Posted August 26th 2010 at 5:30 pm by
in CoLab Philosophy, Perspectives on Current Events

The Mosque near Ground Zero

Protest against the proposed Park51 (Source: newsrealblog.com)

The controversial mosque and Muslim community center planned at a site 600 feet away from Ground Zero is forcing New York City residents and public officials to decide how they want to remember and interpret the tragedy of 9/11.  The project is known as Park51 or the Cordoba House, named after the City of Cordoba in Spain, where a thousand years ago Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life.  The vision for the buildings at 45-47 Park Place (to be given the new address of 51 Park Place) is to create for Muslim New Yorkers and other city residents a 100,000 square foot facility similar to a Young Chrisian Men’ Association (YMCA) or Jewish Community Center (JCC) with rooms for interfaith dialogue, Muslim prayer areas, a 9/11 memorial, an auditorium, and recreation spaces.

The Cordoba House is spearheaded by prominent Muslim Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf who ran a mosque for twenty-seven years just twelve blocks away from Ground Zero, his wife Daisy Khan who is the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, Sharif El-Gamal who is a New York City developer, and The Cordoba Initiative, a group that “aims to achieve a tipping point in Muslim-West relations within the next decade, steering the world back to the course of mutual recognition and respect and away from heightened tensions.”  Imam Rauf already owns the buildings at 45-47 Park, and now needs to work with his development team to raise $100 million for the project.

Not surprisingly, many New Yorkers have protested this project and feel that such a plan for the site is inconsiderate and “a gross insult to the memory of those killed on that terrible day.” The NYC Landmarks Preservation Committee unanimously voted not to grant the current buildings at 45-47 Park Place landmark status or historic protection in a vote of 9-0 at an emotionally-charged public hearing on August 3, 2010.  This decision allows for the existing structures to be demolished in order to make way for the new Muslim community center.  At the hearing, participants made statements such as: “Allowing the mosque to move forward is a victory for terrorists.”  Others argued: “Allowing the mosque to move forward is constitutional, a way to educate the American public about Islam, and serve Muslims who are also American citizens.”   The Boston Globe asks, “Will a mosque at ground zero make reconciliation more likely? Or will it needlessly rub salt in the unhealed wounds of 9/11?”

First of all, the mosque is not at ground zero as the media loves to say, it is near ground zero.  Secondly, people seem to forget that individuals of all religions including innocent Muslims suffered from 9/11.

This debate over the location of the Muslim community center so close to where terrorists claimed to act in the name of Islam has attracted the views of political and religious leaders, victims’ families, scholars, and NYC residents. At the end, the result will have a lasting impact on all New Yorkers, but especially upon the estimated 600,000 Muslim residents in New York and its suburbs.   There have been well-established Muslim communities living and practicing their faith only blocks from Ground Zero for the last thirty years, but their placement in the neighborhood is being questioned now.

This dilemma is not really just about the siting of a mosque.  It is about a City coming to terms with the tragedy of 9/11 and how they perceive, remember, and heal from it.  But, who fairly convenes that discussion?  If there are enough voices on all sides, maybe we can actually have a useful dialogue, clear up misunderstandings, and move forward.

What is an urban planner’s role in the debate over the mosque near Ground Zero?  Are planners supposed to remain unbiased and simply explain the zoning rules, land-use laws and development processes for the site?  Or should planners pick a side and advocate for it? Rather, should planners be objective mediators among all the different groups with varying perspectives, and help build consensus?  If the Cordoba House gets built, what will this new building really symbolize and mean to the City of New York?

Aditi Mehta completed her Master in City Planning degree from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning in May 2010 with a specialization in Housing, Community, and Economic Development.  Her other series on CoLab Radio include Who’s on Broad? and The Library and Society.

7 responses to “The Mosque near Ground Zero”

  1. Jordi Sanchez-Cuenca says:

    Thanks Aditi for this great post. I agree that this is an extremely interesting debate for planners. We, planners, should admit that neutrality is utopian. For too long planners have hidden biases and political stances behind a façade of technical objectivity. Nevertheless, what matters most in this debate are NY land-use laws, ordinaces and its master plan, together with State laws and the US Constitution. There no question that if the Law allows it, there should be no obstacles to the construction and functioning of the Cordoba House. Planners, as professional technicians, should acquire a comprehensive understanding of the Law before making any statement. Sadly, this is not the case with some journalists and politicans. Planners, specially those working within NYC administration, have a role in promoting a peaceful coexistance between different groups and religions. For this purpose, planning has tools to put limits to any radical group threatening such peace, whether it is christian, muslim, juish, hindu or any other. From my point of view the Cordoba Initiative has a rather conciliating charachter, which seem not to be the case with the people shown in the picture.

  2. Thanks for the post. As a Muslim myself, people might think that i will be biased towards the construction of the Mosque. But frankly, i been many times to similar centers around the state, and my impression is that these centers strive to communicate with the community around them and build bridges of friendship. They consider themselves part of the community with equal rights and duties. To be faced with such opposition is a very frustrating situation for them. After all these years some of them spent in the US as good as any other citizen from different religion or background. I hope this issue to be resolved as soon as possible.

  3. Alissa says:

    Aditi – what an important post. The topic clearly arouses a lot of passion and debate (and anger), but I really hadn’t considered it from the perspective of urban planners, and what their role is in this. I am in the process of reading about the NYTimes survey of New Yorkers on the issue (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/03/nyregion/03poll.html?hp) and I wonder – what is the role of urban planners in representing the local community? If the community doesn’t want it, then how does that complicate things for urban planners?

  4. Alexa Mills says:

    I am interested in this question about planners and neutrality, and whether planners should represent the community interest, or if they should insert their own opinions based on a life of planning experience.

    In the past I have only thought of the problem of objectivity in the context of journalism. I believe the idea of an objective journalist is a bit of an oxymoron, and perhaps the only real truth is in aggregating all the reports.

    Perhaps this is true in planning? That a planner doesn’t need to represent a community if the community members have the power to assert their own opinions, too?

  5. Jordi Sanchez-Cuenca says:

    This is indeed an extremely intereting issue. When planners work for the private sector the role is very clear. But when we work for the public sector, which is the most common situation, there’s a big question that arises and has no universal answer: the public interest. If planners work for the public interest, how do we define it? Is there a unique, homogeneous public interest? Or are there many interests, some complementary, others opposite? How do we manage such array of different interests? Can we really acquire a comprehensive understanding of such interests and their intersections and apply it in our plans? I think no one is intelligent enough to understand comprehensively all existing interests in a city, not even in a village! I think that planners need to spend less time on their drawing board and more on managing participatory processes. There are some great books that adress this issue from different perspectives and experiences, notably Douglass and Friedmann’s “Cities For Citizens”, and Campbell and Fainstein’s “Readings in Planning Theory”.

  6. hossam elasrag says:

    Hi all,

    I am not an urban planner, but i am so much concerned about this story, for obvious reasons. I think in this particular case the public and private sectors are so much intermingled. Other factors that you may consider if politicians might use the public sector feelings to move their private agenda. In that case you don’t really know what sector you are serving. If the radicals won in this issue, this might be a change for part of the face of USA for ever. I recommend listening to the Imam in this link.

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/09/08/imam.lkl/index.html

  7. What is the role of the urban planner? What a provocative question. It seems to me that in this case the role of the planner should be to facilitate that discussion, frame its voices through a multiplicity of perspectives and allow for the continuing healing of 911 to occur. But can the planner really do this? Could she be empowered enough to carry out this role?

    Perhaps, due to the singularity of the circumstances surrounding this controversy, the required skill set for such crises may be beyond the role of planning. There is an element of morality in this issue; one torn between opposing positions about justice. But this post brings forward very interesting point. Controversy, politics and arbitration should be part of the planner’s toolkit, after all this is ultimately the placement of the mosque is planning problem.

    Much has been written about deliberative planning and its role in fomenting an environment where discourse provides a platform of collaboration. This is one tool that planners could use to provide a productive backdrop for action. But this position has also been criticized. If all that the planner can do is provide the space for a good conversation. What would all the talking really do at the end? Would it enflame or heal?

    Perhaps another way to study the planner’s role in this case is to understand that her figure ultimately represents the state (aka the public interest)t. The planner must uphold the rule of law, the rights of individuals, property and also the capacity to have free speech. In this case some of these values may actually challenge each other. Yet, far from acquiring a radical position, paradoxically the most radical thing that a planner may due under these circumstances is stick to the rule book.

    Thoughts?