though i walk through the valley of the shadow of murray st.


After reading all of the impassioned and amazing comments from yesterday’s blog, I realized that my own take on the so-called “Mosque at Ground Zero®” was based on parts of me that I’m going to have to learn to subjugate. It’s not about Muslims and it’s not about 9/11, it’s about two things: the national dialogue, and my problems with religion.

Do I believe they should be able to build a Muslim interfaith center two blocks from Ground Zero? I feel unqualified to answer a question so stupid. It’s so obviously “yes” that to even have to say “yes” feels embarrassing. Do I think it has proven to be a good idea? Well, if the builders were trying to bridge an “understanding gap” between followers of Islam and other belief systems, it has been a devastating failure before a brick has been laid.

Akbar Ahmed, an Islamic studies professor at American University in Washington, said:

“I don’t think the Muslim leadership has fully appreciated the impact of 9/11 on America. They assume Americans have forgotten 9/11 and even, in a profound way, forgiven 9/11, and that has not happened. The wounds remain largely open…”

Which I think is probably right, but it’s probably right because cynical wingnuts – as well as the Bush Administration – fomented and cashed checks on those fears for seven years, and the Republican Party continues the tradition. (Yes, I know Bush spoke admirably of Islam in the days immediately following 9/11, but his regime behaved otherwise.)

Whether you like how America got bigoted or not, it’s still bigoted, and in some cases, sidestepping an obvious PR disaster can pay big dividends. You can opine about the 1st Amendment, but the fact is, a lot of American idiots out there think there’s going to be minarets towering over the Woolworth Building and shifty-eyed jihadis wandering around Liberty Street.

I appreciate the builders’ resolve in the face of these right-wing assholes, but all things being equal, would it ultimately served their purposes better if it had been built farther away? I have to say… probably? Maybe far enough that morons couldn’t say “AT Ground Zero”? You want a precise number of blocks, fine. Let’s say five. I used to work three doors down from the proposed Islamic Center site, and anything north of Chambers Street would have been impossible to connect to the WTC.

View blog example wtc in a larger map

To those saying “there’s already been a mosque in the neighborhood for 27 years” and “they sell falafel at the WTC site just like they always did” and “New York is a melting pot with all religions and bizarre rituals”, I say sure, but that’s missing the larger point. These things have always been there; the Islamic center has not. It’s a new construction built near an oozing laceration in America’s skull.

It’s human nature to “grandfather in” the things that were always thus, which is why the other mosque doesn’t bother anybody. But if you think the “newness” of this project shouldn’t make a difference, you’re right, but you’re also being disingenuous. It’s okay to have feelings about this Islamic center, given the mood and timbre of our culture. It’s okay to oppose it, even against all rational discourse proving otherwise, as long as you admit you’re being a dick.

My true personal feelings? I’m a dick. But I’m not a dick because I have something against Islam in particular, or because of my oft-expressed experiences around 9/11, or even because I loathe the amount of airtime this story has given to some of the worst Americans we’ve got. I’m a dick because I have problems with religion in general, and I don’t think anything religious ought to be shadowing the WTC site. In my mind, fundamental religion is how the towers came down, and on that day, I remember thinking this is how it would all end, if not this religion, then another.

I know this lumps my cousins and some of my best friends in with the abortion doctor killers and Timothy McVeighs of the world. I know this lumps Al Qaeda in with other friends of mine, not to mention billions of peaceful followers. I know many of you profoundly hate this quality in me, and I recognize my inability to fathom religion as one of my biggest failings. My virulent, occasionally angry agnosticism has consistently separated me from people I love and has done me no favors.

And yet, like a lingering worry, it persists.

0 thoughts on “though i walk through the valley of the shadow of murray st.

  1. Steve Williams

    Ian, you say you’re an agnostic. I’m an atheist. I think we share the belief that all religion is destructive.
    Nevertheless, we must stand up when we see religious persecution like this: Today they’re coming for the Muslims. When they come for us irreligious, we’ll be glad we kept this principle strong!
    Religion is a natural product of human nature. I don’t rail against religion or despise believers, as long as they show tolerance. We all are challenged, living in a secular society.
    It’s up to us heathens to show them that tolerance protects everyone.

  2. josie

    Glad you said that. I wanted to comment yesterday, but couldn’t really find much to say. It’s silly to have to debate it either way.

  3. kent

    I already weighed in on this weeks ago here:
    But in response to your post: Religion is a tool human being use — for moral guidance, for comfort in the face of mortality, for tribal identity. Religion is a tool, like a chainsaw: It can be incredibly useful, and incredibly destructive, depending on how it’s used.
    If a Mosque at Ground Zero bothers you, you must on some level be equating the entirety of Islam with the 9/11 Terrorists. If you think putting a mosque there is ‘insensitive,’ I’m at a loss to see who is being insensitive to who. You might as well try and prevent NYU from taking over the building for its College of Engineering, because some of the hijackers studied engineering in Germany before coming to the US. The ideology and religion of Islam has as much to do with the real reasons for the attack as the hijacker’s ability to design circuits for a television.
    There are some of the families of 9/11 victims who are offended by the Mosque, but as much as I feel for their loss, they too are blaming people who have nothing to do with what happened on September 11th.
    And I have to says something about this that might be controversial, but I can’t not say it any more: It’s perfectly right to mourn the 9/11 victims — all of them, Muslims included. But how many 9/11s does it take to equal a Darfur, or a Rwanda, or a Kosovo, or a Kampuchea?
    While one death is too many, and comparing body counts is, in the end, pointless, America’s reaction to 9/11 seems so completely operatic and out of proportion. Yes it is significant, yes we all feel that loss, the injustice of it. But all the breast-beating and wailing has to stop because we aren’t the only people on earth who’ve been attacked. Innocent people die every day it ways so cruel it beggars imagination, and yet the United States keeps curling around this one wound as though it’s more important than anyone else’s pain.
    The basic problem is this: since 9/11 the US has done f*ck all to build a world where things like 9/11 no longer happen. We’ve not brought peace to conflicts like the one in Israel, which inflames the passions of the Muslim World. We haven’t brought peace in the Sudan. Even the former Yugoslavia still smolders with ethnic resentments.
    What we’ve done is spend trillions of dollars, killed and maimed thousands of our own soldiers, killed and maimed thousands of innocent civilians, and still we don’t have peace. And still we haven’t apprehended the people — who could fit on a couple of crosstown buses — who actually inflicted 9/11 on us.
    And nothing will get better until we can find a way to focus on important things instead of fulminating and raging about irrelevant distractions like the Mosque near Ground Zero. It’s enough to make me weep.

  4. tregen

    I also am not a fan of religion but it is a matter of freedom and choice. You’re position is no less bigoted than those who would deny rights to any one else because it is more convenient if they stay one block over or in the closet. Hate religion? Yes. Defend the right of people to choose their religion and worship as they please? Always. Compromise and have the muslims just agree to sit in the back of the bus because it’s just a few seats further back? Never.

  5. Ian

    This isn’t what I’m saying in the post, guys. When I talk about “how many blocks away”, I’m talking about avoiding a PR mess and choosing the best vantage point for your message, not the 1st Amendment.

  6. Tammy O.

    Frankly, I don’t think another two, five, or twelve blocks further away would have made a difference. The folks who are using this to score political points would just increase the area they designate hallowed ground. And they would find some aggrieved families to serve as spokespeople. (Let’s be honest, there are some among them who would oppose anything Islamic going up anywhere in NYC). Without a doubt, we would still be having this conversation.
    Ian, I can’t help but parse your words on this: “I don’t think anything religious ought to be shadowing the WTC site.” Would this apply to, say, a Chick-fil-A going up a block away from Ground Zero?
    And, yes, I actually do understand what you’re saying here about choosing smart battles, avoiding PR disasters, etc. But you’re talking about the short-term media catastrofuck that we’re currently experiencing – not the potential long-term good that could come out of an Islamic cultural center in that neighborhood. In 10-20 years, when that center is fulfilling its mission, we could see some radical good that will put all of this into perspective.
    In the short-term: Is it painful and disheartening to be watching this national shitstorm take place? Definitely, yes. But it’s also really, really important.
    Also, I really appreciate Kent’s comments on this. I couldn’t agree more with him.
    Everyone’s probably seen this by now, but I thought I’d add this link to photos of stuff the same distance from the WTC:
    (Personally, I find the WTC memorial tourist trinkets to be ghoulish, but I have yet to hear anyone oppose the right of people to sell ’em.)

  7. Scott

    I’ve said here before that I am a strident atheist – the whole concept of religion just seems so patently absurd that I can’t fathom how it persists in an enlightened society – however, I am equally a strident supporter of the first amendment. I was overjoyed to hear President Obama’s comments last week when he included this statement “Indeed, over the course of our history, religion has flourished within our borders precisely because Americans have had the right to worship as they choose – including the right to believe in no religion at all.” The inclusion of that last clause means I will walk through fire to support this man. Perhaps another President has made that statement, but not that I recall.
    So, to oppose the construction for any reason, indeed to be opposed to it at all, is a sign of internal bigotry. Perhaps the bigotry is toward all religion, but that doesn’t alleviate the underlying bigotry. To those who say the wound is still too fresh, I simply say get over your sad-ass-selves. Move on. 9/11 sucked – it is the demarcation line of a shift in society both in the US and world-wide. The effects of that shift are still developing, but they are apparent. But I refuse to allow one of those shifts to be a move toward religious intolerance, for that will be the beginning of the final world war.
    Ian – lead the way, man. But lead in the right direction please.

  8. d

    isn’t “avoiding a PR mess” just placating the people who are against the center and giving in to the power of mob rule to deny equal rights?
    just take your community project somewhere else where nobody will complain.
    just sit behind that line in the bus, you’ll still get where you need to go.
    just stay home and make dinner while your husbands and sons go vote.
    and don’t make the rest of us angry with your silly ideals of equal rights.

  9. Yasminah

    This is nothing but the ramblings of a right wing nutcase named Pam Geller. She’s insane. And thanks to our pathetic media, she actually has been able to elevate this into any kind of news (which it is not). People like her are the fringe wackos who would not have every gotten the time of day from the media before the ’80s.
    Anyway, its not a mosque, its a community center with a prayer room, the imam has traveled the world on behalf of America and this is a completely ginned up piece of conservative BS. It is lizard brain, tribal politics at its worst and I’m really disappointed in all who are falling for this.

  10. once a heel

    For the most part everyone agrees that while a bad idea, possibly driven in part by questionable motives, the rule of law in this case is fairly clear. What’s important here is that the system be allowed to work. We have to be willing to accommodate both the bad ideas AND the vocal bigots in order to safeguard our fundamental rights and protections. In the end, the center will be built, it will be protested peacefully (and protesters that cross the line will face appropriate legal consequences), and constitutional rights will not be overlooked in the name of convenience or even common sense. And while most hearts will remain hardened and most people will not learn a damn thing, we can still celebrate that the system works.
    Is it a waste of time and a contrived national discourse/distraction? I don’t know, with some of the #@$! being thrown around I sometimes think we need reminding of these things. And after all, we’re fighting a couple of wars – contrived or not, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to occasionally talk about how we as a people view and intend to treat “the enemy”. And while I’m sympathetic to the sentiments expressed in kent’s post, it ought to be possible to both discuss how we’re going to accommodate disparate and unpopular viewpoints AND ameliorate worldwide suffering stemming from ethnic resentments. In fact, I’d argue they’re irrevocably linked.
    As to Ian’s post today, there’s no doubt that as imperfect human beings we’re all dicks about something, and all things being equal it’s better to be a self-aware dick than an ignorant dick. However, you seem to imply that acknowledgement of your dickishness sets you apart in some way from the unwashed rednecks you love to hate. Because you recognize your shortcoming, you might still be allowed to retain credibility on this and other subjects because if you ever cross the line in one of your rants, hey – that’s just you being a dick and we already knew that. And I suppose when the great secular rapture comes to gather together all the faithful progressives to Coastopia, you can be forgiven your intolerance of the religious because you know you were often a dick about it.
    I wonder though, does such accommodation extend to issues you care passionately about? Would I lose an invitation to Jartacular if I espoused that two dads couldn’t raise a child as well as a mom and a dad, so long as I qualify it with I know I kind of sound like a dick? What if I said I thought that there are compelling reasons to strictly limit abortion even though I sense it’s kind of dickish to tell a person what to do with their own body? Would you be content credit my self-awareness as a salve or would you see it as an added responsibility and opportunity to improve myself? It seems to me that what separates us from all the “redneck/lizard brained” mentality lamented around here can’t just be an awareness of our own personal dickishness, its got to also be an exhortation and willingness and to see beyond those shortcomings, hard as it may be. Otherwise, we’re all just swimming at different ends of the same muddy pool.

  11. Ian

    Again, let me be very clear: when I speak of the “PR issue”, I’m speaking of the pre-planning stages of the cultural center, where one of the proponents magically can see the future and the firestorm it might create. I am speaking in hypotheticals. I apologize if that’s not clear.
    As for the other issue, these comments are great, and I’ll address them tomorrow.

  12. Jody

    I would have liked to write your last three entry paragraphs yesterday but alas, you’re a writer and I’m not. Well said.

  13. Piglet

    So, if some Beck-listening Christian throws a bomb through the window of the new cultural center, are you going to join the teatards in saying they had it coming, should have known better, etc?

  14. Deb

    Amen, Ian. Do I have a personal problem with the Center being erected there? No. No more than I have with the proliferation of any other religion. Do I think they have a *right* as guaranteed by the Constitution to erect it there? To paraphrase you, “No duh.” But do I think that upsetting the numbers of people that it’s upsetting (and who am I to judge their upsetness) is *nice*? *Should* they build it there? I mean…I guess I’m teaching my kid that even if he’s in the right, he should be sensitive to how other people feel, and act accordingly. Being in the right isn’t always the right thing.

  15. jp

    Lots of folks said the Prop 8 lawyers in California shouldn’t take the issue to court because of the PR mess. But they did, and they won. And it was a great victory for gay rights specifically and human rights in general.
    The ERA was a huge public relations disaster, but it still should have passed, and people were wrong when they backed down.
    When we feel like our opinion on something is in conflict with our core values, maybe we should step back and decide that instead of being dicks, we need to swallow that opinion and go with our sense of fairness and doing what’s right instead of rationalizing our way to a opinion that makes us feel like we’re dicks.
    I don’t like religion, either. But I pretty much dislike all religions equally. There’s no way anyone would oppose a church at the actual WTC property. Or a temple even, I bet. So, isn’t the fair thing here to fight for the right of cultural center to be there, because we can be pretty sure other religious buildings will be?
    This notion that another two blocks would have avoided this debate is ridiculous, especially given that most protesters don’t even live in NYC.

  16. jp

    Okay, I’m still fired up. Some white people were really uncomfortable when black people started moving into their neighborhoods. Some straight people are really uncomfortable with gay people, especially if they get married. Some native speakers of English really are uncomfortable hearing Spanish spoken in their American towns.
    Being uncomfortable with something is a terrible reason to oppose it. Sometimes doing the right thing is very uncomfortable.

  17. Salem

    Foolish waste of effort that could be fighting real and present injustice. There is no threat against the Muslim religion in America. This is just a dumb idea with even dumber detractors. Save your breath with the references to the Civil Rights movement. We have biggoted assholes not institutionalized discrimination against Muslims.

  18. Bud

    Religion: the solution to, and the cause of, most of the world’s problems.
    Fundamentalism: the Pabst Blue Ribbon of the masses.


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