Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Fitting Memorial on Holy Ground Zero

One of the most contentious religious issues today is this question: should a mosque be built on Ground Zero? The main arguments seem to be these:

1. No, because Muslims were responsible for the 9/11 destruction.
2. No, because building a mosque on Ground Zero is insensitive.
3. Yes, because Jesus teaches us to forgive.

All of these arguments are flawed. Let me go through them one by one and,  I hope, lead us to a better understanding of this issue. I should point out that I am looking at this from the perspective of a Christian.

Argument 1. Don't allow the mosque because Muslims were responsible for Ground Zero.

There are a number of variants on this arguments, such as all Muslims hate all Christians and we should therefore not tolerate any Muslims, even those not directly involved in 9/11. I'll address these variants here as well.

The World Trade Center was not destroyed by "The Muslims". It was destroyed by some fanatics who claimed to be Muslims despite the fact that they were acting in direct violation of all accepted Muslim teachings. The idea that Muslims as a group are responsible for this act of terrorism is as repugnant as saying that Christians as a group are responsible for the terrorism perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan.

Muslims were horrified by the World Trade Center attacks. The Islamic condemnation after 9/11 was universal and unequivocal. One statement signed by dozens of prominent Muslim scholars said,
The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center are nothing short of murder. Those office workers did nothing wrong, nothing to deserve such a terrible fate, and the murder of innocents can never be justified and must not be tolerated.
For a good overview of Muslim reaction to 9/11, see this summary.

The idea that Muslims hate Christians is equally false. Many Christians will be surprised to learn that Muslims revere Jesus. They consider him a true prophet and use the same reverence in referring to Jesus as they do to Mohamed, that is "peace be upon him." And guess who Muslims revere first among all women. It is not the mother of their own prophet. It is the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus!
Here is how the Qu'ran describes Jesus:
Behold! the angels said, 'Oh Mary! God gives you glad tidings of a Word from Him. His name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter, and in (the company of) those nearest to God. He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. He shall be (in the company) of the righteous... And God will teach him the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel (3:45-48).
Does this sound like a religion that hates Christians?

You can certainly find snippets of the Qu'ran that, if taken out of context, seem  anti-Christian. One person with whom I was dialoguing quoted this:
Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors. They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. (Al-Ma’dah 5: 51)
But you can play this same game with The Bible. For example, somebody who wants to "prove" that all Christian are warmongers can quote this:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Mathew 10:35)

The point is that you will learn nothing about these holy books by looking at brief sentences taken out of context by detractors. If you want to learn what a religion teaches, you must engage in an open, honest, and non-judgmental dialogue with followers of that religion. If you have this dialogue with Muslims, you will quickly find that they share a sincere desire for love and compassion between all of God's people and that they believe in the same God as do Christians and Jews, that is, the God of Abraham.

By the way, if you are interested in how Muslims view the Qu'ran passage quoted above about friendship with Jews and Christians, see this page.

Argument 2. Don't allow a mosque on Ground Zero because doing so is insensitive.

Some compare Muslims building a mosque on Ground Zero to Japanese building a temple on Pearl Harbor or Catholics building a church near a German concentration camp. But this comparison is wrong. The Japanese acted as a nation going to war against our nation.The Catholic church failed as an institution to stand up against the Nazi regime. Muslims as a whole had nothing to do with 9/11. As I have already discussed, the vast majority of Muslims were horrified by 9/11.

More than 50 Muslims are known to have been among the victims of the 9/11 attack. Among these murdered human beings were workers in the Twin Towers, passengers in hijacked planes, and first responders in the horror filled aftermath. The attack on 9/11 wasn't an attack by Muslims on Christians. It was an attack by fanatics on Americans of all faiths.

Muslim husbands lost wives, just like Christian, Jewish, and Hindu husbands lost wives. Muslim wives lost husbands just like Christian, Jewish, and Hindu wives lost husbands. Muslim children lost loving parents and grieved every bit as hard as the Christian, Jewish, and Hindu children who lost loving parents.

Each of these religious groups and others should be encouraged to come together, mourn our dead, and build temples where we can pray together for peace and justice. In shedding tears together, perhaps we can find peace together.

Argument 3: We should allow the mosque to be built because Jesus teaches us to forgive.

As tempting as this argument is, I am forced to reject it. The reason is simple. Forgiveness, as taught by Jesus, is always in the context of a wrong. When Jesus teaches us to forgive, he is teaching us to forgive those who have wronged us. Jesus is never teaching us to forgive those who have treated us only with love and respect. That makes no sense.

Forgiveness for an imagined wrong is really just a way of holding onto that imagined wrong. It is a passive aggressive way of accusing somebody of doing something that you believe but can't prove they did. It is like saying, "I'm not saying that you did this or didn't do this but I forgive you for doing this."

Imagine that your best friend falsely believed that you had killed his wife. How would you feel if he came to you day after day and said, "I forgive you for killing my wife." Would you feel that a great burden of guilt had been lifted from your shoulders? Or would you feel only sorrow knowing that your friend still falsely blamed you for his wife's death?

So to say that we forgive Muslims and therefore will allow them to build their mosque is not only a non-loving act, it is a hurtful act. Muslims don't need forgiveness. They haven't done anything! If you want to forgive somebody, forgive the terrorists who are responsible for 9/11. They are the ones who have put their souls in jeopardy by their hateful acts! And if you can find this forgiveness in your heart, then you are truly following the teachings of Christ. And I applaud you. You are a better Christian than me.


So where does this leave us? Should we allow the mosque to be built or not?

The answer is no, we should not allow the mosque to be build. Instead, we should pray for the mosque to be built. Not because the Muslims need it. Because we all need it.

On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States. Their goal was not to destroy buildings. Their goal was to destroy an alliance between Muslims of faith and America. Their goal was to turn friends into enemies. Their plan was to prove that the American ideal of people of all faiths living together was flawed and would, if stressed, self-destruct.

If we follow the terrorist script, the terrorists are successful. If we don't, they aren't. It is that simple. When we respond with anger to the Muslim desire to create a place to meet and worship God, we respond exactly as the terrorists hoped.

How can we really honor those who died not only at Ground Zero but at the other locations made sacred that day? I can think of no better tribute than people of all faiths coming together to build this mosque. It would be a holy statement that we will not allow our actions to be dictated by hatred and prejudice.  It would be a hymn proclaiming that the vision of America as a nation of all faiths is as vital today as when this country was founded.

And for those of us who are Christians, it would be our way of showing the world the Christ is alive in our love and compassion for each other.
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' (Mathew 22:36-39)
This is why we should pray for the success of our Muslim brothers and sisters in building their mosque (our mosque.) Because that is what it means to "love your neighbor as yourself." And that is what it means to be Christian. And Muslim. And Jewish. And Hindu.

Photo is titled "Death Makes No Difference" by Karma-Police (Flickr) Licensed under Creative Commons, some rights reserved.
Updates from Readers
More on the plans for the mosque: according to the Wall Street Journal Blog (May 5, 2010), "The project, called the Cordoba House, will take the 92nd Street Y as its model — only with a prayer space at its core. The finished center will include performance space, community-event rooms, fitness facilities and classrooms."

One of my Muslim friends tells me that the Cordoba House includes  facilities for meetings of people of all faiths and a memorial for victims of 9/11. And despite the media reports, the Cordoba house is not actually at Ground Zero, it is over two blocks away.


  1. Roger, this is a great post, and I totally agree with your arguments and conclusions.

    All I would quibble with is your opening description of this as a contentious religious issue. I don't see this as a religious issue at all, since in my opinion any devout and sincere religious person must come to the same conclusions as you have, although perhaps never as eloquently expressed. I see it as a political issue, from people who betray their own religion (if they have one) by trying to score geopolitical and party-political points on the basis of ignorance and intolerance.

  2. Richard, thank you for your comments! And I can agree with you that this is a political issue as much as it is a religious issue. The problem is that throughout history, the line between politics and religion is a blurry one. Far too often people use religion as a weapon to gain power and control others. And you are right, this is a complete betrayal of all true religious principles. Jesus, for example, preached "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." (Mark 9:35)

  3. since 9/11 have not read any article as beautifull as yours!
    I do agree with every word you wrote. We as all Abrahamic faiths
    Same principles. Terrorism is a great sin in Islam, Christianity and
    Judaism. According to Islam; if one kills an innocent person, it's
    equal sin of killing whole human race in the face of earth!
    This attact just not kill 3000 innocent people, it killed American
    tollerance, justice and equality most importantly peace for all.
    As a Muslim American Women our way of life changed dramaticly

    I was yelled " terrorist" while I was at the playground at the Brothers
    Park at College Station. I was afraid to go outside for one month.
    And our Mosque was almost burn. We as
    Muslims done nothing Wrong!
    We were shock, discussed, horrified and very upset when 9/11 attacts happend. And sadden two times more, because killers
    Identify themselfs as Muslims. In fact they were at the bar drinking
    heavily alcohol. How come same man sacrifice their life the next
    morning? Every Muslim knows, killing is a one of the biggiest sin!
    It comes right after associating partners to God or rejecting God.
    With All The verses you quted from BIble, there are same or equvalent
    Ones at Quran. Basically same principles and Teaching.
    My Father at Turkey ordered Jesus's( peace be upon Him) picture from 50 years ago and put it in a best corner. We grow up loving him from his picture. My father is comming from same family of Prophet Mohammed( peace be upon Him)
    And he is a very well known Muslim Cleric. It also makes him relative to Jesus ( pbuh) and all the prophets because they are belong to same family.
    When prophet Mohammed asked about Jesus ( pbuh) he replied:
    He ( Jesus ) is my brother!
    And we have a whole chapter in Quran name: Mary
    And lots of verses about Jesus ( pbuh)
    As you can see, we are not different!
    We must stant together against all evil.
    And put it in the hi
    Thank you for your articles and wise comments. You are the true

  4. Roger,
    This is a beautiful posting and a must read for everyone.

    Regarding Richard's observation (and your response), sadly religion and politics are closely intertwined. It's about power and mind-control - leading to wallet control eventually.

    I went to New York on 9/16 2001. It was still chaotic as you can imagine. The cab dropped me at Canal St. I had to walk down to Wall St. As I was walking south, I wondered if the Trinity Church at the corner of Broadway and Wall St survived. I used to visit that Church when I lived down in Battery Park City. So, I craned my neck looking for the spire. I was surprised at the joy I felt when I saw the spire.
    I think that people of all faiths (and no faith at all) deserve to have the opportunity to experience the same joyfulness that I had.
    Roger, thank you. I got to re-experience those feelings after reading the post.

  5. Fatma, thank you so much for commenting and helping to put a human face on this issue. And thank you for your help in my understanding of the Muslim perspective.

  6. Dear Roger I thank you for listening me with open mind and without prejudice!

  7. Excellent blog! Thank you for voicing what so many of us feel but have trouble putting into words with the din of the shrill voices of ignorance, prejudice and hatred ringing in our ears. Your contemplative practice is serving you well, allowing you to speak truth to folly in a way that illuminates rather than adds to the cacophony.