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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Comments (18)
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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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