The Ethics Of The Ground Zero Mosque

The proposed Ground Zero mosque should be a straightforward ethics issue, but it is not. Now it is bound up in a thoroughly confusing  debate that confounds and blurs law, ethical values, history, rights, and human nature.  Everyone is right, and everyone is wrong.

Yes, it’s an Ethics Train Wreck, all right. This one is so bad I hesitated to write about it—ethics train wrecks trap commentators too—in the vain hope that it would somehow resolve itself with minimal harm. That is obviously not in the cards, however; not when the Anti-Defamation League weighs in on the side of religious intolerance, thus forfeiting its integrity and warping its mission. The wreck is still claiming victims, and there is no end in sight.

In New York City, government officials seem certain to approve plans for an Islamic complex, which will have as many as 15 stories and would include a prayer space, a performing arts center, a pool and a restaurant, all to be located just a couple of blocks from “Ground Zero,” the site of the doomed World Trade Center towers. Prominent Republican figures, conservative columnists and radio hosts, the families of 9-11 victims and many member of the public are vociferously opposing the project, saying that it is offensive, hurtful, insensitive, and even “a celebration of America’s defeat and the victory of the Muslim world.” Newt Gingrich articulated the emotional response of many Americans when he said, “The World Trade Center is the largest loss of American life on our soil since the Civil War. And we have not rebuilt it, which drives people crazy. And in that setting, we are told, why don’t we have a 13-story mosque and community center? The average American just thinks this is a political statement. It’s not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.”

Those who support the Center, notes the New York Times today, “seem mystified and flustered by the heated opposition. They contend that the project, with an estimated cost of $100 million, is intended to span the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim, not widen it.”

Mystified? Really? Would these same people have been “mystified” if Pearl Harbor had been abandoned by the U.S. Navy after World War II and veterans objected that the site had been chosen for a Japanese embassy, museum and cultural center?  How about the objections of Holocaust survivors if a German military museum and Nazi veterans’ monument was located on the site of the Auschwitz prison camp? Would it be mystifying if the citizens of Atlanta objected to a William Tecumseh Sherman statue in the center of town?  How about transferring the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library from Independence, Missouri  to Nagasaki?  Or the Enola Gay to an exhibit in Hiroshima? Would all of this really be mystifying?

How about a branch of the “King Richard the Lionhearted Royal Library” in Mecca? Would that ring those Golden Rule bells?

Muslims who do not see the problem are naive—incredibly naive, in fact.  So incredibly naive are they that they can hardly object when some people conclude that they are being willfully, recklessly, heartlessly and foolishly  insentive. Oz Sultan, the programming director for the center, told the New York Times that the complex was based on Jewish community centers and Y.M.C.A.’s in Manhattan, and will have a board composed of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders. “We are looking to build bridges between faiths,” Sultan said.

Well that’s just swell, Mr. Sultan. You are building a prominent monument to the same religion that led a fanatic to murder 3,000 innocent Americans right where he killed them. That is guaranteed to hurt a great many people, cause resentment, and provoke anger, and no rational person should expect otherwise.

Here’s an idea: build the center somewhere else.

But Mr. Sultan and his group don’t want to build it somewhere else, and as tasteless, insensitive, needlessly provocative and yes, stupid as this is, it is something they have an absolute right to do. These are Americans, and the Constitution allows American to do many mean, thoughtless, irresponsible things without restrictions based on race, religion, gender political views or country of origin. What the Muslims want to do is wrong, but stopping them will also be also wrong. If New York’s politicians were not inept, they would have been able to agree on an appropriate monument by now that would have made even a near-by mosque less of an issue.

The Anti-Defamation League should have sided with the Muslims, just as the A.C.L.U sided with the Ku Klux Klan when they wanted to march through Skokie.  Placing an Islamic complex so close to Ground Zero is offensive for many of the reasons its critics say it is. The ethical course would be for the Muslims to be empathetic and do the right thing. If they insist on doing the wrong thing, however, the rest of us are obligated to be respectful, not just of them, but of our own principles.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel angry and hurt too. If the Muslims respected the victims of 9-11 as much as the Constitution requires us to respect their religion, there would be no mosque near Ground Zero.

25 thoughts on “The Ethics Of The Ground Zero Mosque

  1. This train wreck trapped you too. Your analogies of a Japanese embassy at Pearl Harbor, or a Nazi veterans monument at Auschwitz are inaccurate and unfair. The Japanese Government bombed Pearl Harbor, the Nazis perpetrated the Holocaust. American Muslims didn’t murder 3000 innocents.

    Islam outlaws the killing of innocents as strongly as Judaism and Christianity do, although nominal adherents of all three religions cite their religion when doing abominable things.

    The people who use the proposed center are Americans. They shouldn’t have to apologize for 9/11, any more than you or I do.

    It’s unethical to blame blaming people for misdeeds of others who look like them, share a homeland with them, or worship like them.

    American Christians have no responsibility for killing innocents in the name of Christianity in the former Yugoslavia, and American Jews have no responsibility for killing innocents in the name of Judaism in Gaza. You’re wrong to assign any responsibility to American Muslims for killing innocents (including many co-religionists—in New York.

    They should be free to build the center where they propose. It’s well out of sight of Ground Zero. The vast majority of people who oppose the building would oppose it uptown, in Staten Island, or in Temecula California. There’s no satisfying them. On the other hand most New Yorkers seem perfectly OK with it on Park Place, 2-1/2 blocks from Ground Zero.

  2. I don’t feel trapped, and I don’t think any of them are bad analogies, Bob. A current day Japanese embassy wouldn’t represent Tojo, Hirohito or today’s
    Japan, but it would be in bad taste. The towers were bombed in the name of Allah, however wrongly. My president apologizes for the institution of slavery, that neither I nor my ancestors had anything to do with. The Muslims can’t disown what is done in the name of their religion so easily.

    Saying that Palin et al.would complain about a Staten Island mosque is beside the point—whether they did or not, they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Just as the appearance of impropriety matters, the appearance of insensitivity matters. The decision to build the mosque so near to Ground Zero willfully ignores human nature, and whether it “should” bother people, it will, and a great deal. Thus the ethical thing to do is build it someplace else.

    I know many reasonable, non-paranoid, non-Muslim-hating people who swear that this could only occur if someone somewhere in the process sees it as a symbol of America’s defeat on 9-11. I disagree, but I understand why they feel that way, and the Muslims should understand too.

    It’s a terrible plan, and far too insensitive to excuse.

    But I agree that it has to go forward if the Muslims don’t have the sense to back down.

  3. Socrates asks:

    Did any Muslims (sans the terrorists, of course) die in the World Trade Center attack?

    If the answer is yes, then do they deserve to be honored or memorialized in some way?

    If the answer is yes, who gets to decide how they are remembered?

    Ethics Bob is right. You are trapped.
    The rationalizations you provide only serve to tighten the quicksand’s grip.

    The simple questions above add clarity to the debate.
    Their answers may help you find your way out of the maze.

    • Gyasi—I fail to see how those questions shed any light on the matter at all. Are you suddenly declaring the Center to be a memorial to the victims? If it were, I think that would be admirable, but I have heard nothing to suggest that it is. If it is possible to build a memorial that does not cause anger and distrust, then by all means, build it.

      I am not trapped in the least. Bod’s not often wtong, but he is this time.

  4. I’d be offended by a Japonese embassy at Pearl, not because it’s Japanese but because the Japanese government has consistently denied its savagery in WW II–unlike the German government and people.

    To the mosque–Imam Rauf has been vocal in his denunciation of the 9/11 attacks, and more to the point, has asserted–as have many Muslim schloars, that the attacks were incompatible with Islam.

    It seems to me that telling Muslims to be “sensitive” to anti-Islam slurs has it backwards. God bless George W. Bush, whose first reaction (almost first) to the attack was to embrace American Muslims and point out that the attack wasn’t by Islam.

    All despised groups, from the Boston Irish to the blacks, Jews, and New York Muslims have been told they should be “sensitive.” I hope–and believe–that New Yorkers will continue to not say that.

    • Ethics that ignores the realities of human nature are of limited value. A famous medical ethics case involved a Korean patient who though Japanese specialists would try to kill him. Initially the hospital ethics committee ruled that he should be forced to accept treatment from the Japanese doctors. A higher committee, on appeal, ruled that even though his fear had nothing to do with THESE Japanese, his WWII experience made the concern real enough to him that empathy required letting him have a doctor he trusted. The specialists were prepared to force him to accept their treatment. They were wrong—empathy and kindness dictated another result.

      You know, reconciliation doesn’t require a complete and unequivocal embrace. If my kid was molested by a Catholic priest, I wouldn’t want a Catholic church moving next door. I know that that’s a visceral rather than a rational reaction, but I wouldn’t want my son to have to see a guy in a collar every day if he didn’t have to.

      If the moderate Muslims want to build bridges, they’ll start far away from where the emotions are rawest. Good sense, and consideration of those strange human things we call “emotions,” :memories,” and “scars.”

  5. There’s a lot of stickiness to this quagmire. I can appreciate your argument that even if the construction of the mosque is constitutionally protected, the site location is understandably painful to many people.

    At the same time, it is constitutionally protected because it was not American Muslims carrying out those horrific attacks.

    If it’s good enough for Mayor Bloomberg, it’s worth trying (I’m not a fan of his) if only for the chance to reach across the gap between American Muslims and those who fear, resent, or disagree with them. Where some “Muslims” gouged a terrible hole in our nation, others want to build a bridge. I’m admittedly biased but reconstruction and reconciliation has to start somewhere.

  6. Jack,
    I have to side with Ethics Bob, Gyasi, and Saladin on this one, I think you’re completely out of line. By this same logic, after all, it could be viewed as offensive that so many churches are present in the Holy Land (remember the crusades?), or Mosques in Spain (the Moorish invasion). Would also it be unethical to have an abortion within walking distance of a Catholic church, or vice-versa, considering the number of doctors who have been shot by religious loonies? Or, as an extreme case, a KFC next to PETA headquarters?

    Frankly, all world religions have some amount of blood on their hands and it would be idiotic to argue that every house of worship represents an affront to one group or another because it serves as a “painful reminder” of past injustices. Those responsible for the September 11th attacks weren’t Muslims, they were fanatics who employed religion as a means of justifying their actions. It’s ironic how quickly Christians are to label THEIR extremists as “wackos” who don’t represent the mainstream, yet are unwilling to extend Muslims the same courtesy.

    Besides, exactly how close is “too close” in this case? It’s not as though they’re petitioning to build it atop Ground Zero itself (though, even then, such would be their right). Then again, you did take a stand for freedom at the end, so I’ll give you that much. As for the rest, however, you couldn’t be more wrong.

    -Neil

    • “By this same logic, after all, it could be viewed as offensive that so many churches are present in the Holy Land (remember the crusades?), or Mosques in Spain (the Moorish invasion)”.

      Really? You really think it’s the same? You don’t think a couple of centuries changes the equation juuust a bit? Besides, the issue is defined by whether or not it is considered offensive by a substantial number of the people who live there. Presumably it isn’t, which mans most people are not still smoldering about the Crusades.

      “Would also it be unethical to have an abortion [you wanted “clinic” here, right?] within walking distance of a Catholic church, or vice-versa, considering the number of doctors who have been shot by religious loonies? Or, as an extreme case, a KFC next to PETA headquarters?”

      Absolutely, if they could choose to go elsewhere. Why isn’t this obvious? When you set out annoy and hurt someone at a deep emotional level, recklessly or intentionally, it’s wrong. Would setting up an NRA office or a gun shop next to Jim Brady’s house be unethical? You’re kidding, right? You do see the problem. You’re just pulling my leg.

      “Frankly, all world religions have some amount of blood on their hands and it would be idiotic to argue that every house of worship represents an affront to one group or another because it serves as a “painful reminder” of past injustices.”

      So who argued that? I didn’t.

      “Those responsible for the September 11th attacks weren’t Muslims, they were fanatics who employed religion as a means of justifying their actions. It’s ironic how quickly Christians are to label THEIR extremists as “wackos” who don’t represent the mainstream, yet are unwilling to extend Muslims the same courtesy.”

      Neil, they were fanatic AND Muslim. And it has nothing at all to do with labels. It has to do with perception and emotions, and handling both responsibly rather than insisting on “rights” no matter how much needless harm they may cause.

      Besides, exactly how close is “too close” in this case? It’s not as though they’re petitioning to build it atop Ground Zero itself (though, even then, such would be their right). Then again, you did take a stand for freedom at the end, so I’ll give you that much. As for the rest, however, you couldn’t be more wrong.

  7. The issue I have is that at some point, it’s not unethical if something you do offends people; I’m sure some people are offended at the idea that there are probably still mosques being built in various places in the USA, or that there are Muslim student associations in public universities, or even that some people still wear turbans and head scarfs, but it’s certainly not unethical that these exist. Where would it be ethical to build that new mosque, if they really want a new one anyways?

    • And no, I’m not trying to say that one has carte-blanch to offend people, only that I think there are legitimate reasons to build an Islamic center in NYC (for all we know, people will get offended no matter where it gets built, though I suppose they could try to negotiate a new location anyways).

      • I think most critics see a gigantic difference from an Islamic Center built “anywhere” and one built on the site of where a group of nuts slaughtered 3000 US citizens while shouting the name of Allah. The ” the critics would object no matter where they built it” is a non-argument. If they did, they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. The fact that one objection is completely indefensible does not make a different objection less defensible.

  8. Pingback: Page not found « Ethics Alarms

  9. Neil is entirely accurate when he says—“Those responsible for the September 11th attacks weren’t Muslims, they were fanatics who employed religion as a means of justifying their actions. It’s ironic how quickly Christians are to label THEIR extremists as “wackos” who don’t represent the mainstream, yet are unwilling to extend Muslims the same courtesy.”

    If memory serve me correctly, The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan claim to be Christians. Are they? Not according to my definition. They are fanatics, who cloak their hate in religious terms and symbology and other trappings.

    No, the terrorists involved in 911 and other exploits are not Muslims, either. Maybe that is the point those planning the new mosque are trying to make.

    Maybe they know that if Malcom X could return from Mecca a changed man because of deeper understanding of the religion he professed, we could all benefit from learning more about each other…

    • Word games! They believe they are Muslims, and announce themselves as such. Do you really think saying that they aren’t “real” Muslims just erases that from the minds of their victims’ families? I’d say a “real” Catholic Cardinal wouldn’t let a child-molesting priest keep hurting kids–does this really let the Catholic Church off the hook for crimes committed by its leadership? “Oh no, we had nothing to do with that: those Cardinals and Bishops weren’t REAL Catholics. REAL Catholics would never molest trusting children.”

      And REAL Democrats wouldn’t take bribes.
      And REAL Conservatives wouldn’t be racists.
      And REAL journalists wouldn’t be biased, now would they?

      What a great dodge!

      That’s a dead-end argument Gyasi. It gets us nowhere.

      • Jack, no word games here.

        You can call an elephant a mouse from now until the cows come home and the elephant would still be an elephant. Anorexics see themselves as being fat, but are they? Only in their own minds!

        Truly, people were hurt by the actions of these fanatics professing Islam. That fact will not change. That is part of the issue, but not the only issue.

        What you see as a dodge actually proves my point—
        A “real” Catholic Cardinal/Bishop/Pope/Priest/Nun wouldn’t let a child-molesting priest keep hurting kids.

        Genuine Democrats (or any government official) wouldn’t take bribes.

        Conservatives wouldn’t be racists.

        Journalists worth their salt wouldn’t be biased.

        I am not arguing a dead-end point. I am reminding you of what makes America, America. Transcendency is the quality we possess that other countries do not. Our progress is often messy and slow and circuitous—but it is made none-the-less. I could list several American examples here, but I don’t think that’s needed. I will say that people all over the world are still engaged in the same violent ethnic/religious struggles they have been for centuries. Again, really no need to highlight.

        The mosque planned to be built near ground zero offers us another chance to transcend hate and resentment and pain caused by foreign agents.

        • Huh? Journalists “worth their salt” may not be biased, but salt or not, the biased ones are still journalists, cause us to distrust journalists, and cast legitimate shadows over journalism.

          The mosque is a res ipsa loquitur contradiction: you can’t heal hate and distrust by seeding more of it, which this will surely do. The project is either stunningly naive or disingenuous…and I have no idea which.

  10. Jack, you refer to a center “built on the site of where a group of nuts slaughtered 3000 US citizens.” It’s really not there–it’s 2-1/2 blocks away, around a corner, and out of the sight of anyone at, or headed for, Ground Zero. The sponsors acquired the run-down, damaged building with the idea to build a place of healing between Muslims and the rest of America. They are there, even now holding Friday services in what used to be the showroom of the Burlington Coat Factory.

    They are entitled to some consideration for already being there. They can’t just “build it somewhere else.” They chose an unexceptional place, not a national shrine, bought it, and proceeded to get the necessary city permission to build. Surely if they started over they’d have no reason to expect better treatment from the opponents, many of whom are bigots or are playing on bigotry for political advantage.

    • Bob, that’s an unwarranted assumption: I certainly would have no problem with an Islamic Center elsewhere, including across the street from my house. And it may well be that they are too committed to the current spot, financially and otherwise: fine: they can build; and fine, I think it was an irresponsible decision.

      2.5 blocks in NYC is like a block in DC—it’s close enough. 2.5 blocks from the Towers was a pretty bad place to be on 9-11: I don’t see the distance as a very persuasive defense.

      It’s a pure Golden Rule situation in my view, and condemning those who are offended by it seems to me to willfully dismissive of genuine human emotion. This isn’t bigotry, it’s trauma, and grief. And they deserve some respect and consideration.

  11. I just want to add my grain of salt: We can agree that the center is not a ‘bad thing’, but has many positive implications (building bridges etc). We can agree that american muslims had nothing to do with 9/11 and openely speak out against it. We can agree that 9/11 was in the name of islam, however twisted it may be. We can agree that there is somewhat unjust resentment being felt, as a consequence, against all muslims. We can agree that they have the complete right to go ahead with the project. We can agree that respect should be given to the victims of 9/11, may thay be christian, muslims, or atheist.

    What I see is a completely justified demand for respect, lead by an irrational blame of anybody associated in any minor way. Since there is no way the muslim americans had anything to do with the attacks, there is no reason as to why they should suffer any consequences, and have anything demanded of them.

    The thing that annoys me most is how opponents of the center are willing to prevent the construction of something that will encourage ties between religion, and likely decrease the chance of such a thing happening again, which is illogical.

    Respect can only be invoked as an argument if the people involved were dirctly effected in the trauma, and not because they happen to share the same religion.

    I know there are many flaws in my arguments, please point them out so i can refine them :). Just my honest opinion.

  12. “It’s a pure Golden Rule situation in my view,
    and condemning those who are offended by it seems to me to willfully dismissive of genuine human emotion.”

    Now, it’s personal.

    Something can be offensive,
    but not unethical.

    Consider this—
    Labor Day Weekend I was at my family reunion in Western Kentucky. My cousins and I were having “breakfast” at one of those 24 hour waffle joints at about 2 a.m. Well, in walks a group of guys and gals sporting the Stars and Bars. Was I offended? Of course I was.
    I experienced Jim Crow first-hand in the little town
    we were in. For me, the Confederate flag, is a
    symbol of terrorists.

    Funny thing, I did not view their wearing Confederate patches, pins, t-shirts, etc. as unethical. Like I said, offensive—but, they had the right to wear it.

    Their Southern pride=My Southern pain, though.

    My point is, we need to find to find a way to
    recognize people’s rights to operate within the law,
    even if those actions are offensive, without
    labeling them as unethical.

    • Gyasi: An act that is predictably going to offend a large number of people or a small number of people deeply is unethical—mean, careless, irresponsible, uncivil, disrespectful,rude—unless there is a legitimate purpose for it, and “I have a right to do it” doesn’t count, without more. There are levels of unethical conduct—all unethical means is that a basic ethical value is being intentionally ignored or violated without good cause.

      Wearing Nazi or Confederate symbolism in public is per se unethical. Islamic symbols are not remotely in the same category, except in special circumstances, settings, etc. (It would be unethical to wear a Bush-Cheny tee shirt to a liberal Democrat’s lawn party.) Religious freedom IS a justification…but it doesn’t mean that Muslims have to gather on my front walk, just because they want to and can.

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