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.

Related: Wrong Then, Wrong Now, by Paul Moses; Islam & Modernity, by Patrick J. Ryan

From the dotCommonweal blog: Fact Check from the AP and
John Paul II & the "Ground Zero Mosque"



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May I assume Commonweal will now also unequicolly support all actions of the pro-life movement, rejecting calls for it to be sensitive to those who would link the predominantly peaceful movement with isolated acts of violence like the murder of George Tiller?


Let me unpack a bit more.

Whenever the pro-life movement takes some sort of action, or the hierarchy voices support for the unborn, you can usually count on Commonweal or dotCommonweal to express some kind of "concern" for how this action will be received by the public at large, which is not sympathetic to the pro-life cause.  This has applies to bishops' publicly correcting Catholic  stating that the pro-choice position is consistent with Catholic teaching to a pro-life Super Bowl ad featuring a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback and his mother.

Now, those sensitivities are rooted in error, one might even say "bigotry," that the unborn are not deserving of the protections of the law.

The message of this editorial is that it would be a terrible mistake to refrain from an action because of such sensitivities based on mistake viewpoints.  

I look forward to Commonweal's unequivocal support of the pro-life movement, freed from the responsibility to the sensitivities of those coming from mistaken and bigoted views about the unborn.

The word is not "legal" or "illegal," since law, and only law does not totally tell us right from wrong. The only Sovereign we have beyond the law is Jesus Christ. The fair word is "appropriate;" in an abiding love for each other  both true Christians and believing Moslims can then come to rest on the propriety of an act. Prudence should rule. Commonweal has always loved the barricades.

Herewith my article for our parish bulletin last weekend:

I have followed with interest, as I am sure many of you have, the public controversy over a major Islamic center proposed for a site two blocks from where the World Trade Center was in New York.  I agree with the opinion of our President that while our Constitution guarantees the right of those who own the site to do what they propose, it might not be the most prudent thing to do.  I was brought up short, however, by the name of the group that proposes to build this center, the Cordoba Initiative.

For just over a hundred years, from 929 to 1031 A.D., the city of Córdoba in southern Spain governed almost the entire Iberian Peninsula as a Muslim caliphate.  A caliph claimed at least moral descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and carried supreme religious and civil authority in his realm.  The office only went entirely out of use in the last century, and there are influential elements in the Islamic world who would like to see it restored, not least in Spain, where the 102 years of the Córdoba caliphate were stunning glory days.  No Spaniard I know, however, has the least sympathy for such a plan.

The professed agenda of the Cordoba Initiative is to promote mutual understanding among Muslims, Christians and Jews.  While the Quran mandates special protection and religious liberty for us as worshipers of what they believe to be the same God, and in possession of a sacred writing (the Bible), we must understand that we would always be second-class citizens in any Islamic regime.  Given the rise of radical Islam in our day, and the fact that no one can speak for all Muslims, can we trust any proposed interfaith dialogue with Islam to stay free of what we would call a secular agenda?


I appreciate Mr. Roark's concerns. I am sorry that he shared these concerns in a parish bulletin, as if they somehow reflect a Catholic response. They indeed do not. What he does underline is his own distrust of a "secular agenda" in the important work of interfaith work, which is occurring throughout this country in a variety of ways. It is obvious he has not learned much from this enormous, rich experience. 

I understand where this distrust may come from. What do we do as Americans about the diversity of Islam, the thrust of Sunis, and even more importantly, Catholic teaching about the importance of interfaith dialogue, despite the circumstances.

Mr. Roark leaves us in a dilemma about how to move forward in the Church's desire to create reconciliation and dialogue with Islam, and indeed with all religions. The Church though, thank God, has already led the way. 

Mr. Roark may also reflect the blurring of boundaries of political ideology and catholic theology happening nationwide where xenophobia and islamaphobia has more to do with the conservative politics than the compassion and openness of Christ.

Extemism is always in contraposition to pluralism, and Mr. Roark may reflect more "white anxiety" as an answer to extremism than to the Church's esteem for Islam and a careful reflection as to who is the real enemy. It is certainly not Islam, at least to Holy Father.

That the editors of Commonweal, in the most urgent human rights battle of our time, have not done everything that they should have done to fight the horror of legalized abortion does not mean that they are wrong about the mosque planned for lower Manhattan.  On the second issue, they are right.  Period.

I hope that our bishops, who have also failed in the struggle to protect unborn children, will have the courage to reprove any efforts capable of inciting hostility toward our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Keep and spread the Faith.

I am not saying they Commonweal is "wrong" about the mosque.  

I am contrasting their response to the center to their response to most pro-life activities, which I think most would agree falls somewhere short of "unequivocal support." 

If Commonweal is willing to support the pro-life movement's freedom of expression with equal vigor and conviction to what it was employed here in support of the mosque, that would be most welcome.

John McG, just out of curiosity, what (in your view) should be the law of the land with regard to abortion, and what (if any) consequences should there be for women who have abortions and those who perform and assist with abortions?

Just for the record, I am the pastor of the parish where the reflection abour Cordoba appeared.  A substantial portion of the parish are immigrants, so I know plenty about xenophobia.  My question is, what do those behind the Cordoba Initiative really want?  If it's about a restoration of the caliphate, we have nothing to talk about.  If not, then the first step toward dialog would be for them to find a more irenic name for their movement. 

Everyone commenting on the mosque issue has been, I believe, unequivocal in support of right to freedom of worship.

That said, if I were on the board of the mosque, I probably would have considered relocation as a good-will guesture.

But that said, I would ask the opponents of the current location of the mosque- How far away would be respectful- 6 blocks? 10 blocks? not at all in Manhattan?

Also, should we relocate the nearby "gentlemen's club"? Is its presence disrespectful of the dead?

So much posturing on all sides. It's a good thing our country doesn't have more pressing problems to be concerned about.

At a lower bound, I would accept a revocation of the professional licenses for those participating in an abortion.  I would not insist on a punishment for the mother in all cases, though some circumstances may warrant it.

But that said, I would ask the opponents of the current location of the mosque- How far away would be respectful- 6 blocks? 10 blocks? not at all in Manhattan?

What exact volume for my radio is too loud to disturb my neighbors?

Exactly how much pain can I inflict on a captive before it becomes torture?

How far can I go with a woman who is not my wife before it becomes adultery?

Not everything is reducible to black and white rules, as Commonweal is typically quick to remind us in other contexts.

Fr. Roark, thanks for your postings and questions.  Here's some of what the Cordoba Initiative says about themselves on the FAQs page of their website.  (Apologies for the length.)  Their homepage is


Frequently Asked Questions

The Proposed Community Center Project in Lower Manhattan FAQs

Why Cordoba? The name Cordoba was chosen carefully to reflect a period of time during which Islam played a monumental role in the enrichment of human civilization and knowledge. A thousand years ago Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life in Cordoba, Spain. Who is organizing this project?  What is the relationship of the Cordoba Initiative to this project?

The Cordoba Initiative, of which Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is founder and chairman, is a multi-faith non-profit organization whose aim is to improve relations between different communities, and in particular between the Muslim world and the United States of America.

The proposed community center in Lower Manhattan will serve as a platform for multi-faith dialogue. It will strive to promote inter-community peace, tolerance and understanding locally in New York City, nationally in America, and globally.

Daisy Khan is a board member of Cordoba Initiative and also the Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA). ASMA is committed to helping Muslim women and youth to improving their lives within their communities through projects on contemporary issues.

Both Imam Feisal and Ms. Khan are strong advocates for multi-faith collaboration. They share a vision of a community center in which various religious leaders and civil society will work closely together to foster community cohesion and advance the shared goals of moderation, peace and understanding. Through programs offered by the Cordoba Initiative and ASMA, the community center will crystallize this shared vision of peace into bricks and mortar. Why are you building a mosque at Ground zero?

The community center is not located at Ground Zero.

It will be a multi-floor community center open to all New Yorkers, much like a YMCA or Jewish Community Center (JCC) with a designated prayer space (mosque) in one area to serve the needs of the large existing community of American Muslims in the neighborhood.

The community center will provide a place where individuals, regardless of their culture or background, will find a place of learning, arts and culture, and, most importantly, a community center guided by the universal values of all religions in their truest form – peace, compassion, generosity, and respect for all. Why did you choose this site so close to Ground Zero?

We were always close to the World Trade Center. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been the Imam of a mosque twelve blocks from the Twin Towers for the last 27 years. Who is funding the community center?

No funds for this project have been raised to date. A project of this scale will require very diverse fundraising sources, including individuals from all faiths and beliefs –who are committed to peace and understanding. We expect that our sources of funding will include individuals of different religions, charitable organizations, public funds, institutional and corporate sponsors.   You will need a lot of contributors. Who will review your donor list?

The New York Charities Bureau and the US Treasury Department will review the donor list to assure that all funding sources are vetted to their satisfaction and approved. In addition, our Trustees and Advisory Board will be comprised of a multi-faith group of distinguished individuals who will ensure that the community center stays true to its objectives of peace, tolerance and understanding between all.

How did you purchase the building?

SoHo Properties, a New York real estate development firm based in lower Manhattan, acquired the property a couple of years ago. Sharif El Gamal, owner of SoHo Properties, is a member of Imam Feisal’s lower Manhattan congregation that has been in the neighborhood for a number of years.

Why so close to Ground Zero?

We have been residents and neighbors who are deeply committed to the neighborhood for the last 27 years. American Muslims have been peacefully living, working and worshipping in this neighborhood and were also terribly affected by the horrific events of 9/11.

As Muslim New Yorkers and Americans we want to help and be part of rebuilding our neighborhood in lower Manhattan. It is important for all of us to show the world that Americans will not be frightened or deterred by the extremist forces of hatred.

Isn’t this insensitive given that the 9/11 attackers were Muslims?   The events of 9/11 were horrific.  What happened that day was terrorism, and it shames us that it was cloaked in the guise of Islam. It was inhumane, un-Islamic and is indefensible regardless of one’s religious persuasion. Not only Americans but also all Muslims are threatened by the lies and actions being perpetrated by these self-serving extremists and their perverted view of Islam.

The community center will be a platform to amplify the voices of the overwhelming majority of Muslims whose love for America and commitment to peace gets drowned out by the actions of a few extremists. It will become a platform where the voices of those who resist religious extremism and terrorism can be amplified and celebrated.

But, why not build it a little bit farther away? Let’s say a mile away?

No one should be driven out of his or her own neighborhood – especially for religious reasons. It is unconstitutional and un-American. Our congregation has been peacefully worshipping in this area for almost three decades. Our neighbors have encouraged us to remain here and the City and the Community Board have encouraged our continued presence here. The community has backed up their support by approving every resolution and challenge in the community center’s favor.

What about the 9/11 families? Don’t you see their pain?  

Like all New Yorkers and Americans we were too devastated by 9/11. We share and respect the incredible pain and loss suffered by the victims of 9/11. We fully recognize their legitimate concerns and sensitivity to the community center. It shames us that extremists who profess to be Muslim perpetrated murder on such a horrific scale for political and financial gain in the name of Islam.

We look forward to actively engaging with leaders of the victims of 9/11 to respond to their concerns and obtain their support for our efforts.  

Will the extremists take over the Community Center once it’s built?

Extremism on both sides is the danger – it’s what we’re working against. A community center that celebrates diversity and multi-faith collaboration is antithetical to the extremists’ worldview. This center will be a blow to all extremists.

In addition, the multi-faith Trustees and Board of Advisors will also help assure that our good intentions are not hijacked by extremist elements who are against our vision of peace, tolerance and understanding. Are you not building a project that will be one of conquest? Isn’t this a victory for the extremists?

The community center is opposed to religious extremists of all faiths. It demonstrates that Americans cannot be intimidated and will join together to promote moderation, peace and understanding when challenged.

The extremists will not find victory or comfort in a community center whose sole purpose is to bring peace through multi-faith collaboration and celebrate the diversity of views in our world.

This center is an important step towards building understanding and peace. Just as we strive to understand the faith and traditions of our neighbors, this center will invite others to learn about the true nature of Islam. A religion of peace, tolerance, and understanding.

It is certainly tru that not every sin (I suppose the mosque is a transgression) can be reduced to black and white. So let us err on the side of safety- Do not shake hands with a woman, it might lead to adultery. And let us build the controversial mosque west of Ohio. Perhaps no one will object to that location.

You write:


"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"


So anyone who takes a position on this issue opposed to yours believes that all Muslims share in the guilt for the 9/11 attacks?  How do you know that?


And you believe that all these people are religious bigots?  Do you truly believe that?


I am not advocating that we govern ourselves by whomever stakes out the furtherst position.  I am saying we need to have a (respectful) negotiation.

If my wife were to tell me she would prefer I not shake hands with a woman, it would not be the most productive response for our marriage for me to say that her views were obviously based on backwards notions about sexuality that I need not respect them and will go on as if she had never said so.

That doesn't mean the result must be that she gets her way.  But she is entitled to a respectful hearing and a negotiation.  Simply calling her desires unreasonable and dismissing them is a recipe for a poor marriage.

And I think calling the concerns of those opposed to the Park51 project bigotry and dismissing them is recipe for a deeply divided country.

The first thing I did when I learned of the Cordoba Initiative's existence (in the context of the matter at hand) was find their web page.  Regarding the first FAQ, to say that Cordoba's glory days were lived under the Muslim caliphate is not to say that it, or any other Muslim regime, would be a comfortable setting for Christians.  Christians and Jews live under tolerance in such a setting, not as equal citizens.  If the imam and his followers wish not to perceived as promoting the restoration of the caliphate, they need to convince me that Cordoba is not their model. 


From the title "Groundless" right through every argument, the editorial misstates or ignores facts and then slays straw men it has set up. 

Now I ask you, is Islam well known for establishing community centers "dedicated to promoting diversity, dialogue and service"?  Islam is very intolerant of "infidels" and suppresses and persecutes Christians all over the world. Google it. Conversion from Islam is punishable by death and the Pope has recently had to emphasize an individual’s right to convert because of this.  They are probably sincere about using the center for "service" because mosques have been used as recruiting centers for terrorists all over the globe.  In fact, the first WTC attack in 1993 was planned in a mosque in Brooklyn.   See the 9/11 Commission Report "“Mosques, schools, and boardinghouses served as recruiting stations in many parts of the world, including the United States. Some were set up by Islamic extremists or their financial backers. Bin Ladin had an important part in this activity. He and the cleric Azzam had joined in creating a ‘Bureau of Services’ (Mektab al Khidmat, or MAK), which channeled recruits into Afghanistan."

The controversy over Park51 was manufactured by opportunists on the Right,” says the editorial. (I’ll bet that you didn’t know that Howard  Dean and Harry Reid were a secret right-wingers.)

 Then, this howler: this controversy “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” (emphasis added)  Rauf is not fighting terrorism; he claims not to know what it is.(Rauf:” The issue of terrorism is a very complex question.”)


The suspicion that the proposed mosque is an exercise in Islam “triumphalism” is dismissively ignored, but Islam has a long history of building monumental mosques over churches they have destroyed.  (The WTC was obviously seen as the church of capitalism.)  In addition, this “moderate” imam’s book’s “What’s Right with Islam” has another title in the Middle East, “"A Call to Prayer from the World Trade Center Rubble: Islamic Dawa in the Heart of post 9/11 America" ! 


The naivte of the editors is amply evidenced by their reliance on the perceptiveness of that great leader, Michael Bloomberg, who when told about the attempted Times Square bombing opined that it was probably some opponent of Obamacare.  The editors ignore that we are spending billions of dollars to protect this country from people who call themselves Muslims and who want to be martyrs. (By the way, I think that it is significant that, unlike Christian martyrs, who die for their faith while not harming anyone, Islamic martyrs are always trying to kill others at their martyrdom.)  Thank God that the editors are not in charge of our security.

I think a useful action for the editiorial board to do would be to meet and consult with Christians who do or have lived under Muslim 'tolorant' domination. And have done so for centuries -- even before the Muslim conquest of the Spanish peninsula and the Califite of Cordova.   I would be sure that a great veil would be lifted from their eyes.  Call up the Melkite, the Syrian Orthodox, the Coptic clergy in the New York area and hear their story(and the history of their communities)  and the stories of their parishioners who have been driven out of the Middle East by Islam.  Islam by the way means 'submission' -- in effect, the 'peace' of the grave.  When you have done the above consultation -- then write your next editorial on this subject -- I am sure that it would be better informed -- and different. 

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