With one war in Afghanistan, another in
Iraq, a possible war with Iran, and an environmental disaster in the Gulf of
Mexico, it seems bizarre that the biggest political issue in the US is whether
to build a mosque near Ground Zero, the former site of the Twin Towers in lower

Muslims overseas are puzzled. “The mosque
is not an issue for Muslims,” says Abdul
Rahman Al-Rashid
, a leading Arab journalist based in Dubai, “and they have
not heard of it until the shouting became loud between the supporters and the
objectors, which is mostly an argument between non-Muslim US citizens!”

First of all, some facts.

Only part of the US$100 million Cordoba Initiative is a mosque
which will accommodate about 1,000 for Friday prayers. The rest of it is a
community centre with a library, gym,
auditorium, restaurant
, 9/11 memorial and so on. Second, it is not a
“Ground Zero Mosque”. It is a full two blocks away from the place where more
than 2,700 people died.

Third, it is not a gathering place for
radical Muslims. The Kuwaiti-American imam organising the project, Feisal Abdul
Rauf, may have sent mixed messages, but he claims to be promoting dialogue
between Americans and Muslims. He has even written a book titled, What’s
Right with Islam is What’s Right with America
. Since we have George W.
Bush’s word for it that Islam is “a religion of peace”, at least New Yorkers
should believe in Mr Rauf’s good intentions.

There are two strands in the commentary defending
the proposed Islamic centre.

The first is that Muslims have a right,
like other Americans, to build places of worship wherever they like. In the
words of President Obama, “Muslims have the same right to practice their
religion as anyone else in this country.” Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a prominent
Jewish leader, says: “it is not only the constitutional right of the
peace-committed Muslims of the Cordoba Initiative to build a community center
in Lower Manhattan, but they are ethically right and profoundly wise to lift
there a beacon.”

The other is that “Demonization of the
Muslim religion is what this brouhaha is all about.” It is “as irrational an
act of scapegoating as blaming all ethnic Germans for the acts of Nazis,” in
the words of one left-wing
, Robert Scheer. Even the usually sensible Economist says that “The
campaign against the proposed Cordoba centre in New York is unjust and

But the right to free commercial activity
and the right to freedom from discrimination and vilification are very blunt
instruments for dealing with a “sacred site”. His opponents may be using the
controversy as a way to weaken President Obama (when 20 percent of Americans
think he is a Muslim) but the source of the opposition is more an inarticulate
sense of sacredness than bigotry.  

If New Yorkers were really that prejudiced,
why is the current Islamic centre in downtown Manhattan located ten blocks away
in the basement of a Catholic Church?

Today, in most Western countries, the
concept of reverence for the sacred is often dismissed or ridiculed or simply
viewed with perplexity. But even a secularised sense of the sacred is a tenuous
link to transcendence and an important element in forging a personal and national

To take a non-political example, would
Walmart ever build a mall and parking lot in Yellowstone? Will California ever
sell off Redwood National Park to timber companies to balance its budget? Such
proposals somehow violate places revered for their awe-inspiring beauty. Or if
Mr Rauf somehow managed to shift his centre to the battlefield of Gettysburg,
would the ensuing protests be due to hatred of Islam or to outrage at the
violation of this hallowed ground?

And for Americans Ground Zero has been
hallowed by senseless deaths, heroic sacrifice, national humiliation and an
outpouring of grief.

It is hard to find words to explain why a
plot of ground should be revered for memories like these. That is what poets
are for. But part of being human is to be connected to places and spaces and
memories. Analysing the conflict in terms of constitutional rights is utterly
inadequate. Something more ancient is at work which disappears in sterile
political battles over rights.

It is not pandering to prejudice to
recognise that America, like other societies with a long and deep history, now
has its own taboos which ought to be respected even if they are legally indefensible.

A Pakistani professor Islamic Studies at
American University in Washington DC, Akbar
, understands this. A former ambassador to the US, he has a deep
knowledge of both cultures.

“I don’t think the Muslim leadership
has fully appreciated the impact of 9/11 on America,” he says. “They assume
Americans have forgotten 9/11 and even, in a profound way, forgiven 9/11, and
that has not happened. The wounds remain largely open. And when wounds are raw,
an episode like constructing a house of worship – even one protected by the
Constitution, protected by law – becomes like salt in the wounds.”

Protectiveness and anger are typical of disputes
over sacred sites in the Old World. Perhaps the passions in this controversy
mean that America is growing up, or at least growing older. What could be more
characteristic of an Old World society than fights over sacred sites?

In newer countries like Australia passions
seldom run so high. I used to live in Tasmania where the indigenous people, the
Tasmanian Aboriginals, had lived in complete isolation for perhaps 15,000
years. Within two generations after contact with Europeans they had all
perished. It is one of the darkest chapters of Australian history, even of
world history. Yet there is no fitting memorial to them, just a few wretched
plaques and a hiking track named after Truganini, the last of her people.

Ancient cultures have deep feelings. Why is
Jerusalem the world’s most volatile city? Because Christians, Jews and Muslims
would all die to defend their sacred places. The Babri mosque in Ayodhya was
destroyed in 1992 by a mob of 150,000 Hindus who believed that it had been
built over the birthplace of their god Rama. Serbia fought a war rather than
grant independence to Kosovo partly because the Field of Blackbirds, north of
the capital Pristina, is hallowed ground where the Serbs made their last stand
against the Ottoman Turks in 1389.

It is easy for unscrupulous politicians to
exploit sacred sites for their own political gain, as Slobodan Milosevic did in
Kosovo to rally Serbs against separatists, and perhaps Newt Gingrich and Sarah
Palin are doing now. But that doesn’t mean that ordinary Americans’ attachment
to a sacred site should be dismissed as redneck prejudice. It’s more like the
anger and exasperation you might feel if an intruding stranger made a scene at
your mother’s wake.

And, to draw on the Australian experience,
a sacred site can draw Western and Muslim cultures together. Arguably,
Australia’s most sacred site is not on the island continent at all, but in
Gallipoli, a Turkish peninsula in the Dardanelles Straits. There in 1915,
thousands of Australians and New Zealanders died in a doomed attempt to capture
Istanbul. Now it is a place of pilgrimage for both Australians and Turks who
remember their forebears’ sacrifice and heroism.

Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey
and the Turkish commander, later wrote a touching memorial
which displays far more magnanimity and sensitivity than anything uttered by
American politicians in the past few weeks:

“You are now
lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no
difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by
side now here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons
from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom
and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become
our sons as well.”

Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.