Saturday, August 14, 2010


The controversy over the proposed mosque near the site of the World Trade Center (not on Ground Zero, as some have suggested) is delicate, to say the least. So my thoughts are truly “light-weight,” but perhaps they will stimulate some better, more “heavy-weight” thoughts in others.

My thoughts today are going back to another, similar, controversy a couple of decades ago: the desire of the Carmelites to build a convent for cloistered nuns at the infamous death-camp Auschwitz. Again, there was a firestorm of anger. The Jewish community saw this as a provocation and unnecessary compromise of the memory of the millions of Jews exterminated at that camp. Was anything else going on?

Well, yes—one of those exterminated there was a Roman Catholic nun, a Carmelite, who was also Jewish by birth: Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. It is a sometimes forgotten fact that Nazis hated Catholics as well: St Maximilian Kolbe also met his death in that camp. So the desire of the Carmelites to establish a center for prayer there was not unreasonable. But Hitler himself was baptized a Catholic; was that fact a consideration in seeing the Carmelites not only as intruders but perhaps even as representatives of the Enemy?

The nature of the conflict is similar to today’s disagreement. Whose memories ought to trump others’? How should we work to achieve reconciliation? Whose prayers matter? How far away from Ground Zero does the sacred ground extend? Should there be no mosques in Manhattan?

I have no answers here. I will observe that New York’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg (himself a Jew) is strongly in favor of the project. And I observe that Rick Lazio, running for Governor of New York, thinks this must be opposed as a matter of “safety and security,” yet he also acknowledge that over 100 mosques are in New York City—so it seems that one more is scarcely a matter for safety and security, after all.
On the other hand, I observe that the Anti-Defamation League strongly opposes the location of the mosque. So what to do? I don’t really know…

How this is decided is, I believe, less important than the reasons why the decision is made. This is the problem with all of the moral life, finally: it matters not only what I do, but why I do it. Or in the words of the St Thomas Becket of T. S. Eliot’s drama Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the greatest treason/To do the right thing for the wrong reason.” I hope that at least we can have good reasons for why we do what we do.


  1. You wrote: "How this is decided is, I believe, less important than the reasons why the decision is made."

    In your post, you focus on the reasons for popular opposition or support of the placement of the mosque near Ground Zero. More important to me are the motives behind Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf and his group's desire to build the mosque in that particular location. Rauf claims the project is intended to foster better relations between the West and Muslims. Thus far, the project seems to be having the opposite effect, "opening, not healing, old wounds." Perhaps placing the mosque in a less controversial location would better serve the group's goal of improved relations. Maybe compassion for the real and understandable pain felt by many Americans (especially New Yorkers) at the thought of the mosque's construction should move Rauf and his group to conclude that building the mosque elsewhere would better serve the group's stated mission. Pope John Paul II must have come to a similar conclusion, as he ultimately ordered the Carmelite nuns to leave Auschwitz.

    Those of us in the South may recognize the similarity of this new controversy to the continuing controversy over public displays of the Confederate battle flag. To some, the flag is a proud display of Southern heritage. To others, it is a painful reminder of oppression and discrimination. It is one thing to have the right to "proudly" display the Confederate flag on private property directly overlooking a busy stretch of interstate in Alabama. It is quite another to claim that such a display fosters "better relations" between African-Americans and whites. If the absurdity of such a claim is so clear in the case of a Confederate flag display, why then should it be so difficult to acknowledge the absurdity of the claim that placing a mosque near Ground Zero would somehow "foster better relations between the West and Muslims"?

    The responsibility for the decision does not lie with Michael Bloomberg, Rick Lazio, or the Anti-Defamation League. It does not lie with those Americans whose real pain over the decision is legitimate and completely understandable. The moral responsibility lies squarely with Imam Rauf's group, which now has the opportunity -- and indeed the obligation -- to reconsider its decision in light of the evidence of the decision's divisiveness. Will the group choose to follow in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II and display sensitivity and compassion for a legitimately hurt group of people? Or will it march to the beat of those flying the Battle Flag of the Confederacy?

  2. Has not this type of experience been manifested over and over since the beginning of civilization? Who should determine the decision-making re the placement of this religious structure? The morality of the human act depends on the object chosen and the intention behind the act. Does this act produce positive or negative vibes? It does not seem surprising that the negative outcry of thousands of affected citizens should occur. The mourning period goes on for the families, friends, rescue workers & businesses affected by this war-like intrusion of our land. Is not the timing for and location of this mosque a disregard for compassion and charity? Perhaps a mediation panel, objectively chosen, might settle for another time....another place.

  3. Rob is right on target on a couple of points which emphasize my own: why we do what we do is more important than what we do in and of itself. This applies to the request for the mosque as well as any agreement with or opposition to it. He is also correct that when Pope John Paul II weighed in, the Carmelite nuns moved. Here is a true heavyweight, and his perspective was formed by his close boyhood friendships with Jews in pre-WWII Poland. A gesture of peace can be made in both directions; it will be interesting to see how this contentious issue will be resolved.

  4. When it comes to 'heavyweights' in the present economic and political climate, one has to swallow hard to name someone trustworthy. Our current president has just added his consent to Imam Rauf's desire to place another mosque in the site close to 'ground zero'. Political correctness is not synonymous with a peaceful solution, is it?