The argument about whether or not to have a memorial mosque in the vicinity of the Ground Zero of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on downtown New York City is currently being conducted on lines that are distressingly simplistic. As with some similar disputes in Europe, it seems to pit chauvinistic and xenophobic forces in the shape of various conservative websites and Tea Party fringe elements against the usual array of spineless multiculturalists who are willing to make concessions to Islam before such concessions have even been demanded.
This is an excellent opportunity to assert secular principles against the false antitheses that are being presented to us. The first question that ought to be asked is this: Why should the atrocity of September 11, 2001, be commemorated with a house of worship of any kind? And to phrase the same question in a different way why should such a memorial be identified with any one faith?
There is, for example, already a Garden of Remembrance in a downtown Anglican church dedicated to the quite large number of British people who were murdered that day. It was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in her capacity as hereditary head of the Church of England (a role memorably ridiculed by the great Englishman Thomas Paine as being as absurd as a hereditary doctor or astronomer). Well before I took out my papers of American citizenship, I refused all offers to attend any special ceremonies at this site. In the first place, I considered the attack to have been on civilization in general and not just upon the United States or its closest ally. Second, I had not a scrap of reason to believe that my murdered fellow-countrymen had been practicing Anglicans. The whole clerical enterprise was devoted to missing the main point.
Nonetheless, we can be sure that members of all faiths and of none including not a few Muslims were among those slaughtered that day. This is an inevitable consequence of a deliberate policy of sectarian religious mayhem that does not recognize the concept of a civilian. A monument that does not take account of that salient fact is no monument at all. In my opinion, the best outcome would be simply to rebuild the World Trade Center on the existing site. (On a recent visit to the spot, I was distressed to see how bureaucracy and litigation have retarded this objective: after the best part of a decade, there is still nothing to see above the fences that enclose the area.) Meanwhile, the Wall Street district is thickly strewn with well-endowed churches and temples, as if to symbolize the faith-based nature of capitalism.
There may also be some specific objections to the particular Muslim group that aims to establish itself in the district. I have read reports of shady remarks made by some of its leaders, to the effect that nobody really knows who was responsible for the attacks. (Alas, there are secular types who also spout such sinister nonsense.) Moreover, the original mosque near the site was essentially a half-baked storefront operation, whereas the projected one has the ambition of rising several stories high. So before anything else is decided, one would like to know where the money for this project is coming from. It cant be from public funds. It would definitely not be appropriate if this turned out to be yet another Wahhabi-financed outfit, paid from Saudi Arabian coffers as so many of Al Qaeda’s operations have been. There are already far too many fundamentalist mosques and schools in the United States with connections of this kind, and I agree with those who say that no further Saudi money should be spent in this way at least until non-Muslim houses of worship are permitted on Saudi Arabian soil as well as secular libraries named after Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.
That last observation returns us to the question of what form, if any, a genuine memorial should take. For what did the victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001, die, in other words, and for what are we really fighting? Regardless of the personal faith(s) of those who were slain, their murderers were undoubtedly motivated by the desire to spread a primitive and cruel version of theocracy. And regardless of the faith(s) of Americans who fight against this horrible vision of society, the only relevant oath that they take is to defend the United States Constitution, which, as cannot be said with enough frequency and urgency, is a document that deliberately separates church from state and forbids the establishment of any religion.
The only decent Ground Zero monument, therefore, would be one that restated and honored the humanistic and philosophical principles of the American foundation. I don’t pretend to suggest how exactly this should be accomplished. (It might be the occasion for a very interesting competition for a design, open to schoolchildren and architects alike.) But such a purpose is plainly incompatible with any structure that is sacred to any one religion. Such a structure isn’t even compatible with another aspect of the Constitution, which is the emphasis on the right to religious pluralism. I myself have difficulty with the very idea of sacred ground, even when that ground was once the site of a mass grave. But millions of people have a non-superstitious sense that there is something of unquantifiable value in this part of downtown Manhattan, and this proper sense of respect is not served by making any portion of it into a place of meaningless ritual incantation.