General Topics

Ground Zero Mosque


Last week I wrote an op-ed piece for Ha’aretz on the mosque, or center, or both (depends who you ask) near Ground Zero in Manhattan. The theme of the article was that in free and open societies where all weird and strange religions are allowed to flourish and compete on the market, one cannot and indeed should not try to prevent anyone expressing himself or herself through law-abiding and nonviolent places of worship and gathering. But by the same token religious organizations need to be sensitive to some of the anxieties, even insecurities, of others. The trouble is that there is a tendency to try too hard to push one’s point of view into other people’s faces under the pretext of freedom of expression, and I called for sensitivity on both sides.

Judaism, thank (my) God, is not a proselytizing religion, so our pushy, in-your-face evangelicals tend to confine themselves to asking passersby if they are Jewish first. Even so I must say I am not comfortable with some Chasidim insisting on overt displays. But throughout history all the major religions have built huge show-off monuments of worship, converted each other’s to theirs, and battled away, literally, for the hearts and minds of their own constituencies and any others they thought they could conquer or win over. But it does not have to be this way.

I happen to be an apostle of good contacts and relations between religions wherever possible, and there is more good stuff going on than most people give credit for. If I resent evangelical Christian ideology that suggests that I cannot get to Heaven (wherever that is) unless I do it their way, I react with amusement rather than anger when, say, Jews for Jesus tries to convert me. My brother David is as good an example you can find of someone who is an excellent diplomat and model of Orthodox sensitivity. He is on very good terms with almost everyone and admired the world over for his work, and that includes many of the notoriously difficult to please ultra-Orthodox community too.

I said in my piece that I knew some of the people involved in the Cordoba Initiative to be good and tolerant human beings, the sort who give Islam a good name and try their best to show that it is not composed entirely of throat-slitting suicide bombers. I supported their idea of establishing a Muslim center rather like the Jewish 92nd Street Y or the JCCs which are open to everyone and, although funded and run as Jewish, are not ultra-Orthodox and not necessarily ‘halacha compliant’! But then, of course, I have said Judaism is not evangelical.

I also pointed out that all new immigrant populations face resistance to their religious projects, and indeed to this day in many parts of the country Orthodox Jews face resistance and objection to their building plans. Most of the opposition I have read about recently has come from other Jews. We Jews had asked the previous pope to pressurize the Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz to remove a very public cross because of our sensitivities, and I suggested that the Cordoba Institute might consider amicably finding a location just a little further away from Ground Zero. My piece also brought up, as a side note, the insensitivities in Jerusalem on both sides–but then anything in Jerusalem is fraught with political confrontation and agendas.

It is now obvious to me that the Ground Zero whatever-it-is has become a political football, as everything in the USA has a tendency to become, with both sides exaggerating and looking for votes. I regret this.

But since my article I have had conversations with people, insiders and others, who have been at various public and private meetings, and I can tell you it is not exactly at it seems. There are two conflicting interests involved in this project and that, as much as any other factor, is why the project is sometimes called a mosque and sometimes a center. The Cordoba Initiative is headed Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, whom I believe to be absolutely sincere and transparent about what he wants to build and achieve. He has my support. But here’s the interesting information I have: He regrets the ruckus and wants to do what he can to defuse the situation. If the current location is a problem, whether rational or not, he is prepared to consider another one. The same cannot be said for others who are now using this as a political football, kicking from both ends of the playing field.

But, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t it strange that there is another website? I am reliably informed the developer has another agenda. He is, after all, a real estate man as well as a born-again Muslim. His view is that this is a going to be a Muslim statement. Now if that is the case, by all means make a Muslim statement as loud as you like, but do not make it where you know a lot of people would not welcome it. The 9/11 jihadists were also making a statement. And I get worried by statements, because then it is all about posturing. Freedom of religion and making statements are two very different things.

I have sneaking suspicion this is also about real estate, a great opportunity landing on someone’s desk. But I wonder if Cordoba has not got into bed with the wrong guy. My solution is to buy the fellow out or offer him a swap, and then I really do believe everyone will be a winner. We and he will have a Muslim mosque and center which will be what it will be. The incongruity of the present location will no longer be an issue. Imam Feisal will be seen as the figure of understanding and moderation that he really is. And I suspect he will garner much more support from many more people, business and ecclesiastical, to build the vision he really has and we need.

9 thoughts on “Ground Zero Mosque

  1. It is a matter of great importance, I think, that Muslims of a moderate disposition be heard both by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. I think they have a hard battle on their hands but commend them for trying. The matter of Ground Zero and its locale is troublesome for obvious reasons. Surely the developer has no business (sic) trying to control where the mosque and foundation are sited and a little sensitivity and saychel should prevail and a location at a greater distance be found.

    You're lucky, Jeremy, to have such an enlightened Muslim scholar in your midst. I'm still waiting to hear one such in the UK.

    Shabbat shalom.

  2. Leila:
    Excellent essay in New York Times today by Thomas Friedman arguing that Muslims should think about getting on better with Muslims first!

  3. Thanks for the recommendation. It was well-written and worth reading.

    In return, may I recommend BBC's Panorama on the Gaza flotilla which was a fair portrayal of both sides and for once not hostile to Israel. However, it has caused great trauma in the Muslim and Left Wing communities who have been organising marches in protest!

  4. Dear Rabbi Rosen,
    I liked your article on Haaretz. However, I am reluctant to agree that the main issue is sensitivity in this case. There is a mosque that is being built in a suburb of Nashville, that has encountered a great deal of hostility and resistance – although in this case the xenophobic oponents were unable to use the memory of 9/11 victims to support their cause.

  5. Yuri:

    That's an interesting point. My guess is that the mosque in Nashville is NOT in a predominantly Muslim area. I have heard no such objections to mosques in Dearborn. Very often when Charedi communities in the USA seek to expand out of their territory, they encounter opposition too. There often is objection to houses of worship of all sorts for all kinds of reasons including property values. But there are literally hundreds of mosques in New York State and no one has objected to them up to now. Sadly, I think the insensitivity over Ground Zero is indeed rebounding. And precisely because it is being pushed as a matter of principle, it is causing reaction.

    But as for Islamophobia, it is true one deranged maniac stabbed a taxi driver in NY but on every street corner, practically, in Manhattan there is a Hallal food cart manned by a Muslim and not one has been vandalized. There are thousands of Muslim cab drivers and only one has been assaulted. This does not strike me as an Islamophobic society.

    But sure, in America if you push, you are likely to get pushed back.

  6. Sorry I did not see your response until just now – I thought that my gmail account would tell me when you had posted your reply, but it seems to have slept through it!
    You do bring up a good point with the hostility people encounter when moving into areas that are outside the traditional territory of their community. Maybe I'm being overly-sensitive and myopic, and the situation is different in New York, but the rhetoric I've been hearing from a disturbingly large number of people does not center around property values as much as it does around ideas that denounce Islam as a religion. I do not think that the outcry in Nashville would be at all similar in proportion if any other religion planned to put its center in Murfreesboro (a rather new and growing town).
    Chag Someach!

  7. Yuri:

    The more I think and hear about this issue, the more I sense another dimension. Jews have lived under alien regimes for so long that we have acquired an extra sensitivity, some might even call it an inferiority complex (I wouldn't, of course).

    Islam is in a different position for two reasons. It is a proud defiant expansionist religion and sees compromise as weakness. That's its weakness in the West and in this case because instead of beating a tactical retreat to further understanding, the Mosque principals are digging their heels in (encouraged of course by the liberals).

    The second is the sad and undeniable (tho many refuse to accept it) challenge of violent radical Islam even within the USA Muslim community. There is concern as well there should be of any violent sector even if one concedes it is a minority within a minority. One cannot open a newspaper on any day of the year without reading tht somewhere a Muslim has blown up other mainly Muslims. This naturally breeds anxiety.

    Nevertheless, free Western countries rightly stand by their laws of free expression and free worship. But taking of advantage of this too requires responsibility.

    Fear is an ingredient more than hatred but yes just as with anti-Semitism fear breeds hatred. There are as you know far more and more virulent anti Semitic web sites based in the USA than anti Muslim ones, by far, by far.
    I was amazed to read an article recently in the WJS by a Muslim saying that in the Sunni Middle East most Arabs think the Ground Zero Mosque is an insensitive bad idea that will not help understanding. How come they get it?


  8. Rabbi Rosen,
    I am certainly not one to dig in my heels – although it may seem so with my persistent comments regarding this topic 🙂 – and I suppose that if the resistance to the mosque was a debate that centered solely around the sensitivity to 911 victims, I would agree that the community which is building this center would have probably won more points if they sounded a retreat. I just can't help but be nervous about the fact that a fair amount of mainstream political figures and media are saying things that would be considered faux pax if directed at any other religion in the US today. Certainly there is a disturbing amount of virulent anti-Semitism online, but I am at least comforted by the thought (maybe the illusion) that these websites are run and visited mainly by nuts who do not have any meaningful authority over the direction of this country's mood.
    Also, I still disagree with calling the mosque a "Ground Zero Mosque" since it really is not being built any closer to ground zero than St. Peter's Catholic Church, for example
    Finally I go back to my initial issue of the fact that many of the same people that oppose the Nashville mosque are the ones that are voicing their opposition to the building in NYC and vice-versa. If the NYC mosque takes the high road and moves to a different location, what should the Nashville mosque do?

    Chag Sameach Again!

  9. Yuri:

    Please don't apologize for being persistent its a good quality. But surely theres a difference between opposing a mosque/synagogue because of financial, amenity, traffic or other considerations that are not ideological and opposing it simply because you do not like Orthodox Jews, Muslims etc. Charedi Jews regularly encounter this latter case.
    So theres a difference between opposing all mosques and opposing this specific one on grounds not based on prejudice. As in this case specific sensitivity to a unique event that will forever be associate with Muslim perpetrators like it or not.

    Many of the people who oppose Ground Zero Mosque do it on grounds simply of sensitivity and would in no way want to be associated with hatred.

    I would personally oppose such attitudes. In my own case knowing some of those involved I was initially very supportive of the Cordoba Center, but having seen how heels are dug in, pride and other primitive attitudes are creeping in, I have withdrawn my involvement.


Comments are closed.