Respect to you, President Obama: On the utter ridiculousness of objecting to Mosques in Lower Manhattan

I know this has been a regular item in the news for quite a while now, but after seeing President Obama’s great speech on the BBC News website today, I thought I should put in my oar also.

Here are the three main reasons why I think it is utterly ridiculous to object to a mosque being constructed a few blocks away from Ground Zero. If I think of any more later on I will add them on:

1. What does hallowed ground mean?

Obama states:

“We must all recognise and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan, Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”

Now, at this point we could get into a big discussion on the notion of the sacred and the profane… a debate which infuses the discipline of Religious Studies and shall probably continue to do until the end of time. This would, however, be tangential and somewhat academically dry. Whilst people may debate with me on the specifics, I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Ground Zero is not, in some sense, hallowed. But calling a piece of ground sacred or hallowed is simply a means of stating that it has great significance in the lives, hearts and minds of the community of people who hold this piece of ground to be hallowed. It is an acknowledgment that an event occurred at this site which binds people together through shared grief, pain and commitment to renewal and the national identity. This “hallowedness” may even have a spiritual element, and individuals may choose to interpret this “hallowedness” through their own religious stance, however no one person or religious group holds the monopoly to the “hallowedness” of this site. The site is, in a sense, sacred… it is, in a sense, hallowed… but it is hallowed to the nation and has an oxymoronic sense of national secular sacredness. This is a sacredness that is perhaps felt more strongly by American citizens… but it is the same sacredness that any human being will feel upon visiting the war graves of the Somme, or the memorial at Auschwitz even if they have no personal connection to the horrors that took place their themselves.

Religious people are entitled to interpret this feeling of hallowedness/sacredness through their religious beliefs. But they do not have the monopoly to claim that their interpretation is the only valid one. And there is nothing oxymoronic about an agnostic, atheist or nonreligious person experiencing and fully appreciating this hallowedness also. Ground Zero is a hallowed site. But most definitely not in an exclusively Christian sense. If people have a problem with one religious building being constructed in the near vicinity, then they should have a problem with ANY religious building in this area, and not the buildings of one particular religious tradition.

2. How near is “near”?

This is a fairly basic point but one which carries a lot of weight.

Where exactly do people draw the line? I believe, with President Obama, that “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country” [the USA]. However, even if someone was able to convince me that there was a justifiable reason for keeping mosques away from Ground Zero, how far exactly would be deemed far enough away to not cause offence?

According to the Washington Post (Bloomberg News), New York currently has more than 100 mosques (compared with just 10 in 1970). Of these mosques 17 are in Manhattan (see here). I suppose it was only a matter of time before people threw up a stink about this… but seriously, where do you draw the line? One block, 10 blocks, 20 blocks, a different island, a different city, a different state, a different country? Everyone has different subjective boundaries in their heads… but the fact is that there is a specifically designated memorial area at Ground Zero, and apart from this it is all down to individual idiosyncrasy.

I put it to those who object to a mosque being constructed in the vicinity of Ground Zero that their “sensitivity”, whilst being grounded in a real relationship to a traumatic event, is based largely on prejudice and misunderstanding and is a small step away from the “sensitivity” that would see mosque construction being opposed throughout the USA.

As President Obama said:

“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”

3. Finally, and most importantly, MUSLIM does not equal TERRORIST!!!

I can’t beleive that, in this day and age, I am still having to write this.Yes, the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Muslims. There is a lot of debate in the Islamic community as to whether they can even still be called Muslims for carrying out such a heinous crime. And of course there is a minority who believe that their actions were righteous. For a much fuller discussion on the matter of contemporary Islam and terrorism, please see the final section of my previous post “A Very, Very Short Introduction to Islam”. How Muslim or non-Muslim the terrorists were is not really the issue here… the fact is that equating Islam with terror is exactly the same as making sweeping statements like “All Catholics support the IRA” or “All Southerners are in the KKK”. Seriously, what if the 9/11 attack had been carried out by the IRA? I’m sure the USA wouldn’t have gone to war with the UK and the Republic of Ireland for harbouring terrorists, but would the reaction be the same if a group of Irish American Catholics wanted to build a chapel in the vicinity of Ground Zero? Well, who knows…

And lest we not forget, Muslims – whether American citizens or foreign workers – were also the victims of the 9/11 attacks. According to a 2002 BBC News article, there were an estimated 70 Muslims killed in the Twin Towers. Also, a blogger who seems to have done quite a bit of research conservatively estimates 28 innocent Muslims died that day. By objecting to the construction of a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero, opponents of this development spit in the faces of the families of those innocent Muslims who died that day. If these opponents were truly representative of Western society, is it any wonder that terrorists feel justified in their actions? Sarah Palin, a fine example of this hatred and ill-education wrote “to build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks”. I put it to you, Sarah, that your narrow-mindedness, prejudice and petty pandering to the lowest common denominator is a perfect example of one of the gravest ills affecting Western society today, and can only serve to perpetuate division, oppression, victimisation and an end to freedom and liberty.

This is not a defence of Islam. I have many issues with Islam as a religion, and I am very aware that calls to violence and aggression are present throughout the Qur’an, the Hadith and the founding principles and stories of the faith. But I am also aware that it is not my place to judge a group of people on the basis of the literature and traditions that they hold dear. Just as there will always be Christians who think homosexuality is an abomination, that the world was created in six days and that it is okay to bomb abortion clinics, just as there will always be atheists who would fight tooth and nail to remove all traces of religion from our cultures, leaving music, art, literature, philosophy etc as but pale shadows of what they once were, so too there will always be those in the Islamic community who believe in violence and terror as a valid means of protest against the “Western” way of living. Do we assume that the same debate that ensues in non-Muslim contexts surrounding these and other issues, does not occur within Muslim communities across the globe? Do we assume that Muslims not only all think in exactly the same way, and have exactly the same opinions on every issue, but that also our caricature of their beliefs, thoughts and practices is universally applicable in all times and places? Erm… no…

So, before you go calling for restrictions on “other” people’s freedom, at least give the above three points some thought.

If you still come out feeling justified in your opinion then let’s talk some more.

“The writ of the founders must endure.”

Respect to you, President Obama!

Informative Links

For an excellent satirical spoof on this story, see OUTRAGE OVER PLANS TO BUILD LIBRARY NEXT TO SARAH PALIN

For coverage on the worrying publicity generated by Pamela Geller, see The US blogger on a mission to halt ‘Islamic takeover’

A quite amusing, Taiwanese take on the whole thing

And a BRILLIANT, 12 minute berating of those who would object to this “Mosque” by Keith Olbermann

And an excellent article on tolerance in Lebanon: The Ground Zero Synagogue in Lebanon

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

2 responses to “Respect to you, President Obama: On the utter ridiculousness of objecting to Mosques in Lower Manhattan”

  1. Gemma says :

    Interesting…

    Totally with you on the Obama love, but I have to disagree with the following:

    “Calling a piece of ground sacred or hallowed is simply a means of stating that it has great significance in the lives, hearts and minds of the community of people who hold this piece of ground to be hallowed.”

    What then is the difference between a sacred place and an important place? Can we equate the two, and if so, can we say that it is inappropriate to do such and such here because so and so finds it special? Are all ‘hallowed’ things equal and how does this affect us in practice, i.e. the Dome of the Rock?

    To slap this down as dry academic bluff is actually to ignore one of the most practical applications of Religious Studies at this time.

    • religionandmore says :

      I agree with your disagreement. I guess here I was assessing what I felt Obama meant by stating calling the ground hallowed… however, I do think that Ground Zero occupies a bizarre place between important and sacred… perhaps if we are considering an American Civil Religion it is sacred… but as no religious group claims that it is sacred, can we call it so?

      I guess one of us could write an article on just that question, related to this specific instance… someone probably has already though :P

      Thanks for commenting Gemma :-)

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