Heather Michon

Heather Michon
June 25
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AUGUST 16, 2010 10:22AM

We Should Embrace the "Ground Zero Mosque"

Rate: 26 Flag

I may be alone here, but I'm finding the debate over the building of a  mosque-that-isn't-a-mosque at an-area-somewhat-near Ground Zero just plain wearying.

In a summer of real news -- floods, fires, landslides, earthquakes, oil spills, and grinding economic gloom and doom, things that cause real pain and hardship and that may be the sign of a long and deadly new phase in human life on this planet -- we seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time arguing about something that has absolutely no impact on the lives of anyone who is not a Muslim living in Manhattan.

There's no mystery as to why conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin are focusing on this now: it's 77 days until the 2010 midterm elections, and they want to energize their Republican base to get themselves to the polls when the big day arrives. Ginning up the instinctual Islamophobia of white Christians has been a winning strategy for almost a decade now. 

Throw in a President who an appalling number of Americans still believe is a closet Muslim and who makes a ringing statement about religious freedom and the spirit of America one day while calling "backsies!" the next, and you've got yourself blog-around-the-clock gold.

Why does this work? Ross Douthat makes the Two Americas argument in the Times this morning: one is constitutional and one is cultural, and they have been in conflict throughout our history. Call it the American version of the "clash of civilizations," upper-class intellectuals versus lower-class emotionalists. To an extent, he's right, and because it is so deeply embedded in our national psyche, I suspect we're going to end the "Ground Zero Mosque" debate roughly where we began it.

To me, the troubling aspect is that the 9/11 aspect of the story. I think we all understand the passion of those who lost loved ones in the Trade Center attacks or those who helped in the aftermath that are still dealing with the physical and psychological fallout of their service. It's the passion of everyone else that gets a little perplexing. Too many of us see ourselves as emotional stakeholders in an event which only very lightly touched us.

Some years back, I was commissioned to write some short essays about 9/11 for a book, and this involved reading hundreds of newspaper articles from the days immediately following the attacks. Every story was pretty much the same: The smoke, the explosions, the people hanging from the windows, jumping out of the windows from the upper tiers of the Towers, the flutter of millions of pieces of paper, the roiling black cloud of debris as each Tower collapsed, the hundreds of desperate "missing" posters tacked up along the streets.

Nearly a decade after the fact, I see those same images evoked by politicians and opinion-makers and average Janes and Joes, often whether they were in New York that day or not -- and those same images are being use against the designers and backers of the proposed cultural center on Park Place, even those none of the them had anything to do with, or knew anyone who had anything to do with, the 9/11 attacks.

There is a fine line between respectful commemoration of the dead and disaster porn.  Like all porn, you know it when you see it. I found my line in an Huffington Post blog last night.

After reciting in detail all the horrible things he had seen on 9/11, blogger Robert Learsy went on to decry not so much the idea of a mosque (which was offensive enough), but of a community center with "a swimming pool, a theater, where one is meant to come play and frolic, to be entertained at the very site where thousands of Americans horrifically lost their lives smacks of gross insensitivity or worse yet, triumphalism."

Putting aside the whole "at the very site" nonsense, or the canard of "triumphalism" by people who had absolutely nothing to do with those horrifically lost lives, I was nauseated at the the world Learsy seems to desire.

I would like to think that somewhere in the, say, two-mile radius around 1 World Trade Center sometime in the last nine years, someone has giggled. Or frolicked. Or done a cartwheel. Or taken a dip in the pool at the YMCA on West 14th Street. Or taken in a movie at the Regal 11 on North End Avenue. And I would like to think that the souls of those who died in the attack are happy that life has gone on, that their city and their country did not become a place of hatred and suspicion and  invective.  

If we have to be stakeholders, let's do it right. Moving forward does not mean forgetting the dead. It doesn't always have to be the morning of September 11. We can not only survive a Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, we can embrace it, and we can be better people for it.

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As one of the family members who spent some time dealing with disaster junkies, I couldn't agree with you more. I can tell you without hesitation that my late husband would be APPALLED at the idea of turning the entire neighborhood into a graveyard. Not life-affirming in the least and certainly NOT representative of his spirit.
Rated. If it's okay with Nikki - that should end the debate.
Well articulated as always, Heather. I appreciate Nikki's take on this.
Thank you for this well-thought out, articulate piece. I agree that Ground Zero should be a venue for any political agenda or circus. As a respectful, life-affirming and unifying memorial, I couldn't careless if there were a mosque, a synangogue, a church or a symbolic monument built there. ~R~
Thank you, Nikki, I value your input enormously.

Let's see: today I'm wearing a light blue t-shirt and an old pair of jeans. How about you, rjheart?
With all due respect to Nikki, nobody wants to turn the entire neighborhood into a graveyard. That is not even an option or choice. A Hamas leader says Muslims "have to build" a mosque near ground zero. Well if a terrorist organization says we have to do it, then?

I disagree. There are over 100 mosques in New York, nobody is saying mosques can't be built in America at all. [Even though churches can't be built in Muslim countries] The issue is that the Imam is for Shari'a law, wants theocracy vs. a representative republic, and doesn't actually HAVE the money to build it and won't say where he is trying to raise it [Hamas?].

When somebody wants to inflict Shari'a law on me and America in general, I have a big problem with that. So do many muslim women who have fled their theocratic countries to experience some freedom outside of the tyranical Shari'a. They want to build the mosque there as a power play and a trojan horse. I for one am not buying it. And while he promotes Shari'a in the U.S. he said that building a gay bar next door to this mosque [which will happen] is "insensitive."

There are a lot of issues at play here, freedom of religion isn't one of them.
Hi Deb,

I kind of agree with you - this isn't a freedom of religion issue at all. They aren't building a mosque, they're building a community center, like every other YMCA, YWCA and Jewish Community Center (JCC) in the country.

I look at the comments from the Hamas leas as being like those from Gingrich and Palin -- a way of attaching himself to an issue and build up support within his base.

Yes, Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam most closely involved in the Park51 project, has spoken favorably on Shari'a law, but he also believes the the US already conforms to most of the fundamental points of Shari'a (which is, after all, a big, broad legal philosophy that only some Muslims take to extremes). He's not a radical...in fact, the Obama administration is about to send him off as a kind of goodwill ambassador to the Middle East.

The people behind the project are, from all appearances, progressive American Muslims. They want to create a communal space, just like Jews and Christians and Hindis and Buddhists. They've got their zoning permits and they've committed to transparency about donors and funding. When (or if) they every get the project completed, they're going to be under scrutiny. That's good enough for me.
I take it you are prone on a prayer rug and facing mecca in your avatar photo there?
The stakeholders, the community board, the mayor, and the landmarks preservation commission all are in favor of it.

The conservatives you mentioned in your piece are marching in lock step, or goose step if you prefer, in much the same way as the SA marched in Germany after World War I.

If you can't have the freedom to do what you want on private property, you might as well pass out the the yellow stars of David or crescents that all non-Christians will have to sew on their clothes.

This is a 21st century inquisition.
"If you can't have the freedom to do what you want on private property..."

So I'm free to start construction on my McDonald's across from your house? Even if legally free to do so, would it be in good taste?
I'm all in favor of showing tolerance for the mosque - PROVIDED the Cordoba Moslems can exhibit their own tolerance for American culture.

I strongly hope that at a location very near to this mosque, a gay bar indeed open. (Why exactly is this viewed as "insensitive" by the Imam? Is he just feeling cranky because he cannot stone homosexuals to death while living in Lower Manhattan??) As well as a strip club. And a steakhouse specializing in pork chops.

And a "Wet Seal" store or other emporium selling bikinis and other non-niqab clothing for women. And a center for exploring atheist and humanist philosophy.

And an art gallery that is willing to show depictions of Mohammed.

And a human rights advocacy group office dedicated to stopping FGM, honor killings and stoning of women by Moslems.

All on "private property"...near to Cordoba House.

Who wants to bet that a Moslem attendee of the Cordoba mosque would NOT firebomb any of the above institutions if they opened within 2000 yards of their mosque?

Nope, I'm a plain-vanilla, Mayflower-descended, Daughters of the American Revolution-type with all the normal Christian leanings that go along with that heritage. I'm about as American as one can get. And as an American, I believe that Muslims have the same right to peacefully congregate and pray together as any other group.
Heather, I'm with you and here's a reason why I'm disgusted by the arguments. I often walked past this very building on Park St when I had to go to our office in Lower Manhattan. To call it Ground Zero is ridiculous; it's a building in a line of storefronts on a commercial street that was still standing after 9/11.

Before 9/11, I happened to be in that area for jury duty. As I walked around the neighborhood at lunchtime, I saw a group of Muslims standing together on the street, obviously facing Mecca and praying. Meaning, a big Muslim presence already existed there and whatever location they were using for prayer was sorely inadequate.

This whole thing is a faux controversy. In fact, I believe allowing the mosque to be built there is an expression of American ideals and a commitment to freedom of religion, as well as our refusal to give in to xenophobia.
a fact i found most interesting after 9/11 was how little violence there was in NYC towards Moslem institutions and people vs. that experienced outside the city. it is holding true during this controversy too since our mayor has taken the lead in renouncing prejudice. why is the question? Why do the fear mongers do better outside the city than? My answer after years of contemplation on the phenomenon in many forms is that New Yorkers are simply more used to the fact that not everybody believes or thinks necessarily the same but that doesn't mean they aren't decent people who don't ultimately want to live in the same society and that pluralism is itself the rule rather than exclusion, paranioa and xenophobia. yeah, i'm a new yorker.....and these are the times that make me the most proud.

I think the repubs are really going to dig themselves into a ditch on this one and immigration. it is becoming more clear where their interests truly lie and where they are going to pick up votes other than with reactionaries is becoming more dubious. if they get the shit kicked out of them in nov. it would be the most thrilling political event in my lifetime, but i have no trust after the re-election of bush so will reserve judgement.
"In fact, I believe allowing the mosque to be built there is an expression of American ideals and a commitment to freedom of religion, as well as our refusal to give in to xenophobia."

I couldn't have said it better than Cranky already did.
Muslim author (Their Jihad. Not My Jihad) Raheel Raza, a candidate for the Canadian Congress, appeared on Fox news recently and said that the building of this mosque is confrontational, in bad faith, and doesn’t help the cause of tolerance. She further stated that it was a slap in the face of all Americans -- a sign of disrespect for all those who had died. Raza blamed ‘bleeding heart white liberals’ for their PC attitude about this controversial mosque an was quite articulate in her understanding of this issue. According to her, building the mosque at ground zero goes against the teachings of her faith.

Here is the link:
My earlier comment should read as follows:
"Thank you for this well-thought out, articulate piece. I agree that Ground Zero shouldnot, be a venue for any political agenda or circus. As a respectful, life-affirming and unifying memorial, I couldn't careless if there were a mosque, a synangogue, a church or a symbolic monument built there." ~R~
Thank you.
could not have said it better if I tried.
in full agreement, R...

Well done, Heather.
This isn't a debate. For the most part, it's a chance to air one's views -- mostly opportunistically. First amendment: no laws "prohibiting the free exercise thereof." I don't see anything in there about "if you happen to like it."
Thank you, Heather, for this post. Well done, and you definitely are not alone here. I do not understand how people can stand in front of a television camera, look America in the eye, and state the decision to build a mosque within a few blocks of Ground Zero is wrong. Sorry, America, I fail to see it.

Naturally, people have a right to their opinion. And from what I have read, polls show that the majority of Americans believe building this mosque and Muslim community center are a slap in the face to the honor of the memory of those killed in the horrible attacks of 9/11. However, just because a person or the majority of people have a personal opinion, it does not make it morally, ethically, or legally defensible.

The hijackers who made this mess and created fear where there was none need our forgiveness. However, also needing forgiveness are the political hacks and media that attempt to keep us bound by our fear. America, free yourself from fear and realize that the Muslims building this mosque and community center do not need our forgiveness... or blessings. They bear no responsibility for what happened on that awful day.

It is my prayer that a new mosque brings peace, understanding, and forgiveness... not only to the City of New York but to the entire nation. Amen.
america still hasn't figured out who is responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and this rabid anti-moslem demagoguery seems pointed towards making sure they never do.

to be fair, american education makes it unlikely that any particular american could locate arabia on a map, much less put a finger on mecca. such people don't really need demagoguery, "two legs bad!" does the job.

I can't believe you thought I was serious.

Your sexually provocative photo of you on your bed would not be taken well in most muslim countries. That was my point.

Sorry -- sometimes humor doesn't translate to comments. My bad. :-)
The same Republicans who are so worried about the sanctity of Ground Zero won't give financial help to 9/11 responders who are sick.
Did you know that on 9-11 there was a Greek Orthodox Church that was destroyed. The church not only had owned the land for decades before the attack but had actually had a church on the site.
They applied to the same city council as those who want the Mosque built, and they were denied....So much for "Freedom of Religion" as practiced by those tolerant people on the left.

I like Greg Gutfeld's proposal. He is going to build a Gay Bar within a block of the Mosque. I can't wait to hear that debate.
@Donna - thanks for sharing the link. It’s well worth the 4 minutes to watch. I know some moderate Muslims who believe as Raheel Raza does and feel that they are called to be sensitive to other faiths. They would never do something that would cause animosity amongst those in our community.

I also know some radical Muslims who found it perfectly fine to snatch up every American flag on our neighborhood street the day after the 9/11 attacks. The young Muslim girls skipped happily down the street grabbing every flag from in front of every house shouting, “Go Middle East!” All of us, the White, Conservative, Christian Americans, in an effort to keep the peace, went back inside our homes and shut our doors. They were trying to provoke us and we were not going to waste our breath with antogonists.

@Wolfy Slater - I agree. As long as the Muslims are going to be tolerant of everything else that falls under the protection of our Constitution and they will openly accept all the other businesses that will hopefully open up right next door to their mosque, then maybe this won’t be so bad, but I’m not holding my breath.

@Heather - “Too many of us see ourselves as emotional stakeholders in an event which only very lightly touched us.” Heather, let me guess. You don’t live in NY, PA, or near the Pentagon in Arlington, VA. You are not one of the family members of the 35,000+ troops who have been wounded, the 5,567+ who have been killed in OIF and OEF, or the thousands who live through multiple deployments while their loved ones serve on your behalf.

Just ask one member of a military family if they have been only “lightly touched” which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with where a mosque is built.
Okay, which of you has met the people behind the project? Show of hands, please? I did and while I'm getting awfully tired of explaining that which they, in their naivety, failed to explain,t he fact is, they're just looking to build a community center modeled on the 92nd Street Y. And btw, I raised the issue of transparency in fundraising and they have very detailed plans in place, including monitoring by people who used to be with Homeland Security. I don't know how public those plans are (yet) or whether the media has chosen to ignore them (very possible) but to actually sit and LISTEN to the original intent is to realize this was intended as a neighborhood project and it was turned into something else by people who fear all things Muslim.

Now I might be able to understand the impulse to fear what you don't know and to assume the worst about a group of people but as someone who was working part time in NYC on 9/11 and then lived there for a few years after, I can tell you that my experience with Muslim-Americans is that they are quite appalled with what happened and, although many are retiring by nature, very interested in outreach.

As for what stricter interpretations as practiced by other countries allow, I'm surprised that while some of us protest that we have no interest in what other (mostly Western) countries say or do when it comes to embracing positive examples (say relative to gun control or the death penalty), we're quick to look at what non-Western countries do wrong (i.e., the closed societies in Saudi Arabia). Which is to say, I don't CARE whether those countries practice itner-faith tolerance: if we're supposed to be BETTER than that, then let's act like it!

One more thing: Muslims may be lgally free to build mosques anywhere they want but the court of public opinion has been condemning them from Staten Island to Tennessee. Again, are we playing tit for tat with Saudi Arabia or are we way ahead of them in terms of diversity or tolerance?

Just sayin'
sorry about the typos - I have a touch of carpel tunnel, damn it!
First of all, Heather, your writing is spectacular. Second, I purposely went through the comments to see what Nikki had to say. If she's okay with it, I'm okay with it. I love what she said. We have a new mosque in our neighborhood and I'm going to write about it soon. It is very beautiful and I'm glad it is here.

Don't presume.

I do live relatively close to Arlington. In fact, we moved here on September 13, 2001, because my husband and I refused to let fear derail our plans to start a new life in a new place.

I have relatives and friends who lost relatives and friends that day. I have relatives and friends who have served multiple deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, and will likely be going back before all is said and done.

As far as I know, none of them believe any differently that I do on this issue.
The message of the mosque opponents should be: "Terrorists are not welcome here." Instead they are saying: "Muslims are not welcome here." That's not the message America should be delivering.

I find the plan to put a gay bar next to the proposed community center site just kind of....lame. Silly. Juvenile. But, you know, if someone wants to sink their time and money into it, whatever.

Just saw a study today that 42% of Americans polled say they harbor anti-Muslim sentiments. The unfortunate reality is that far too many people don't differentiate between anti-Muslim and anti-terrorism.

You're right, and I'm Nikki agrees, that not all 9/11 families feel the same way, and that's their prerogative...but it's not their decision to make. Everyone has been heard here, and the zoning board and other powers-that-be in NYC made their decision based on the laws and regulations that guide that sort of thing.

The founders of the Park51 plan have committed to keeping their books open and rejecting any funding tied to terrorist or anti-American groups.

Since they already have the building, and that building is centrally located on a very prime piece of land, why would they move?

Nobody seems to be able to define a comfort zone...do they need to be 10 blocks out? 20? Saudi Arabia? Cranky Cuss and others have pointed out that this is NOT going to be build "on Ground Zero." It's being built on a heavily commercialized little cross street a couple blocks away. If that best we can do for hallowed ground, a Muslim community center is the least of our problems.

The whole we-wouldn't-let-the-Japanese-build-a-memorial-at-Pearl-Harbor thing is a great talking point. I'm sure the reaction would not be positive. And yet, the Japanese have been sending official representatives and delegations to Pearl Harbor commemorations for decades now, and the world has kept right on spinning, hasn't it?
I can't imagine any Muslim American not rejoicing about 9/11 and praying for a memorial to Allah to be erected as close to the site of their greatest victory as possible.

Of course this is a "plan B" approach. If the K.O.S. had immediately stepped in with plans, and the money, to build a new "World Trade Center", and cut the price of gas by a buck a gallon, I'm pretty sure they would have received a solid thumbs up from NYC and Americans of all political niches.

Well the Saudis missed their chance and now it's incumbent on all Muslims in America, especially in New York (yes, Virginia, NYC is still in America) to spike the metaphorical ball in the nationalistic end-zone.

It's not the popular thing to do, but it's the right thing to do. Allah is smiling.
If we're going to ban a religious organization from building a community center based on that fact that people of that faith committed atrocities and terrorist acts, then we should be fair and ban the Christian churches too. After all, as anyone who studies history knows, some of the worst atrocities and terrorist acts in the history of the world were committed by Christians. Wars have been started in the name of Christ. Millions have died due to Christian intolerance. Christians have even killed other Christians, because they were the "wrong kind" of Christian.

Next, let's go after the Buddhists. All that peacefulness has to be hiding something sinister.
Rated - just wanted to weigh in. Some very thought-provoking comments (not to be confused with 'good' ones). Thanks for the post.
Heather a very brilliant, well thought article. Am in complete agreement
This is such an important post...thank you so much. Nikki's weigh in matters most...she's lived with the horror of 9/11 loss...the Bill of Rights and the Constitution matter most as our National Compass...duh. So many have spoken the truth here eloquently and perfectly...Amen to them all and to you.. Should be required reading..including the commentary. r
@Virtual Dave
I can't imagine any Muslim American not rejoicing about 9/11 and praying for a memorial to Allah to be erected as close to the site of their greatest victory as possible.

Really? Really? You can't imagine?

I'm going to abbreviate the rant that I feel boiling over in me and just say this: While I don't have close ties to the Muslim American community, I know a few Americans who are Muslims . . . the ones I know were appalled and saddened by 9/11, in much the same way that many Christians have been appalled and saddened by various acts committed "in the name of Christ."

I will stop myself there. I find myself appalled and saddened at much of what is said and done in the name of America by both our leaders and our citizens . . . as exemplified by the fact that this is so "controversial."

And for crying out loud, people: IT'S NOT A MOSQUE!!!!!
Another thing I find so disingenuis about this is that as a feminist and a believer in the equal rights of gays, you decide the best thing you can do is support a Muslim Imam who wants Shari'a law in the U.S. [you need to do better research] and is anti-gay. Muslim women weep throughout the world when western women who have it all refuse to take their side. Muslim women deserve feminism as well, not tyrany in the name of their religion. As do the homosexuals who are stoned and killed and imprisoned in the name of Islam all over the world.
@Deborah - Should we also restrict the rights of those who support Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps and James Dobson and well, the list is pretty long - I mean, a lot of Christians appear to support the principles upheld by these prominent representatives of Christianity, and they certainly don't condemn the activities . . .

yr not making the logical extension of your experiences into the political arena of today, or if you are I haven't seen in and I haven't had the time to read all the comments. a crisis could well be approaching and it means that it is necessary to take stands rather than simply be the suppliers of information and moralistic appraisals no matter how well intentioned.

there is a distinct choice. it is being foisted upon the electorate. i've made it clear in numerable posts where i stand. if the dems are trounced in this election, and obama rendered impotent, the forces you seem so opposed to in your post will triumph, so the time to "come out," and not be a fly on the wall of history is now.

forgive me if I am not interpreting you correctly, but that is what I am seeing at this point. Time to take a stand in a real, ugly, and totally politicised world--ugh--but avoid it and and the reactionaries win.
@ Deb - You know, we've differed on this point before -- there are over a billion Muslims in the world, and they come in all shapes and sized and shades of belief....just like Christians and Jews and Hindis and Buddhists and tribal religions.

I do not support those strains of Islam that preaches the stoning of women for adultery, or the mutilation of girls' genitalia, or the isolation of women in society...but there are plenty of Muslims who don't support that either -- including the people behind Park51. If I thought for one moment that any of these vile things were on their agenda, I'd be singing a different tune.