As the ninth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, people all over America are gearing up for a show of solidarity. Flags will be put up on porches and cars, and preparations for memorial ceremonies will be well underway. But the country is divided by the controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque”.
Although the media have seized on the inflammatory idea of a “Ground Zero Mosque”, this name is in fact misleading. Most likely it was thought up by opponents, rightly confident that this particular trio of words would fan the flames of controversy. The reality of the plan is far more prosaic than opponents, hoping to paint it as a symbol of triumphant Islamic extremism, wish to admit. It is not to be built on the Ground Zero site, but several streets away. And it is not primarily a mosque. The proposed building would be an Islamic cultural centre, containing facilities such as a fitness centre, theatre and prayer space.
Riding the wave of an increasingly vocal opposition, Sarah Palin has adopted it as her latest cause célèbre, writing that “to build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks”.
Former US House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich declared that the building would be an “assertion of Islamist triumphalism”. His noxious amalgamation of Islam with Islamic extremism fuels the misconception that Al-Qaeda is representative of Islam.
But a poll by the Siena Research Institute showed that while 63 per cent of New Yorkers oppose the building in its current location, 64 percent supported the right for it to be built. So should the proposed cultural centre be relocated?
The current controversy has rapidly has escalated into a debate about religious freedom. It has raised the question of whether it is inconsistent to support the practice of religious freedoms, even while simultaneously decrying the building of a mosque at this particular location.
America was after all a country established as a place of religious freedom and tolerance. Obama has weighed in on the issue, delivering a firm ideological commitment to religious freedom. “As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.” He added: “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”
In his endorsement he joins New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave a passionate speech supporting the building: “Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.”
The ideology behind the proposed building is that it will help interfaith relationships. So far there has been nothing but conflict, political point scoring and religious bigotry. A recent arson attack on a mosque in Tennessee appears to have been a byproduct of anti-Muslim feeling stirred by the controversy.
In a debate that is blindingly inflammatory, it must always be remembered that the 9/11 attacks are in no way synonymous with Islam. The divide between church and state must be maintained, and on grounds of religious freedom, opponents must not be allowed to derail the building.