The Common Good

The Implications of Calling Cordoba House a "Mosque"

Islam did not attack America on Sept. 11 -- terrorists did. Peace-loving, law-abiding American Muslims suffered losses as great on 9-11 and in the months that followed as any honored with the moniker "9-11 families." Not only did Muslims lose loved ones in the towers and as passengers on the planes that crashed that fateful day, but they also suffered the psychic trauma of all Americans. Furthermore, their losses were compounded by the absurd demonization of persons perceived to be Muslim, which resulted in a dramatic rise in random hate crimes, racial profiling, indiscriminate detention, and extraordinary rendition. Now, nine years later, American Muslims suffer by being branded unworthy of First Amendment rights because murderers once perpetrated unspeakable acts in blasphemy of the Muslim faith.

All the hoopla over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" is yet another example of right-wingers' ability to "mis-name" people, places, and issues to effectively advance their own agendas. A mosque isn't being proposed for Ground Zero; more accurately, the Cordoba House is a community center, to be built at 51 Park Place (multiple blocks away from Ground Zero) by an organization currently located across the street at 45 Park Place that has been serving that community for years. Yet because of some persons' ability to 'mis-name' people, places, and issues to advance their own agendas, these very real facts have become matters of dispute. So much so that the web editorial staff of Sojourners and I had to reinvestigate and come to terms with the veracity of my simple claim that what's being proposed is not actually a mosque.

Our research uncovered that in English "mosque" is used to connote any Muslim place of worship, whereas in Arabic a distinction is made between the size and function of mosques. So true to the stereotype of being generally uninterested in how other cultures speak of themselves, English-speakers seem to have conflated all places Islamic for linguistic convenience. It's equivalent to calling all places having to do with Christian prayer -- i.e. gardens, chapels, retreats, convents, monasteries -- "churches."

It's not altogether inaccurate in each instance, but there is value in more precise language. Moreover, we discovered that Park 51, the name of the community center under dispute, is a multi-purpose facilitate that will house a gym, an auditorium, a restaurant and culinary school, a library, art studios, child care, prayer/contemplation/worship space and a memorial for those who lost their lives on 9-11. All facilities will be open to the public, not just Muslims. We also found that the man behind Park 51, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is the furthest thing from an opponent of Western culture, arguing in his most recent book that America is what an ideal Islamic society would look like because it is pluralistic and peaceful.

All this was great information to have, but as Jeannie (web editor for Sojourners) and I discussed the matter, it occurred to us that the facts weren't getting us any closer to the truth. The truth is that the real damage done by those so adept at ginning up such controversies is that they succeed in taking perfectly innocuous (yea, even noble) terms like "mosque" and defaming them to the point that the mere mention of the word conjures up anxiety. The real issue is not what the prayer facilities of Park 51 are called, but rather that by making so much of it, the very word "mosque," and by extension, anything having to do with Islam, become disqualified and despised in the public square.

Thankfully, America has a Bill of Rights that protects against such erosions of liberty. Yet the underlying nativist renegotiation of our nation's best intuitions as articulated in this debate and the one over the Fourteenth Amendment is troubling. If Americans allow ourselves to be led any further down this road, we may find ourselves in such an emotive and irrational place that good sense and common decency can't redeem us. As Keith Olbermann pointed out:

"'They came first for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me, and by that time, no one was left to speak up." [Quoted from German theologian and Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller.] ... Niemoller was not warning of the Holocaust; he was warning of the willingness of a seemingly rational society to condone the gradual stoking of enmity towards an ethnic or religious group or more than one; warning of the building up of a collective pool of national fear and hate; warning of the moment when the need to purge outstrips even the parameters of the original scapegoating, when new victims are needed because a country has begun to run on a horrible fuel of hatred magnified, amplified, multiplied by politicians and zealots within government and without. Niemoller was not warning of a holocaust: He was warning of the thousand steps before a holocaust became inevitable.

We pray often, "God bless America," but if we spurn those blessings -- the blessings of our best intuitions, the blessings of each other -- with what are we left?

Melvin BrayMelvin Bray is coordinating author of Stories in Which We Find Ourselves, a 'post-ism' Bible story project. He is also one of many hosts of 2010 Emergent Village Theological Conversation: Creating Liberated Spaces in a Post-Colonial World -- November 1-3, 2010. If you were interested in the "Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?" article, you'll definitely be interested in this conversation.

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