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New York City, USA – Proposed Muslim centre near Ground Zero

Proposed Muslim centre near Ground Zero stirs up an offensive

Last November, when a Swiss ballot measure banned the construction of minarets, the New York Times responded with a prescient editorial calling it ‘disgraceful’ and a warning sign ‘for all Western nations’. Less than a year later, that same brand of xenophobia has reared up just a few miles south of the paper’s midtown headquarters, cloaked once more in an argument over architectural symbolism. The subject, in this case, is the fate of a proposed Muslim cultural centre, originally known as Cordoba House and subsequently the more anodyne Park51, two blocks from the boundary of the former World Trade Center site.

The would-be building, a 13-storey, mixed-use structure with prayer facilities on just one floor, had been on the books for months, and only became a matter of contention in late summer when a series of right-wing commentators latched onto it in the midst of a bitter election season. And so the cultural centre, never mind its avowed mission to forge ‘personal bonds across religious traditions’, became to its enemies simply the Ground Zero Mosque, an outpost of ‘Islamofascism’ adjacent (sort of) to hallowed ground. Sarah Palin, writing on Twitter, claimed it ‘stabs hearts’. Adopting the language of reason, opponents suggested moving it just a bit further away from Ground Zero, so as not to offend the families of the victims.

Just what might constitute an acceptable distance (Chelsea? The Bronx? Riyadh?) remains an open question among the project’s opponents. Neither the fact that Minoru Yamasaki’s original World Trade Center towers were inspired by Moorish architecture, nor the fact that they housed a mosque before they were destroyed, nor that many innocent Muslims were killed in the attacks, seems to carry much weight with them. For that matter, as critic Karrie Jacobs recently asked, what will happen when a business that might be construed as Arab - Emirates airline was her example - decides to open an office in the so-called Freedom Tower?

To anyone even remotely familiar with Lower Manhattan, the idea that Ground Zero is ringed by some kind of zone of propriety is patently ridiculous. Any number of discount retailers, gin joints, and fast-food outlets - not to mention a church and a synagogue - are within close proximity to the former World Trade site. ‘I don’t know what the big deal is,’ a stripper from a nude bar three blocks away told the Wall Street Journal. If there’s anything truly offensive at Ground Zero, it’s the endless parade of vendors hawking tawdry 9/11 ephemera to tourists.

More to the point, and as New York’s independent-minded mayor, Mike Bloomberg, has argued valiantly, whether or not one finds the project offensive is irrelevant. ‘We may not always agree with every one of our neighbours,’ said the mayor. ‘That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city.’ Just how dense it will be is to be determined.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Well done AR. Now let's see an equally 'contextual' piece about a new building in Britain.
    As Orwell said, "no writing is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that architecture should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude."
    (OK, he said 'art' not 'architecture'.)

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