the attack. There is a rush to mend fences with the maligned American Muslim community — which would not be a bad political move so long as it didn’t do so at the expense of common sense. Not holding grudges and letting go of stereotypes is one thing… sucking the blow up and moving on is one thing… being progressive and fighting bigotry and neutralizing holy wars and religious antagonism is one thing… but pretending not to understand what happened… pretending that half of America’s opinion doesn’t matter… enforcing policy that is in direct disregard with the field, with the citizenry of the country, with the raw reality down on the ground, is quite another. It’s just bad strategy. Lousy management.

If it’s peace and progress the proponents of the Mosque want, they ought to remember why they want it: so that stability will return to the area and relations between America and Islam will be restored; so that there is no discrimination against American Muslims, or any Muslims; so that America may retain and reinforce its free-loving, open-society mainframe.

All this will not happen if we close our eyes to the reality of the situation and pretend that what happened to the WTC didn’t happen, going about our business as if this was not a delicate issue, building a shrine to the religion associated (indirectly) with the group that brought that place to the ground. It would be insult to injury, not because we are stereotyping against that religion but because it’s just bad policy. No one would accept such a gesture if in a similar situation themselves, nor Saudis, nor Iranians, nor Libyans and Indonesians. And for those among us who think that this is irrelevant, that because Islam would not accept such a gesture doesn’t mean we shouldn’t either — for we are a free society and ought to do what is right — let me point out that no one at all would accept it, no one of sound mind. This has nothing to do with the despotic nature of the Saudi or other Arab governments involved in our imaginary scenario. The issue here is common sense: building such a shrine next to a place of massacre, in such a prominent way, is just plain stupid. Or, worse yet, crass.

I mean imagine the NRA going to Columbine and building a new wing for the school. Just imagine the outrage.

The reason to not build that mosque is simple: because the measure doesn’t fit the rapprochement. There will come a time when a mosque will be welcome there — or when it will be advisable to lobby for one. That time has not yet arrived.