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Previous: Location, Location, Location

Advocates attempt to turn this logic on its head, arguing that proximity to the site of the 9/11 attacks makes the site a desirable location for a facility that sponsors say will be devoted to promoting Muslim-West relations. What, they ask, could be a more powerful rebuttal to the radical Islamic narrative about the Great Satan America’s implacable enmity toward Muslims and Islam than for Americans to welcome and accept Muslims here, of all places? What better way to showcase our commitment to religious freedom than to refuse to allow bitterness over the attacks to harden our hearts toward other Muslims who had nothing to do with the terror attacks?

This line of thought is not, I think, entirely without merit. Here is an anecdote that I would like to think would stir patriotic sentiment even in Americans adamantly opposed to the Cordoba House project: When the former Burlington Coat Factory site first began to be used for Muslim prayers, Daisy Khan said, “Only in New York City is this possible.” To think of American Muslim New Yorkers feeling this way about their country and about their city pleases me, and makes me sorry that this whole matter has gone so sour.

Still and all, it was a mistake to choose that site. The notion that the site of violence is precisely where such a building should be threatens to dissolve into self-parody: If the damage from falling plane parts makes the Park51 site a desirable place for Muslims to build, then wouldn’t it be even more appropriate to welcome them to build directly on Ground Zero itself? If the question “How close is too close?” is an unanswerable rhetorical question revealing the absurdity of insisting on any particular distance, then why insist on any distance at all? Why not a literal Ground Zero Mosque? Or, if not directly on Ground Zero, then why not directly across the street, in full view? Wouldn’t either of these proposals provide even more powerful refutation of the Great Satan narrative than keeping them out of sight a couple of blocks away?

If we balk at either or both of these proposals, then we admit the fundamental point: There is a question of sensitivity and appropriateness, and a discreet distance should be maintained between the site of 9/11 violence and major Islamic landmarks. How close is too close? How far is far enough? I think most reasonable critics would be satisfied to see Rauf make a good-faith offer. We need not wring our hands over defining too close or far enough. A genuine show of sensitivity and flexibility would go a long way toward defusing the situation.

Even Mayor Bloomberg, for all his Park51 advocacy, has acknowledged that “it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation.” The only thing Bloomberg hasn’t recognized is that there is no “sensitive” way to build an Islamic landmark directly on a site of 9/11 violence. Whether or not it was originally intended as a provocation, it unavoidably comes across as one—and the longer Rauf bucks mounting public opposition, the more it begins to look as if sensitivity and building bridges isn’t really his agenda at all.

Aggravating the issue, unfortunately, is the fact that this controversy comes at a time when Ground Zero itself is still, disgracefully, a hole in the ground with no memorial. It is thus not only a question of too close, but too soon, and especially too soon for so close. Yes, the Muslim community of lower Manhattan has outgrown their current facilities, and they have the right to build new ones. By the same token, all New Yorkers and all Americans need a memorial at Ground Zero—and we still haven’t got one. Ground Zero is still a gaping wound, and a wound in the souls of countless New Yorkers and millions of Americans who watched the towers fall on television.

Without closure at Ground Zero for New Yorkers and all Americas, the idea the local Muslim community going ahead with their own building project not only near Ground Zero but on an “iconic” site of 9/11 violence—a site chosen specifically because of this iconic link to the 9/11 violence—is even more offensive. Critics may object to calling it a “9/11 mosque,” but using Rauf’s own words we might as well call it a “close to 9/11” mosque … as opposed to a “respectful distance from 9/11” mosque, one not iconically linked to 9/11.

Previous: What’s in a Name?

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