In the past nine years, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have been invoked, distorted, and exploited to serve a variety of political and ideological agendas. But no such effort has been quite as shameful as the current campaign against the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.
“Ground Zero,” for better or worse, is the widely accepted term of reference for the site where the Twin Towers once stood, and discussions about the fate of that site since 9/11 have been protracted and painful. The families of those who died there differed about what should be built. A skyscraper called One World Trade Center is finally under construction, as well as a museum and a memorial, but the debate continues, along with bitter complaints about the slow progress.
Two blocks away, a group of New Yorkers is at the center of another painful debate, this one over the terms on which American Muslims should be permitted to participate in civic life. They propose to build, on the site of a now-abandoned building, an Islamic community center dedicated to promoting diversity, dialogue, and service. The project’s leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a moderate Sufi, long established in Lower Manhattan, who was called on by the Bush administration to assist with outreach to Muslims overseas. The community center, to be called Park51, would house a mosque, an interfaith program, fitness facilities, a restaurant, and a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.
The controversy over Park51 was manufactured by opportunists on the Right stoking outrage against what they describe as a “victory mosque” to be built “at Ground Zero” by radical Muslims intent on commemorating their “triumph.” Politicians and pundits from Sarah Palin to Newt Gingrich to Charles Krauthammer have sought to exploit anti-Muslim sentiment, as well as the pain of the 9/11 victims’ families, and have suggested that Islam itself is at war with America. Their opposition to Park51, which polls indicate is now shared by a majority of Americans, is implicitly based on the notion that all Muslims share in the guilt for the 9/11 attacks. It is an overt appeal to religious bigotry, one that both victimizes Muslims at home and makes it more difficult for ambassadors from the United States to the Muslim world, including Imam Rauf, to win cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Catholics have been on both sides of religious prejudice in the past. President Barack Obama alluded to past persecution of American Catholics in his August 13 remarks defending religious freedom, and New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg recalled that Catholics were once prohibited from practicing their faith in Lower Manhattan. “We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else,” Bloomberg said in an address defending Park51. “Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off limits to God’s love and mercy.”
Although he praised Bloomberg’s remarks, New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan passed up the opportunity to take an unequivocal stand. Instead, the archbishop offered tentative support for a “compromise” that would relocate Park51. But calls for the Muslim organizers to change their plans out of “sensitivity,” however well-meaning, would allow the prejudices of some to define the terms of freedom for others. It would set a dangerous precedent to allow the cynicism of those who launched this campaign to prevail over the facts.
Muslims were among those who died in the September 11 attacks. They were among the emergency personnel who responded to the disaster and the workers who sorted through the wreckage at Ground Zero. Muslim Americans, like all other Americans, responded to 9/11 in anger and fear, prayed for peace, grieved the loss of loved ones, and enlisted in the armed forces to fight terrorism. Any version of what happened that day that excludes their presence among the victims is inaccurate. Any argument that places all American Muslims outside the definition of “American” or fails to distinguish between ordinary Muslims and terrorists must be rejected.
Asking Imam Rauf and his community to retreat in the face of a deficient understanding of Islam is unreasonable and deeply harmful to attempts to combat Islamist terrorism at home and abroad. It is also a betrayal of the church’s call to rise above prejudice in relations with other faiths. American Catholics should be standing against the opposition to Park51 and all other manifestations of anti-Muslim prejudice. The bishops should be leading the way.
This editorial was first published on our Web site on August 23, 2010.