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Religious Tolerance logo

A proposed Muslim community center near 9/11's "ground zero"


Fiction and truth about the community center.
The basic question underlying the debate

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According to many conservative politicians and news sources, a radical Muslim group in New York City with ties to terrorism is planning to construct a mosque at "ground zero" -- the location of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 2001-SEP-11. It would be a companion mosque to one already located at the Pentagon near the site of that terrorist attack. The New York mosque is intended to be a triumphal monument that will tower over ground zero and will celebrate the victory of Islamic terrorism over America.

Needless to say, this story has sparked continual demonstrations in the city, and both anger and hatred against Muslims throughout the U.S.

In contrast to this story, fact checking articles by the Associated Press 1 and PolitiFact®.com 2 along with information from other sources describe a very different reality:

  • Radical terrorist group? The sponsoring agency, Park51, is led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf who is a member of the Sufi tradition, a peaceful, spiritual wing within Islam. Sufis are severely oppressed in Saudi Arabia by the ruling Wahhabi sect. According to Stephen Schwartz of the Middle East Forum, the group actually responsible for the 911 attack, Al-Qaeda:

    "... represents Wahhabism in its purest form – a violent fundamentalist doctrine that rejects all non-Wahhabi Islam, especially the spiritual forms of Islam. Wahhabism is an expansionist sect intolerant of Shi‘ite Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism; in fact, Wahhabists seek to challenge and destroy these faiths." 3

    Fifteen of the 19 terrorists responsible for the attacks on New York City and Washington were followers of Wahhabism and from Saudi Arabia. An ancient Middle Eastern belief is that "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." That may be worth considering in this case.

    Rauf and the rest of the Park51 group represents Osama bin Laden's and Al-Qaeda's greatest nightmare: Muslims working towards a world in which followers of various religions, traditions within religions, and secularism respect each other and work together to achieve peace and mutual understanding. Rauf has written a number of books which describe his vision for Muslims in America and American's understanding of Islam. Perhaps his most popular book is "What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West." 4

  • Is it a mosque? Park51's 13 story community center in New York City would be patterned after the 93rd Street YMCA. According to Park 51's website:

    "Park51 will be a community center promoting tolerance and understanding through three types of programs: arts and culture, education and recreation. We’ll offer all New Yorkers valuable services, world-class facilities and empowering opportunities to learn more about the world around us and about each other." 5

    The plans for the building include: a swimming pool, gym and basketball court, a 500-seat auditorium, a restaurant and culinary school, exhibitions, education programs, a library, reading room, art studios, childcare services and a September 11 memorial and "quiet contemplation space, open to all. It will be run by a multi-faith 23 member board of directors.2 It would also contain a prayer room on one floor that would qualify to be called a mosque.

    Most non-Muslims consider a mosque, a church, a Roman Catholic cathedral, etc. to be detached religious buildings. However, according to Shafayat Mohamed, imam of the Darul Uloom mosque in Pembroke Pines, FL:

    "The main thing that makes a mosque a mosque is the establishment of praying five times a day at that spot. If people pray five times per day, then it is considered a regular mosque."

    It would seem that the best description of the proposed building is that it would be a community center that contains a mosque at part of one of its 13 floors. The mosque would be run as a non-profit organization separate from the Park51 organization.

  • Is there a mosque at the Pentagon near the site of the plane crash? To further muddy the waters, Rep. Kendrick Meek, (D-FL) the 2010 Democrat candidate for the Federal Senate said during a candidate debate on 2010-AUG-15 that there is both a mosque and a chapel at the Pentagon. Pentagon spokesperson George Wright contradicted Meek's statement, and said: "There is not, I repeat there is not a mosque inside of the Pentagon. There is a non-denominational chapel ... about 20 steps from the center of impact."

    It was built as part of a memorial to the 184 victims of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and is used by Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Mormons, Muslims, and persons from various other Christian denominations. It is used once a day by Muslim employees who gather there for prayer services every weekday. 6 There is only the one facility; Muslims meet in the same room as persons from other faiths.

  • Is it "at" or "on" "ground zero?:" The center would be built on a street two blocks away from the closest edge of the World Trade Center property. The Washington Post reported
    "No mosque is going up at ground zero. The center would be established at 45-51 Park Place, just over two blocks from the northern edge of the sprawling, 16-acre World Trade Center site. Its location is roughly half a dozen normal Lower Manhattan blocks from the site of the North Tower, the nearest of the two destroyed in the attacks." 7
    It would be slightly more than six blocks from the South Tower. There is a mosque already on the property where the community center would be built. They have been meeting there since 2009 in an abandoned warehouse at the site.

  • Will it tower over "ground zero?:" According to the Park51 website:
    "...there won’t be any views of the Ground Zero memorial from the [community center] building. To honor those killed on September 11th, we have planned for a public memorial within our future facility as well as reflection space open to all." 5
    It is important to realize that hundreds of Muslims died as victims of the terrorists during 9/11.

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What is the fundamental question underlying the debate?

Lately, we have been trying to drill down through the many layers of rhetoric expressed during various religious and moral conflicts in search of the fundamental question(s) that lie beneath each debate.

As in the case of the debates over abortion access, equal rights for sexual minorities, the legalization of same-sex marriage, etc. we often find a buried question that should be discussed, but which is often largely ignored.

We suggest that the basic question here is: "Precisely who is responsible for the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center?"

Some people blame one of the following groups:

  1. The 19 radical, violent, fundamentalist Muslim terrorists who flew the planes into buildings.
  2. Group 1 plus their handlers in Al Queda.
  3. Group 2 plus the entire leadership of Al Queda.
  4. Group 3 plus all other extremist, violent, fundamentalist Muslim terrorists.
  5. Group 4 plus all other Muslims who agree that the 9/11 attack was morally justified.
  6. All Muslims.
  7. All people from the Middle East.
  8. The "other:" -- people who are perceived as different because of their religion, skin color, nationality, language, gender, etc.


  • Much of the opposition to the Muslim community center seems to come from folks who have belief #6: that all Muslims are responsible for the 9/11 attacks. They argue that no Muslim group should be allowed to build a community center so close -- only six blocks -- from ground zero.

  • Much of the support for the center comes from folks who choose beliefs 1 to 4. They typically view Islam as a multi-faceted religion like Christianity and Hinduism -- composed of many different traditions that share certain basic beliefs but which differ greatly in practice:

    • On one hand, there are the Sufis, a non-violent, mystical tradition in Islam that has been badly oppressed and discriminated against by Wahhabi Islam -- a fundamentalist traditions found in Saudi Arabia and some other predominately Muslim countries. The sponsors of the center are from the Sufi tradition -- the victims.

    • On the other extreme in Islam are the extremist, violent, fundamentalist terrorists with no respect for human rights or life and who frequently form terrorist groups. Wahhabiism is the tradtion of Islam followed by Al Qaeda -- the terrorists.

Wahhabi Islam is the enemy of the Sufis, America, and other western countries. Sufis and Americans have a common tradition of religious tolerance.

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References used:

  1. "FACT CHECK: Islam already lives near ground zero,"
  2. Robert Farley, "Is the "Ground Zero Mosque" not even a mosque?" PolitiFact, 2010-AUG-2, at:
  3. Stephen Schwartz, "Saudi Arabia and the Rise of the Wahhabi Threat," Middle East Forum, 2003-FEB-27, at:
  4. "What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West," HarperOne (2005). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  5. "FAQ: The Community Center at Park51," Park51, at:
  6. Laura Figueroa, "Kendrick Meek: 'There's a mosque at the Pentagon'," PolitiFact, 2010-AUG-19
  7. Calvin Woodward, "FACT CHECK: Islam already part of WTC neighborhood, Page 2," Washington Post, 2010-AUG-, at:

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Original posting: 2010-AUG-24
Latest update: 2010-OCT-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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