What We’re Getting Wrong about the Mosque Near Ground Zero


For Humanist Network News
Sept. 1, 2010

The following is adapted from a statement delivered by Anne Klaeysen, the new co-dean of The Humanist Institute and Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, at an Aug. 22, 2010 platform at the end of The Humanist Institute session.  

Language, for humanists, is extremely important. I dare say that words are “sacred” to us. (Take note that I enclose the word sacred in quotation marks.) We like to talk almost as much as we like to read, and are acutely aware of the different meanings words have in different contexts. So let me be clear: I am speaking now as an Ethical Culture leader about an issue that began quietly and locally in downtown Manhattan and has “gone viral,” as the media put it, over the last week.

People are demonstrating right now in front of a former retail store, Burlington Coat Factory, against a proposed Islamic community center. They say it is a “mosque at Ground Zero” that desecrates holy ground.

First of all, no New Yorker calls the site of the Sept. 11 attack “ground zero.” It is — and always will be — the World Trade Center. To verify this, take any subway downtown and listen to the name of the stop. “Ground Zero” implies war and retaliation for an act of war, what President Bush chose to call a “war on terror.” The World Trade Center is where 19 terrorists chose to fly two planes into two towers filled with people, killing 3,000 of them. We mourn them — all of them. They were our family, friends and neighbors, and we remember them dearly every time we pass that site.

Secondly, Cordoba House (aka Park51 Community Center) will be two blocks north of WTC in a bustling neighborhood of retail stores, schools, churches and a well-established mosque, bars and strip clubs. Community Board No. 1 reviewed its proposal for a center with interfaith spaces, reading rooms, a restaurant, gymnasium and swimming pool, and approved it in a 29-1 vote. The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved it.

Now let’s consider the people who will run Cordoba House, named for the flourishing of Islamic culture in Spain hundreds of years ago. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan, a married couple, are leading figures in the interfaith community of NYC. Rauf has been imam of a mosque in Tribeca for almost 30 years, and Khan is head of the American Muslim Association. Both are strong advocates for women within Islam. They are also Sufis, a branch of Islam at the opposite end of the religious spectrum from the Taliban, Wahhabis and jihadis.

Those of you who have studied with The Humanist Institute are familiar with Vartan Gregorian’s book, “Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith.” It is essential reading for everyone, not just humanists. Those cynical politicians and pundits who are exploiting this situation probably recognize the diversity within Christianity, but choose to conflate all Muslims. We humanists have also been conflated, and I don’t just mean the differences between religious and secular humanists. (Years ago in Seattle during the G8 Summit, a group of self-proclaimed “humanists” joined the riots that rocked that city. A photo of them appeared in the New York Times, and I remember exclaiming, “They aren’t humanists! No humanist would do that!”) This profound — and, I believe, willful — ignorance incites action on the part of people who need a target for their fear and anger, strong emotions indeed.

And this is an emotional issue. Even a cognitive understanding of the facts cannot overcome the deep feelings we harbor. Nor should it: Human beings employ an emotional intelligence. I understand and empathize with those who feel that the Islamic community center should be moved farther away out of sensitivity to the families of 9/11 victims. But how far is far enough? What distance in terms of geography and theology would be deemed sensitive?

I wholeheartedly support my interfaith colleagues Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan in their Cordoba House venture, which began in the spirit of community and continues in a spirit of courage. To do otherwise would violate my principles as a New Yorker and an Ethical Humanist. New York City, with its roots in a tolerant New Amsterdam, is a cosmopolitan city that celebrates diversity and understanding. Humanism has a long tradition of enlightened reason and compassion. My religious faith is in human beings who find common ground with one another and build a better world upon it for everyone.


Anne Klaeysen is the co-dean of The Humanist Institute and Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture.