If Ground Zero Was No Longer a Hole in the Ground, Would Anyone Care About a Mosque?

Avi Zenilman | August 11, 2010
Sally Regenhard at the Landmarks Commission hearing in July.

Depending on where you stand, in both senses of the word, the debate is either about the “Ground Zero Mosque,” or the Islamic cultural center named the Cordoba House slated for development on Park Place. (Yes, it’s not actually at Ground Zero, but the Imam behind the center picked the location, about two blocks away, deliberately.)

When Michael Bloomberg addressed it last week, after a near unanimous Community Board vote approving the plan, he was applauded for straightforwardly demanding religious tolerance, it seemed like a New York development story with strong political undertones. As the days have gone by, as Newsweek puts it on its cover, and as every prospective 2012 Republican presidential candidate — from Minnesota, Alaska, Arkansas, and other outer boroughs — comes out against the building, it has taken on a stranger hue. Everyone who is not a prominent Democratic politician seems to have a formal opinion, including John McCain and the two other Senators who publicly called the location of the building an “insult.”

Democrats in the city have been essentially quiet — the best example is Rep. Anthony Weiner, who sent a letter to Bloomberg that was nearly indecipherable: he praised the speech, but used bureaucratic language to hedge what seemed like support, writing, “I feel strongly that the constitutional protection of religion from the overreach of government means that elected officials should endeavor to stay out of the business of deciding where houses of worship may or may not be.’’ 

The reason the words ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ have so much resonance is because Ground Zero is still a place, a hole in the ground somehow approaching its ninth year of emptiness.

The swirling feuds have led to a whole range of public spokesmen and intellectuals staking positions like votes, like Senators in a new legislative body known as the news cycle. Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (the organization behind the Museum of Tolerance) said it would be too offensive to victims of 9/11 to build the center in the shadow of the twin towers. That, in part, echoed the concerns of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights organization. Most Jewish groups did not agree with the ADL’s stance. And Fareed Zakaria disapproved so much that he returned an ADL award he received in 2005. And so on.

The situation, overly fraught to the point of dark comedy, is no longer about New York, and especially not downtown development; it’s about what you think about how America sees itself, or how you can get some attention to your cause. Barely anyone complaining has the ability to do anything — and, according to a recent news report, it’s no guarantee that the center would be able to get the necessary financing.

But this confusing, loud argument strikes a nerve that hits harder than Sarah Palin’s twitter feed: The reason the words “Ground Zero Mosque” have so much resonance is because Ground Zero is still a place, a hole in the ground somehow approaching its ninth year of emptiness. (It’s hard to see people caring about “Freedom Tower Mosque,” even if it was actually located in the building itself.) The hope of a higher principle that could trump parochial interests seems sillier by the day — why would a mosque be able to fix things where the Port Authority couldn’t?