Even media organs that affirm both the right and the wisdom of the organizers of the controversial center at 51 Park Place to establish it near ground zero in Manhattan are inconsistent and possibly misleading in the terms that they use to refer to the center.
The New York Times, for instance, has come out strongly in support of the center and against the discriminatory tone of much of the criticism directed at the project. Nevertheless it continues to term the project an “Islamic community center” or an “Islamic cultural center and mosque.”
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the principal organizer, terms the project simply “a community center in Lower Manhattan” in his Sept. 7 op-ed piece. He further explains:
We are proceeding with the community center, Cordoba House. . . .
Above all, the project will amplify the multifaith approach that the Cordoba Initiative has deployed in concrete ways for years. Our name, Cordoba, was inspired by the city in Spain where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in the Middle Ages during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims. Our initiative is intended to cultivate understanding among all religions and cultures.
Our broader mission — to strengthen relations between the Western and Muslim worlds and to help counter radical ideology — lies not in skirting the margins of issues that have polarized relations within the Muslim world and between non-Muslims and Muslims. It lies in confronting them as a joint multifaith, multinational effort.
In the context of the current controversy, Rauf naturally has an interest in not emphasizing the Muslim roots of the project. Yet there is no reason to doubt – and given his record of interfaith activity, every reason to believe – his assurance that the major purpose of the center is to stimulate and nurture interreligious conversation and understanding. There should have been no criticism even if the center were simply to be a mosque – yesterday’s Times carries the story of a Muslim prayer room on the 17th floor of the south tower of the World Trace Center before 9/11 – but its actual purpose proves the criticism groundless and the deliberately false accusations downright scurrilous.
Cordoba House is a name that lifts up the center’s purpose and invites reflection on that purpose in view of its precedent in medieval Spain. In that sense, it is not only accurate in using the name chosen by the founders but it is ideal in offering a historical model of interreligious cooperation amid the discords of our own day.
The question still remains, Okay, we use the name Cordoba House, but how do we characterize the center? It is not easy, again on account of the current acrimony. Muslims initiated the project, so any description should include that fact, both in giving them credit and in countering the stereotype of Muslims as being constitutionally hegemonic about their religion. Jews and Christians serve on the board of Cordoba House alongside Muslims, and the purpose is interreligious conversation and understanding, so any characterization should reflect that fact as well.
– “Cordoba House, an interreligious center initiated by Muslims”
– “Cordoba House, the Muslim-founded interfaith center in Manhattan”
From what Rauf has said, it appears that it would be misleading to call Cordoba House an “Islamic center,” whether “community” or “cultural” is included in that characterization or not, for that would imply that its life and activities will be normatively Muslim, with the major purpose being to carry out Muslim worship and community life. “Islamic center” also implies exclusively Muslim administration, an implication belied by the fact that Jews and Christians serve on its board. Moreover, “Islamic center” confuses Cordoba House quite technically with the many institutions nationally and internationally that are, in fact, mosques but which prefer to call themselves “The Islamic Center” of this or that locale, as in the Islamic Center of Southern California, the Islamic Center of Long Island, and so on.
Further, from what Rauf has said, it appears that it would be misleading to call the proposed institution a mosque. Any Muslim place of prayer can be called a mosque, so the center will certainly include a mosque. Yet Rauf also said in his essay:
There will be separate prayer spaces for Muslims, Christians, Jews and men and women of other faiths. The center will also include a multifaith memorial dedicated to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Thus it is highly misleading to term the proposed institution simply a mosque (as in “the ground zero mosque”) or even as a mosque in conjunction with a community or cultural center. It would appear that that would be as accurate as calling it a “church” or a “synagogue” or a “gurdwara,” for evidently spaces will be included that could – admittedly at a stretch! – be characterized by those terms as well.
So: “Cordoba House, the Muslim-founded interfaith center in Lower Manhattan.” This more neutral language will not quiet the controversy, of course, for much that is at issue concerns whether the organizers’ statements can be trusted. The more neutral and accurate language will, however, avoid objective news media and other observers becoming inadvertently complicit in mischaracterizations that aggravate the turmoil.