The issue of the proposed Cordoba House community center and mosque in lower Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center has been bubbling for several weeks now, and I’ve refrained from mentioning it because I just wasn’t sure. That the owners of the property have the right and freedom to build it (assuming zoning and permitting processes proceed as planned) is undisputed. The question is, is it wise?

From everything I’ve read, the intentions of Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf are good. The web site of his organization, the Cordoba Initiative, says this about what he has in mind for the facility:

We’re all about multiple points of entry, offering programming in the areas of arts and culture, education and recreation.  Within that larger vision, Cordoba House will be a center for multifaith dialogue and engagement within Park51’s broader range of programs and activities.

Park51, the building that would house the community center and mosque, is already being used as a Muslim place of worship. As for what’s planned in the way of facilities, Abdul-Rauf wants it to include:

  • outstanding recreation spaces and fitness facilities (swimming pool, gym, basketball court)
  • a 500-seat auditorium
  • a restaurant and culinary school
  • cultural amenities including exhibitions
  • education programs
  • a library, reading room and art studios
  • childcare services
  • a mosque, intended to be run separately from Park51 but open to and accessible to all members, visitors and our New York community
  • a September 11th memorial and quiet contemplation space, open to all

Again, nothing objectionable here, and if he was planning on putting this in Queens or even on Central Park West in the 70s, there would be no controversy at all. But the location is within a couple of blocks of Ground Zero, and that has a lot of 9/11 victims families and a wide majority of New Yorkers  upset. The latest polling I’ve seen, from the Siena College Research Institute, indicates that over 60% of New Yorkers–including majorities in every racial, ideological, party, regional, and age category–oppose the project. Seeking to get at the reason for the opposition, Siena asked this question:

Supporters of the proposed community center, known as the Cordoba House, say it would demonstrate the presence of moderate Muslims in New York as well as serve as a monument to religious tolerance. Opponents say the project is an offense to the memory of those killed in the attacks on 9/11 and displays unacceptable insensitivity. Do you tend to agree with the supporters, the opponents or do you think they both have a legitimate position?

On this, the margin was closer: 21% agreed with the proponents, 38% agreed with the opponents, and, interestingly enough, 38% agreed that both have legitimate positions. I have no doubt that there are some Muslim haters among the opponents, but given these numbers, you’d have to conclude that most of the opposition is based on concerns about offense and insensitivity toward the victims, their families, and those of the city who were traumatized by the events of September 11.

You’d never know that, however, from the pronouncements being made in some quarters, in which the motives of opponents are assumed and condemned. Exhibit A is the Rev. Michael Kinnimon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and professional mind reader:

It is that narrow-minded intolerance that has led to the outcry against the building of Cordoba House and Mosque near Ground Zero. It is the same ignorance that has led many to the outrageous conclusion that all Muslims advocate hatred and violence against non-Muslims. It is the same ignorance that has led to hate crimes and systematic discrimination against Muslims, and to calls to burn the Qur’an.

On the eve of Ramadan on August 11, the National Council of Churches, its Interfaith Relations Commission and Christian participants in the National Muslim-Christian Initiative, issued a strong call for respect for our Muslim neighbors.

The statement supported building Cordoba House “as a living monument to mark the tragedy of 9/11 through a community center dedicated to learning, compassion, and respect for all people.”

Now the National Council of Churches reaffirms that support and calls upon Christians and people of faith to join us in that affirmation.

The alternative to that support is to engage in a bigotry that will scar our generation in the same way as bigotry scarred our forebears.

Got that? The only alternative to supporting what may or may not be a wise decision to build the Cordoba House two blocks from Ground Zero is narrow-minded intolerance, ignorance, and bigotry. There are no reasoned arguments, no legitimate considerations for 9/11 victims and their families, no questions that can be asked about where the funds will come from (the web site is very vague on the subject), etc. All opposition–not just by real, live bigots, but by anyone raising any concerns at all–is an expression of anti-Muslim hatred. Well, I’m glad we got that cleared up.

Sad to say, Kinnimon isn’t alone among Christians demonizing anyone who might have a problem with Cordoba House. Julie Clawson, a contributor to Sojourners, wrote this a couple of months ago after witnessing a protest against the project:

[I]t is pure fear of the other that is sparking some to say just having Muslims near Ground Zero is offensive. It is heartbreaking knowing that many of the protesters are there claiming to represent Jesus while they scream their message of hate. This isn’t just about protesting political ideas but a demonstration of our bondage to sin.

Valerie Elverton Dixon, former ethics professor at Andover-Newton Seminary, isn’t a mind reader, but a psychoanalyst:

Sometimes our responses are shaped by an ethics of self defense. When we perceive that our personal survival, or the survival of our group or society the way we understand it is at risk, we will respond with an ethics of survival. This is what is happening with the various responses we see in relationship to building the mosque and community center near ground zero.

Quaker minister Max Carter needs to look in the mirror when he writes this:

Goodness, people! Can we express just a bit more tolerance and understanding in this country?

The discussion also isn’t helped along by aggressive (and incorrect) assertions of rights. Reza Aslan of the Daily Beast, referred to by the Washington Post as a “scholar of religion,” writes:

This entire bogus controversy is part of a widespread and dangerous anti-Islamic sentiment that is gripping America. Let’s stop pretending that there is actually debate here. American Muslims can build whatever they want wherever they want in this country. Period.

In fact, they can’t, any more than any person or any group in this country can “build whatever they want wherever they want.” I’d love to see him run that attitude past any zoning commissioner in America, and see what kind of reaction he gets.

I still haven’t completely made up my mind, though I lean against it for reasons offered by Charles Krauthammer:

A place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz).

When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there — and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized, or misappropriated.

That’s why Disney’s early ’90s proposal to build an American history theme park near Manassas Battlefield was defeated by a broad coalition fearing vulgarization of the Civil War (and wiser than me; at the time I obtusely saw little harm in the venture). It’s why the commercial viewing tower built right on the border of Gettysburg was taken down by the Park Service. It’s why, while no one objects to Japanese cultural centers, the idea of putting one up at Pearl Harbor would be offensive.

And why Pope John Paul II ordered the Carmelite nuns to leave the convent they had established at Auschwitz. He was in no way devaluing their heartfelt mission to pray for the souls of the dead. He was teaching them a lesson in respect: This is not your place, it belongs to others. However pure your voice, better to let silence reign.

Location matters. Especially this location. Ground Zero is the site of the greatest mass murder in American history — perpetrated by Muslims of a particular Islamist orthodoxy in whose cause they died and in whose name they killed.

Of course that strain represents only a minority of Muslims. Islam is no more intrinsically Islamist than present-day Germany is Nazi — yet despite contemporary Germany’s innocence, no German of good will would even think of proposing a German cultural center at, say, Treblinka.

I think for most New Yorkers, it is this kind of argument that carries the day, though at the same time I think that there are good arguments, offered by Imam Abdul-Rauf and others, for putting it on Park Place. One thing I do know, however–the climate created by the debate is not made any better by accusations that those who oppose the project are by definition narrow-minded, intolerant, fearful bigots.