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Someone should back down over the mosque near Ground Zero. But who?

2010 August 19
by Paul Vallely

It is not comfortable when you find yourself agreeing with people for whom you normally feel little sympathy.  In my case it’s Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani. The issue is the plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero, the spot where New York’s World Trade Centre towers were felled by Islamic terrorists causing 2,750 to die.

I can’t say that I am happy with their vocabulary. They have spoken of  “desecration” and an “assertion of Islamist triumphalism.” Ms Palin was so incensed at what she created a new word, calling on peaceful Muslims to “refudiate” the project. One church in Florida has even announced protest in the form of a “Koran burning” on 11 September. We all know where burning books gets you.

And I feel the force of the arguments of those who support the project. The symbolism of a mosque as one of the many buildings in the shadow of the Freedom Tower, which is being built in the ruins of the twin towers, would be a testament to America’s diversity and its ideals of religious tolerance. It would be a memorial to the Muslims killed in the attacks and a reminder that Islamic moderates cannot be cowed into letting terrorists be the public face of their religion. The fact that all the 9/11 terrorists were Muslims does not make all Muslims terrorists, as George Bush said at the time, any more than all Christians are white supremacists just because the Ku Klux Klan claims to be Christian.

But symbolism is important not just to one side here. That much was clear in the analysis of the group behind the plan for the $100m 13-storey Islamic cultural centre containing a restaurant, swimming pool, performing arts centre and mosque at Park 51, two blocks north of Ground Zero. The Cordoba Initiative is a group of moderate Muslims dedicated fostering an “atmosphere of interfaith tolerance and respect” among Muslims, Christians and Jews. Their opponents point out that Cordoba was the centre of the Caliphate which brought Muslim dominance to the Iberian peninsula and North Africa in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Semiotics are their own reality in a place where wounds are still raw.

It is a delicate situation as Barack Obama found when he appeared to endorse the Park 51 project during a Ramadan dinner at the White House. “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable,” he said. But that is not the point. According to the polls 70 per cent of Americans agree that the Cordoba Initiative has the right to build the mosque but think it is wrong of them to build it. With elections looming President Obama rowed back, with a statement that he was not commenting on the wisdom of building a mosque close to Ground Zero, but simply saying that moderate Muslims had a right to do so.

The common good sometimes requires that we place our responsibilities before our rights. That was why the Vatican in 1989 ordered a Carmelite convent to move from Auschwitz where its large cross was outraging members of the Jewish community. And it was why it was important at the height of violence by the IRA it was important that their coreligionists should speak out unequivocally against them. Such condemnations are more potent than those from those the terrorists see as their enemy. But, more importantly, individual or denominational rights should be overruled by the needs of the wider community.

It would be a sad day for America, said the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg,  if opponents were successfully to thwart plans for a mosque at Ground Zero. True. But it would be a happy one if American Muslims were to have the sensitivity to move the planned mosque to a site which did not outrage so many other members of their national community.

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