Karen Armstrong Weighs In on the Ground Zero Mosque Debate

Amer­i­ca, as a nation, has some big fish to fry these days. But the ener­gy is being focused right now on a sym­bol­ic ques­tion. Can the nation tol­er­ate the build­ing of an Islam­ic cul­tur­al cen­ter and mosque near Ground Zero almost a decade after the 9/11 attacks? Or, more to the point, can Amer­i­ca uphold one of its core val­ues – reli­gious tol­er­ance? The debate has smol­dered on through­out the sum­mer, and we’ve seen the hard right and left con­demn the Cor­do­ba Ini­tia­tive and Islam more gen­er­al­ly. On the right, Newt Gin­grich has talked about  how we’re fac­ing an “Islamist cul­tur­al-polit­i­cal offen­sive designed to under­mine and destroy our civ­i­liza­tion.” And built into his think­ing is the assump­tion that when Chris­tians com­mit abhor­rent crimes, it’s a per­ver­sion of the reli­gion, not an indict­ment of its essence. But the same char­i­ty  does­n’t get extend­ed to the Islam­ic minor­i­ty faith in the coun­try. Mean­while, Sam Har­ris on the secular/atheist left gets in bed with Gin­grich when he says “there is much that is objectionable—and, frankly, terrifying—about the reli­gion of Islam and about the state of dis­course among Mus­lims liv­ing in the West.” If it mat­ters, the main dif­fer­ence between Har­ris and Gin­grich is Har­ris’ con­sis­ten­cy, which boils down to a con­sis­tent con­tempt for reli­gion. (Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life takes a much clos­er look at Har­ris’ argu­ments here).

All of this makes me won­der: What would some­one who actu­al­ly knows some­thing about Islam say about the whole affair? So here you have it. Karen Arm­strong, one of the most well known thinkers in the field of com­par­a­tive reli­gion, a for­mer Catholic nun, and the author most recent­ly of The Case for God, offer­ing her thoughts on the mat­ter above.

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  • Mike in Detroit says:

    Reli­gious Tol­er­ance is key here, so why is the bur­den placed on the shoul­ders of Amer­i­cans to argue over.

    I per­son­al­ly feel that the mosque should be built, but also that this reli­gious leader who sparked the debate be respon­si­ble for stand­ing up some alter­na­tive reli­gious sites in the Mid­dleast as a ges­ture of good will.

    We have 1200 Mosques in the US already, all open for busi­ness and tak­ing wor­ship­pers. Will the Imam take his role as a per­son who wants to fos­ter under­stand­ing and build­ing trust to the next lev­el and seek out loca­tions in Iraq, Iran, Pak­istan, Kuwait, Afh­gan­istan and oth­er coun­tries and get approvals from the locals to build a few Syn­a­gogues, Catholic — Bap­tist and Chris­t­ian abroad.

    If he’s will­ing to sell the idea as quid pro quo to his peers, it would be inter­est­ing to see what their reac­tions would be.

    We can have the UN fund the ren­o­va­tion so noth­ing ius tied direct­ly to the US and we’re not made out to be the bad guy any­more.

  • Wes Alwan says:

    Thanks Dan, this is great. I dis­cuss the new athe­ists’ take on the debate here: http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2010/08/18/a‑new-atheist-on-the-ground-zero-mosque/

  • mary says:

    Dr. Taw­fik Hamid, a one­time mem­ber of Jemaah Islamiya, an Islamist ter­ror­ist group, is a med­ical doc­tor and Mus­lim reformer liv­ing in the West, said in an April, 2007 WSJ arti­cle:

    “It is vital to grasp that tra­di­tion­al and even main­stream Islam­ic teach­ing accepts and pro­motes vio­lence. Shari­ah, for exam­ple, allows apos­tates to be killed, per­mits beat­ing women to dis­ci­pline them, seeks to sub­ju­gate non-Mus­lims to Islam as dhim­mis and jus­ti­fies declar­ing war to do so. It exhorts good Mus­lims to exter­mi­nate the Jews before the “end of days.” The near deaf­en­ing silence of the Mus­lim major­i­ty against these bar­bar­ic prac­tices is evi­dence enough that there is some­thing fun­da­men­tal­ly wrong.

    “The grave predica­ment we face in the Islam­ic world is the vir­tu­al lack of approved, the­o­log­i­cal­ly rig­or­ous inter­pre­ta­tions of Islam that clear­ly chal­lenge the abu­sive aspects of Shari­ah. Unlike Salafism, more lib­er­al branch­es of Islam, such as Sufism, typ­i­cal­ly do not pro­vide the essen­tial the­o­log­i­cal base to nul­li­fy the cru­el procla­ma­tions of their Salafist coun­ter­parts. …

    “Well-mean­ing inter­faith dia­logues with Mus­lims have large­ly been fruit­less. Par­tic­i­pants must demand–but so far haven’t–that Mus­lim orga­ni­za­tions and schol­ars specif­i­cal­ly and unam­bigu­ous­ly denounce vio­lent Salafi com­po­nents in their mosques and in the media. Mus­lims who do not vocal­ly oppose bru­tal Shari­ah decrees should not be con­sid­ered “mod­er­ates.” …

    “Tol­er­ance does not mean tol­er­a­tion of atroc­i­ties under the umbrel­la of rel­a­tivism. It is time for all of us in the free world to face the real­i­ty of Salafi Islam or the real­i­ty of rad­i­cal Islam will con­tin­ue to face us.”


  • zafrika says:

    “For­mer” nun?

    That says it all.

  • Hanoch says:

    This is not a demon­stra­tion of reli­gious intol­er­ance; it is a dis­taste for the lack of sen­si­tiv­i­ty to Amer­i­can fam­i­lies who suf­fered tremen­dous loss­es at the hands of Mus­lim fanat­ics who act­ed in the name of Islam. Every­one agrees that the builders of the mosque have a First Amend­ment right to do so; the ques­tion is whether it is appro­pri­ate. Peo­ple of good faith can dif­fer on this ques­tion with­out the need for hurl­ing invec­tive.

    Sev­er­al years ago large seg­ments of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty object­ed to nuns estab­lish­ing a place of wor­ship at Auschwitz. Those objec­tions were not based in “reli­gious intol­er­ance”. They were ground­ed in the per­ceived insen­si­tiv­i­ty of sit­u­at­ing a Chris­t­ian insti­tu­tion where so many Jews had been mur­dered at the hands of gen­tiles. Sim­i­lar­ly, to sug­gest that Amer­i­cans — who are his­tor­i­cal­ly among the most reli­gious­ly tol­er­ant peo­ple on the plan­et – are moti­vat­ed by big­otry is, to say the least, unfair.

    Equal­ly unfair is the attempt to equate Chris­tians who “com­mit abhor­rent crimes” with Mus­lim ter­ror­ists. Obvi­ous­ly there are Chris­tians who com­mit crimes, but you would be hard pressed to find a hand­ful of exam­ples (if that) in recent mem­o­ry of Chris­tians tar­get­ing thou­sands of civil­ians for death mere­ly because they did not share the per­pe­tra­tors’ Chris­t­ian world­view. And just as impor­tant, if there were such crimes, they would be wide­ly and loud­ly con­demned by the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty and its lead­ers.

    The Cor­do­ba peo­ple claim to be bridge builders. That is a good thing. But when they see that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber, if not a major­i­ty, of Amer­i­cans find a mosque at this loca­tion to be dis­turb­ing and insen­si­tive (irre­spec­tive of whether those feel­ings are well-found­ed), and they nev­er­the­less choose to pro­ceed, one has to ques­tion the sin­cer­i­ty of their claims of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Imag­ine how much they could do for own their cause if — just like the Church did at Auschwitz — they pro­claimed that, despite their right to build, they would relo­cate out of respect for the feel­ings of those who dis­agree.

  • Jon says:

    Hanoch, besides mak­ing an irra­tional emo­tion­al appeal, what pos­si­ble harm could this com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter have on the site, the city, or this coun­try? It is a build­ing that hap­pens to belong to peo­ple of the same reli­gion that these hijack­ers cor­rupt­ed to destroy that build­ing. Peo­ple lost loved ones and are not think­ing with a ratio­nal mind. A build­ing does no emo­tion­al dam­age to them unless they make it. This build­ing in no way hon­ors their loved ones killers nor does it spit on their graves. It is the fam­i­lies and many cit­i­zens of this coun­try who are CREATING this con­tro­ver­sy. This build­ing could have been built and used with­out any issue what­so­ev­er, instead peo­ple have picked it up and made it a polit­i­cal issue. Don’t you think the fact that there is still noth­ing but rub­ble in that site more a dis­grace?

  • Jon says:

    Mike, I like what your try­ing to say but I real­ly think it is unfair and unre­al­is­tic to ask Faisal to con­vince a theoc­ra­cy like Sau­di Ara­bia to put more alter­nate reli­gious sites on their land. If you are refer­ring to most oth­er Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries then there is lit­tle prob­lem for peo­ple of oth­er faiths to prac­tice, even Iran.

  • Hanoch says:

    Hel­lo Jon:

    I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly dis­agree with you. The bot­tom line though is — whether you agree with them or not — a lot of peo­ple find a mosque at this site to be inap­pro­pri­ate. I can under­stand their posi­tion too.

    My point is, how­ev­er, that if the Cor­do­ba peo­ple tru­ly want to build bridges with non-Mus­lims — and I think that is a good thing — they seem to be ham­string­ing them­selves by push­ing for­ward with this project at this loca­tion.

  • I am all for reli­gious tol­er­ance. I am anar­chist and Bud­dhist. All I can under­stand from this sce­nario is that some lead­ers try to take advan­tage of the cur­rent gloomy polit­i­cal cli­mate and the rise of the far right (which is pro­mot­ed in the mass media) in order to cause more divi­sion and sec­tar­i­an­ism. It’s the well known tac­tic of divide and rule that the rul­ing class uses in order to main­tain its inter­ests. Since peo­ple will not be able to under­stand that a God does not reside in walls and our lead­ers are noth­ing more but pawns of some pow­er­ful elites, expect hatred, big­otry and all this sit­u­a­tion to go on and on.

  • yellowladybug says:

    Just because you are ALLOWED to do some­thing, does that mean you SHOULD?

  • yellowladybug says:

    “besides mak­ing an irra­tional emo­tion­al appeal, what pos­si­ble harm could this com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter have on the site, the city, or this coun­try? It is a build­ing that hap­pens to belong to peo­ple of the same reli­gion that these hijack­ers cor­rupt­ed to destroy that build­ing. Peo­ple lost loved ones and are not think­ing with a ratio­nal mind.” What are you, a robot? Or made of stone? With­out this irra­tional emo­tion, we would not be human. You clear­ly don’t know what a sec­ondary assault is, or maybe you do and it has turned you cold. Imag­ine lis­ten­ing to a record­ing of “I’ll be home for Christ­mas” on the emer­gency phone line air­lines tell you to call while try­ing to con­firm your only son and his wife who was sched­uled to be on that flight, you just watched DIE on t.v and pray­ing for a mir­a­cle that some­how they missed their flight and are actu­al­ly safe. You clear­ly don’t know what it feels like to walk by ground zero on your way to work every­day and feel heart wrench­ing pain when your child says “Hel­lo Mom­my & Dad­dy” every time she pass­es by. Excuse me for being irra­tional­ly emo­tion­al­ly, but I have deserved that right.

    With that said irra­tional emo­tion­al rant out of the way, I do believe it in the con­sti­tu­tion and the right of the Cor­do­ba to build a mosque because as a fol­low­er of Christ, I have been taught the impor­tance of reli­gious tol­er­ance. Unir­ra­tional­ly emo­tion­al­ly speak­ing, we need to should show it to those who do not show it to us. Why? Because we need to rise ABOVE them and be the bet­ter man. (That does­n’t mean I for­give them, but it is not my duty to for­give, they will have to take that up with God).
    It is easy for peo­ple to protest what they do not under­stand (build­ing of Mosques in oth­er states) “Islam is ter­ror” when do you hear POSITIVE things about Islam in the news? That is NOT my fault. I don’t cre­ate the news, I just watch it, read it, lis­ten to it and base my opin­ion on what is pre­sent­ed to me.

    In con­clu­sion, Hanoch said it best: “This is not a demon­stra­tion of reli­gious intol­er­ance; it is a dis­taste for the lack of sen­si­tiv­i­ty to Amer­i­can fam­i­lies who suf­fered tremen­dous loss­es at the hands of Mus­lim fanat­ics who act­ed in the name of Islam”

    10 years is not enough time to for some to heal. Give the Amer­i­can peo­ple more time. Go build your mosques some­where else, or if you are going to do it there, give us more time. A lot more time.

  • Secret says:

    Amer­i­ca is a 100% chris­t­ian coun­try. Yes Amer­i­ca is a free coun­try but they are mis­us­ing the free­dom if they will let the mus­lims build a mosque near ground zero. Just like how one mus­lim said that we are test­ing the amer­i­cans, Why dont we as chris­tians test the mus­lims by ask­ing them if chris­tians can build a church in Sau­di Are­bia?
    In my opin­ion so far mus­lims are not peace lov­ing people.They are so far­nat­ics.

  • IMH says:

    Just read the Con­sti­tu­tion:

    “Con­gress shall make no law respect­ing an estab­lish­ment of reli­gion, or pro­hibit­ing the free exer­cise there­of; or abridg­ing the free­dom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the peo­ple peace­ably to assem­ble, and to peti­tion the gov­ern­ment for a redress of griev­ances.”

    Seems pret­ty straight for­ward to me.

  • Hanoch says:


    Obvi­ous­ly, if Mus­lims want a place of wor­ship, they have the right to one and should not be imped­ed with­out a legit­i­mate basis.

    But the phe­nom­e­non you are describ­ing is not, in my opin­ion, accu­rate­ly described as reli­gious intol­er­ance. Reli­gious intol­er­ance, in my view, is an antipa­thy towards anoth­er human being sim­ply because his reli­gious beliefs dif­fer from yours. I do not believe that sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of Chris­t­ian Amer­i­cans seek to per­se­cute oth­ers – whether they be Mus­lims, Jews, or Hin­dus — because they don’t share their Chris­t­ian faith.

    Rather, the moti­va­tion of these pro­test­ers – per the NY Times arti­cle — is a per­ceived threat to their secu­ri­ty and Amer­i­can ideals of free­dom. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, there are Mus­lims – per­haps a small minor­i­ty of the total, but a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber nev­er­the­less – who advo­cate or con­done atro­cious acts of vio­lence and repres­sion. Peo­ple turn on their tele­vi­sions and see things like Pales­tini­ans danc­ing in the streets after the 9/11 attacks; a fat­wa issued for the death of an author because his nov­el offend­ed Mus­lim reli­gious sen­si­bil­i­ties; a film­mak­er stabbed to death due to the per­ceived anti-Mus­lim con­tent of his films; wide-scale destruc­tion and riot­ing because of a sil­ly news­pa­per car­toon; bru­tal ston­ings of young girls in “hon­or” killings; the preach­ing of death to Jews and infi­dels with­in mosques through­out the Mid­dle East; and the cease­less attempts to tar­get West­ern coun­tries for ter­ror attacks (and the list could go much fur­ther). Not sur­pris­ing­ly, after years of this, many Amer­i­cans become wor­ried, and inci­dents like those you point to occur. You can plau­si­bly argue that these pro­test­ers are unfair­ly paint­ing with too broad a brush in terms of the source of such threats – and I’d wager you’d be right – but I see a dif­fer­ence between reli­gious intol­er­ance and a per­ceived threat to one’s secu­ri­ty and way of life.

    Regard­ing the Cor­do­ba Ini­tia­tive mosque, again, my point is not to defend or advo­cate for its crit­ics. Rather, it is to express my bewil­der­ment that an orga­ni­za­tion that is attempt­ing to build bridges would pro­ceed as it is in the face of so much dis­agree­ment. How can that pos­si­bly con­tribute to their goals? Indeed, if I had to, I would guess that Cordoba’s intran­si­gence is like­ly doing a fair amount of harm to the process of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in this coun­try. Can you imag­ine mov­ing into a neigh­bor­hood and, in the face of wide-spread oppo­si­tion by your neigh­bors, paint­ing your house pur­ple (no offense is meant to those with pur­ple hous­es) – some­thing you have a right to do — and then stat­ing that the goal of your move was to build bridges with your neigh­bors? If the Cor­do­ba peo­ple are indeed mod­er­ates who respect the reli­gious faiths of oth­ers and Amer­i­can ideals, I wish them much suc­cess; I just can’t fath­om their polit­i­cal sense.

  • Nancy says:

    It is sick…the whole thing. Allow peo­ple to grieve with­out mak­ing polit­i­cal statements.…don’t add insult to injury.

  • Sergei Bourachaga says:

    Dur­ing the demon­stra­tions oppos­ing the 9/11 mosque project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf declared to the press that the mosque will be built to encour­age “Inter-Faith Dia­logue”, and it is not an act of defi­ance designed to under­mine the pain inflict­ed by Islam­ic rad­i­cals on all those who lost loved ones in the destruc­tion of the Twin Tow­ers in New York City.
    If Imam Abdul Rauf strong­ly believes that Islam is a reli­gion of “Peace & Tol­er­ance” ded­i­cat­ed to dia­logue, he should also head a project of build­ing a church in the city of Mec­ca-Sau­di Ara­bia. The Vat­i­can is the seat of Catholic Pow­er rep­re­sent­ing almost 1 bil­lion Chris­tians, showed Chris­t­ian tol­er­ance with deeds not words, by con­vinc­ing the City of Rome in 1974 to donate (absolute­ly free) 32.000 squ.m of land in an area of Rome, less than 3 km away from St Peter’s Basil­i­ca known as “The Pope Dio­cese”, to build a mosque and an Islam­ic Cul­tur­al Cen­tre to encour­age “Inter-Faith Dia­logue”. The inau­gu­ra­tion of the mosque took place on June 21, 1995, and the mosque’s con­struc­tion was financed by king Faisal of Sau­di Ara­bia, head of the Sau­di roy­al fam­i­ly, as well as Cus­to­di­an of the Two Holy Mosques.
    Isn’t it time for Imam Abdul Rauf to con­vince the Sau­di King to lift the absolute ban imposed on build­ing church­es any­where in the King­dom, espe­cial­ly Mec­ca. If any per­son is inter­est­ed on know­ing why the ban does exist, he/she should con­sult the fol­low­ing link:

  • marianna vam says:

    I am a Greek Chris­t­ian ortho­dox. I see the whole mat­ter in a dif­fer­ent way.
    Instead of argu­ing about build­ing or not a mosque in ground zero, I would pro­pose to encour­age the build­ing of not only a mosque, but tem­ples of oth­er reli­gious too, in this very point. A World Reli­gion Cen­ter.
    Ground Zero is a place where we must pray. Every­body in his own lan­guage, and in his own way. Only I wish those tem­ples should be hum­ble and grav­ing, match­ing with the rub­bles. I could not imag­ine a glo­ri­ous mosque or a glo­ri­ous church. And –why not- a cor­ner for the athe­ist. To sit and think.
    The impor­tant thing is not what you do, but how you do it.
    If I am well informed, much of the place is giv­en back to com­mer­cial use. THIS is most annoy­ing to me. And a cer­tain memo­r­i­al … Very prac­ti­cal. It doesn’t waist much place.

  • Rolf Chakras says:

    Reli­gious tol­er­ance sim­ply must go…or this coun­try will get steam­rolled by men who haven’t seen their chins in decades and women who are uncom­fort­ably entombed in bee­keep­er suits. Mus­lims show no sign of tak­ing their reli­gion less seri­ous­ly, which has led to all kinds of human suf­fer­ing. A reli­gion of peace? Don’t make me fall off my chair. And don’t prof­fer Islam­ic apolo­get­ics. It’s real­ly embar­rass­ing that human beings such as this exist. I mean, 3.5 bil­lion years of evo­lu­tion — to get to this?! And, as much as it pains me to admit this, Bill O’Reil­ly was cor­rect: Mus­lims did attack us on 9/11. If you think this is ridicu­lous (and, for the record, the great major­i­ty of what O’Reil­ly says is ridicu­lous), I encour­age you to read the tran­scripts of Unit­ed Air­lines Flight 93 that day. This Allah guy must real­ly be some­thing, huh? Reli­gion equaled vio­lence, all for the belief that one could soon enjoy what can only be described as an al fres­co cathouse. “Step right this way guys. Dozens of naked vir­gins to choose from! That flow­ing riv­er of sin­gle-malt scotch? It’s on the house! What? No, your facial hair will only tick­le their muffins — not irri­tate them — even those girls who would be irri­tat­ed if they were flesh-and-blood women. And, here in Islamapoon-tang, a no-preg­nan­cy and no-dis­ease guar­an­tee! Yeah, dudes, we’re in heav­en!” Absolute­ly bog­gles the synaps­es. The real ques­tion here: Is Allah the pimp in this sce­nario or sim­ply a Hugh Hefn­er-like host? But enough of this fleshy mer­ri­ment. I’ve read enough of the Qur’an and the hadith to know the score as a non-believ­er: I will either be con­vert­ed to Islam, killed as an infi­del, or put into slav­ery. Hey, I’ve got choic­es! I can­not — and will nev­er — tol­er­ate such a reli­gion.

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