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Jeff Jacoby

A mosque at ground zero?

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / June 6, 2010

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IS GROUND ZERO the right place for a major new mosque and Islamic cultural center? Cordoba House is a 15-story, $100 million development to be built just 600 feet from where the World Trade Center stood; the plans include the mosque, a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, restaurant, and bookstore.

The prospect of an Islamic center so close to ground zero is, not surprisingly, controversial. Many relatives of Sept. 11 victims are strongly opposed. One group, 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, calls Cordoba House “a gross insult to the memory of those who were killed on that terrible day.’’ But the project also has strong political support. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer are among its backers, and Cordoba House was endorsed by lower Manhattan’s Community Board No. 1 in a near-unanimous vote last month.

Of particular interest are the views of leading Muslim moderates — Muslims known for their commitment to tolerance and pluralism, and for their opposition to all forms of radical Islam.

One such individual is Zuhdi Jasser, a physician, US Navy veteran, and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.

Jasser reminisced last week about his family’s history of building mosques in the heartland communities where they lived. His parents, Syrian immigrants to the United States, helped create the Fox Valley Islamic Center in Neenah, Wis., in 1980. “This was during the Iranian hostage crisis,’’ he recalled, “and some of the local residents wanted the Zoning Commission to prevent the mosque from going forward.’’ But the commissioners gave their blessing to the project, and the modest mosque — the construction budget was just $80,000 — became part of the neighborhood. Later the family later moved to western Arkansas, where they joined with others to create the Islamic Center of Fort Smith. As recently as March, Jasser came out in support of Muslims in Sheboygan, Wis., whose plans for a new place of worship were meeting with vocal resistance.

But he adamantly opposes the ground zero mosque.

“For us, a mosque was always a place to pray, to be together on holidays — not a way to make an ostentatious architectural statement,’’ Jasser said. “Ground zero shouldn’t be about promoting Islam. It’s the place where war was declared on us as Americans.’’ To use that space for Muslim outreach, he argues, is “the worst form of misjudgment.’’

Equally opposed is Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, a devout Muslim and director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington.

Schwartz notes that the spiritual leader of the Cordoba Initiative, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, describes himself as a Sufi — a Muslim focused on Islamic mysticism and spiritual wisdom. But “building a 15-story Islamic center at ground zero isn’t something a Sufi would do,’’ according to Schwartz, also a practitioner of Sufism. “Sufism is supposed to be based on sensitivity toward others,’’ yet Cordoba House comes across as “grossly insensitive.’’ He rejects Rauf’s stance that a highly visible Muslim presence at ground zero is the way to make a statement opposing what happened on 9/11. Better, in his view, is the approach of many Muslims “who hate terrorism and who have gone privately to the site and recited prayers for the dead silently and unperceived by others.’’

Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi native who founded the Institute for Gulf Affairs and is an advocate for civil rights and religious freedom in the Middle East, hopes for the best from Cordoba House. “A mosque should be a good thing,’’ he told me. But he worries about the number of Americans who may be “hurt and upset’’ by the project, and wonders whether a mosque is really the best thing for Muslims to build so close to ground zero. Why not something less emotionally charged, he asks — a social-service agency, perhaps, or an assisted living center for the elderly?

Muslims must take the feelings of Americans into account, Ahmed contends. He cites no less an Islamic authority than the Imam Ali, Mohammed’s influential son-in-law. “Reconciliation of your differences,’’ says Imam Ali in the collection of teachings known as the Peak of Eloquence, “is more worthy than all prayers and fasting.’’

Will a mosque at ground zero make reconciliation more likely? Or will it needlessly rub salt in the unhealed wounds of 9/11?

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.

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