Something Else is Unethical About the Ground Zero Mosque Plan

What, other than the project itself, is unethical about the Ground Zero mosque plan?

Just this: apparently, despite what we’ve all been told, there isn’t one!

Politico reported yesterday that “New York government officials and real estate insiders are privately questioning whether the project has much chance of coming to fruition.” If the facts stated in Politico’s article are true, that would seem to be an understatement. Among the revelations:

  • The Cordoba Initiative currently has no architect, no lobbyists, and no engineer.
  • It has no professional publicity staff.
  • The proposed Cordoba House will require $100 million dollars to build.
  • It currently has only $18, 255—$18, 255!!— on hand.
  • It will begin fundraising in the midst of terrible publicity and negative public opinion.

As someone who was a professional fundraiser for many years, I can say with confidence that this is not a recipe for success. Add to that the fact that the potential donors who might be most enthusiastic about the project—those who want the mosque near Ground Zero for the wrong reasons—would kill the project if they were seen as the prime movers behind it.

What is a good ethics analogy for a group that launches a divisive public controversy based on its stated intent and presumed ability to build an Islamic center near the site of a mass murder committed in the name of Islam, when it doesn’t have the expertise, staff of resources to actually follow through on its plan? Is falsely shouting “Mosque!” at Ground Zero like falsely shouting fire in crowded theater? Is it like crying “Wolf!”

It is certainly stunningly incompetent, imprudent, misleading, reckless and irresponsible.

The general issue of the propriety of such a project is worthy of thought and discussion, but a cool, considered public debate about whether freedom of religion ought to make any concessions to public sensibilities is not what this episode has provoked. The controversy has stirred religious and racial tensions, inflamed the media and blogosphere, divided communities, caused public figures to embarrass themselves, and injected itself into political campaigns. A hypothetical ethics scenario–“What if an Islamic group wanted to build a mosque on land it owned near Ground Zero?”—wouldn’t have done any of that damage, or wasted so much time, media attention, emotion and energy.

There are factors at work here similar to  the Tawana Brawley hoax, when a teenage girl staged her own rape and debasement (fecal matter was smeared on her) and it was turned into a divisive and ugly race-baiting crusade by Al Sharpton, who may or may not have known that she was lying. When she was exposed, Sharpton argued that it didn’t matter, that the racial issues her story raised were real and important.

Yes, Al–but. But the truth matters, and it is chicanery, manipulative, dishonest and disrespectful to the public to use a false story as a catalyst for social policy debate when the debaters all think the story is true. If the Islamic group can’t build the mosque, then everyone from Mayor Bloomberg to the Anti-Defamation League to Newt Gingrich to President Obama  were duped, as was I, and anyone else who gave the controversy more that a thought and a sigh.

It is unethical to start an ethics train wreck when you don’t really have a train.

16 thoughts on “Something Else is Unethical About the Ground Zero Mosque Plan

  1. I can’t think of a proper analogy to the civil rights movement; maybe you can.

    Start here: “launches a divisive public controversy based on its stated intent and presumed ability”

    The controversy seems to have been “launched by Pamela Geller because she blames Islam for 9/11. You can’t argue that Faisal Rauf and Sharif El-Gamal (the man who owns 51 Park Place) launched the controversy. They had a dream and announced that they wanted to build the project, and set about working with the community, including the Jewish Community Center and the Lower Manhattan Community Board, which after a raucous hearing voted 29-1 to support the project.

    I don’t think they ever announced that they had $100 million–they planned (hoped?) to raise it. The $18,000 is a red herring. Odd that you should take the NYT at face value so quickly. Rauf’s “Cordoba Initiative” has $18,000. El Gamal has more, and says he’ll raise still more.

    The worst you can blame the project leaders for is not appreciating how easily opponents, most of whom have a problem with Muslims, could stir up trouble for them.

    You’re blaming the victims, who as far as I can see, have acted properly. And ethically.

  2. No, I don’t se it that way. The announcement caused the controversy: the rankest naif could have predicted the controversy…it’s a reflex no- brainer. How many people when they heard the title “the Ground Zero Mosque” thought, “What? That’s got to be a joke.” Turns out, it was. “Dreams” aren’t controversial, unethical or provocative: conduct is. Announcing a dream as planned conduct when you don’t have the capability of realizing it is also called “fraud.” The organizers are victims of their own insensitivity, incompetence, and naivete, and they victimized everyone else in the process.

    • To that, I can only say, if you owned 51 Park Place, why would you tear it down if the concept didn’t take? For that matter, why would you raise $100 million if you just had to give it back because the concept didn’t take? Perhaps he has $100 million in pledges that are due when the project emerges into the daylight?

      Now, what this does tell me is that their plans aren’t nearly as developed as I thought they were, which means they might still be early enough in this to move elsewhere, but I don’t think this is the smoking gun to end the story.

      • It doesn’t end the story. But it does mean that the controversy is over a speculative concept rather than a real plan. There’s a big difference between saying, “You know, I think it would be good to ban all guns ” and saying, “I have the power to ban all guns, and I’m going to do it.” The group’s public stance has been: we have the power and resources to build this, and we’re going to do it.” That was a misrepresentation.

        The principle argument won’t go away now, but it was raised under false pretenses.

  3. Jack,
    The story is only controversial if you hold a certain world view (primarily those who don’t understand exactly how diverse Islam actually is). I was told of the project initially without mention made of a surrounding controversy and wasn’t shocked, offended, or in any way upset by the news. This isn’t to say those that were are bigots, but it’s silly to assume that EVERYONE should have foreseen the furor. People build places of worship all over the country without even considering possible blow back and it’s entirely possible such was the case here.

    The entire debacle stinks of someone trying to take a stand against an imagined evil (“I say, trouble right here in River City!”). After all, referring to it as just as the “Ground Zero Mosque” is misleading, inflammatory, and akin to calling where Obama went to school in Indonesia a “madrassa” as its neither on Ground Zero, nor is it, strictly speaking, just a mosque (people seldom call Jewish community centers “synagogues”).

    From what I can gather, someone proposed the idea of building a center, announced plans in the hopes of raising more funds, and still others decided it was a prime target for controversy. So please, let it go ..

    -Neil

    • Neil, the organizers called it “The Ground Zero Mosque”—that was their ( stupid, stupid) name, initially. You can’t blame critics who reacted to the implications of the project as described by its originators. So you make my point. If the name is inflammatory and misleading, and it is, then the organizers were either unbelievably insensitive or incredibly dumb, or trying to make an offensive point, as the talk radio gang seems to think. Take your pick, but you can’t paint them as blameless for the mess.

      Let it go? Tell the talking heads and opportunists, not me—at this point, I’m only assessing their conduct. The conclusions should be easy: the organizers were inept and insensitive; the Left was wrong to dismiss all complaints as bigotry; the Right was wrong to call the project a triumphal monument to 9-11, the ADL was wrong to oppose the project; Obama was cowardly to imply his support for the mosque in front of an Islamic group and then backtrack to the public; thhey have an absolute right to build it, and the damn thing will never, never be built because the organizers are a bunch of deluded amateurs and the whole thing is PR poison. (Yeah, this was going to “build bridges”—good thought.) I’ve let it go—but if people with megaphones keep misinforming the public, I’ll keep calling them on it.

  4. Good question, Bob. Like following this thing for a long time, and I’ll try to track down the exact source I have from a while back. One of the links in your Newsweek article is a New York Times article I have on file, (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/09/nyregion/09mosque.html?_r=1&sq=mosque%20ground%20zero&st=nyt&scp=1&pagewanted=all) discussing how the organizers of the project viewed its location at Ground Zero the whole point, confirming that it was being described as a mosque at Ground Zero by supporters as well as opponents from the very first. In fact, the Newsweek article says that too, except that it somehow designates “The Ground Zero Mosque” as the term used by “Conservative opponents of the mosque, including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich;”, and the “Ground Zero Mosque” is used by “Supporters of the project, people who want to remain impartial.” Can you explain why adding the “The” makes it a pejorative term, and taking “the” makes it supportive?

    I think most people who support the Mosque, because of the way this has been reported, think that an Islamic group wanted to build a mosque that just happened to be near Ground Zero, and a bunch of bigots went nuts. The fact that the groups intended to build the center BECAUSE of Ground Zero takes away the “it’s really 2.5 blocks away argument), as well as the claim that calling it THE Ground Zero Mosque is misleading. Since that was the stated intent of the Center (though for good, if misguided and naive reasons), it’s hardly misleading to call it that. Right?

  5. About the two Ground Zero names: the second is enclosed in quotation marks, the first is not. I’ve often used quotes to indicate that others say but i don’t. E.g., I often refer to the mosque “at” Ground Zero. Meaning that Sarah may say at, but I don’t consider it at.

    Look, they were looking for a place in lower Manhattan for the big community center/swimming pool/auditorium/prayer room/etc, and found this damaged building for sale cheap. They decided that the location was a plus, so was the price,

    As far as I can tell they never claimed the name, “mosque at GZ.” If you find they did I’ll buy you a beer next trip. Heck, I’ll buy the beer anyway.

    • I’ll take you up on that.

      I do think the clear indication is that the spot was chosen intentionally (or that once it was obtained, the organizers decided to feature the 9-11 location). I think the intentional aspect of it spurred on the fear-mongers. From my perspective, it makes no difference whether the group intentionally featured the 9-11 connection (with good intentions) or just blundered into it. It’s a bad place for a mosque, both because it inflames the nuts and hurts the sensitive. I’d be very frightened, at this point, of someone trying to take it down, if it ever gets built. Which I doubt.

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