By Brian Elliott
In recent weeks growing controversy over a planned Muslim cultural center to be situated two blocks from Ground Zero in New York has reverberated throughout the US media. Sarah Palin has called plans for the center an “unnecessary provocation” and Newt Gingrich has spoken of the prospective community center as “an aggressive act that is offensive.” But another Republican, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been the center’s staunchest defender, appealing to the First Amendment’s proscription of laws affecting the establishment of religion. Beyond political and media circles those who lost people close to them in the September 11 attack have adopted different stances to the proposed development.
Much attention has been given to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Together with his wife, Daisy Kahn, Imam Feisal has been seeking a site for an Islamic cultural center in Manhattan for over a decade. Whereas a 2004 Times profile portrayed Imam Feisal as an ecumenical, peace-loving convert to Sufism whose central desire is to explain the culture of Islam to the west, recent articles and interviews have claimed links to various factions of Islamic radicalism. On a more secular plane, a further article from the Times takes those behind the center to task for naively underestimating a predictably high level of popular protest and not hiring a public relations firm early on in the process.
At present, there is a growing consensus among opponents that a reasonable compromise would be to move the cultural center to a site further away from Ground Zero. That way everyone would win. The center could be built, possibly with municipal assistance, and the sense of outrage allayed. So far the backers of the center have refused this option. I think they are right to do so. In my book, Constructing Community, I argue for the right of local communities to determine their own built environment. New York is above all a city of global finance capital. But amid the global framework an amazing diversity of local communities exists on the ground. Given this diversity it is striking that in May of this year a Manhattan community board reached a non-binding 29-to-1 decision to approve the building of the cultural center.
Opponents, many of whom live hundreds if not thousands of miles from Manhattan, insist that building a mosque so close to Ground Zero represents Islamic triumphalism. It would mark the crowning victory of those who attacked the city almost nine years ago. But to argue in this way is to suppose that a fifth of the global population is dedicated to the destruction of the west through terrorist violence. Those who press for “compromise” endorse an out of sight out of mind approach: let there be mosques, just keep them away from highly visible sites. This is simply moral cowardice. As the pioneering urban theorist Henri Lefebvre said, the city is the place of contestation. Whatever the eventual outcome, we should have the moral maturity to keep our sites of urban disputes out in the open.
Brian Elliott teaches in the philosophy department at Oregon State University and is author of Constructing Community: Configurations of the Social in Contemporary Philosophy and Urbanism.