Building a Mosque: Not on My Street?

Cambridge, MA. I must be candid I am not a stellar example of being a good neighbor. While I try reasonably successfully to be a good neighbor at Harvard — attentive to my colleagues and students, intuiting who I might help, listening, finding friends — I am not much of a neighbor on my small side street in Cambridge. I’ve lived in our Jesuit house for three years, but do not know my neighbors on either side or across the street. I come and go anonymously. Then again, it is Cambridge, we are mostly academics, and many are transients, in one house or another just for a year at a time. There are no block parties where I live. But in fact, I am not an intensely involved friendly neighbor.

So, living in a glass house, I am loathe to throw stones. Yet I have been struck by two “not in my backyard” stories recently, both in New York. One is the debate about building an Islamic Center near Ground Zero in Manhattan, the latest edge of the debate was related in the New York Times on July 31; the other is lesser known, but perhaps more intense, a debate about St. Margaret Mary Parish on Staten Island selling, or not, its old convent to an Islamic group for a mosque. In both cases, there have been complex reactions from the community, and much of it, though not all, has been negative. The latter case has been resolved, it seems, with the decision that in fact the convent will not be sold to the Muslims interested in having a center of prayer. The Ground Zero case, complex and sensitive on several levels, seems to have attracted a national following, though primarily among people who seem to know little about Islam.


It is hard to know what to say about these instances. I am not “there,” neither in lower Manhattan, nor on Staten Island (though I grew up less than a mile away from St. Margaret Mary’s). I am sure politics is involved, economics, and even parking issues. I am not in a position to decide concretely. So, again, I can speak only tentatively.

In principle though, it seems entirely appropriate that American Muslims should pray, in America, as Muslims, and that they have the same right as any other American group to pray together. Those of us who are not Muslims should help them to find the spaces they need, and honor their desire to gather for prayer. So it is disappointing that the community on Staten Island was as a majority so very much against the desire to renovate the convent as a mosque, and it seems to me to be misplaced anger and suspicion to claim that Muslims should not have a house of prayer in lower Manhattan. Does not the very fact of the tragic history of Ground Zero suggest that there should be more prayer, more interreligious worship, right there?

Of course, it is no small thing to have a mosque next to a church or in the heart of the busy financial center of lower Manhattan. Yet neighbors have duties. Neighbors have both the opportunity and obligation to be attentive to one another, to listen to one another, to talk, teach, and learn. I’ve already admitted I am not in practice a good neighbor on my Cambridge block, but if there was a mosque down the street from where I live, it would give me a wonderful opportunity, and challenge, to be a neighbor to Muslims who wish to pray on my street.

Really: no one is too busy on Staten Island, or in lower Manhattan, or in Cambridge, to welcome the stranger, to make space for religious neighbors who are marginalized, to stop and listen and help their neighbors. No one should be so self-assured or self-sufficient in their faith and culture, that they have no time to be good religious neighbors. There is no Catholic on Staten Island who would not do well to profit from having a community of Muslims next door; there is certainly no one on Wall Street who is so busy or so important that they should not listen to and learn from Muslims here in America, in New York.

The reverse is true, of course: there is no Muslim, in my view, who would not benefit from living near neighbors who are Christian, Catholic, who would not do well to learn from how Christians pray. Yes, it would be good to have churches where Christians can worship freely in Saudi Arabia, and it would be wonderful to make sure that Catholics can pray freely everywhere in the Mideast. Yes, Muslims should, in God’s eyes, do everything they can to help Christians and Jews and Hindus to worship in peace, even where those Christians and Jews and Hindus are in the minority. This too is the will of God.

But at the moment, the stories in our newspapers are about us, here and now: can  we Americans, most of whom are of a Christian background - Christians who remember that Jesus said, "Turn the other cheek," not "Turn the other cheek provided they do it too" - find it in our hearts to help Muslims on their spiritual journeys, because they are our sisters and brothers, here, now? We can certainly do better than thwarting plans for an Islamic Center or a mosque. The real danger is the wall we thereby put up, not the roof others were trying to construct over their own heads. Real faith, which runs much deeper than cultural heritage or the politics of the moment, is not weakened by the prospect of someone praying differently in my neighborhood.

Once the mosques are built, then the challenge becomes the building of a neighborhood, making neighbors of strangers, making bonds of understanding, respect and spiritual intimacy that will endure even when the bricks and mortar fall into ruins.

Note: Thanks for the comments that have been coming in, even if some of them move well away from my limited point. But I am glad that readers contribute, and particularly appreciate the recent entry by David Cruz-Uribe. For 500 years Christian missionaries built churches in Asia and Africa, with the explicit intention of working from such places of worship to convert the entire surrounding people; so we should not be surprised should a Muslim group wish to share its faith in a similarly vigorous but still peaceful fashion. Were we to set ourselves against each and every religious group announcing its intention to convert America, then the prospect of a Hindu America, mentioned in my previous blog, would be all the closer to matching who we have actually become.

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Anne Danielson
8 years 5 months ago

The inability to call terrorists by their name is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Jim McCrea
8 years 5 months ago
Nancy:  are you willing to call lots and lots of Christians "terrorists", too?  They are, you know.
8 years 5 months ago
It is one thing to promote eccumenism and solidarity between the abrahamic faiths, it is another to ignore reailty in the name of doing so or in the name of progressive ideology (multiculturalism).

I am not sure if Father Clooney is aware; however, there are deep connections between the group looking to occupy the building in Staten Island and the Muslim Brotherhood - a radical group associated with violent, politicized Islam around the globe.  Should we welcome such groups into our communities in the name of pluralism and peace when they ignore these basic principles?
Rod Dreher is no neo-con on these matters.

I am unsure of the plans for NYC; however, considering the fact that the city was attacked and thousands killed in the name of Islamic jihad, I understand the cautious approach - esp. from our Jewish brothers and sisters.

In any case, ignoring important logical differences or deficiencies within other faiths does not make for realistic or honest dialouge - even when it is done with the noblest of intentions...
ed gleason
8 years 5 months ago
Brett; forget 'progressive ideology' as the reason some want to allow mosques.  And Fr Clooney forget 'neighborliness' as a reason to allow mosques.   Politically motivated anti-Muslim initiatives are being hatched  in order to stir up fear about Muslim mosques and centers so that some  Congressional cheap seats can be gained in NOvember. The real fear is that the political hacks seem unaware or don't care that there are  1.5 billion Muslims, some of whom have nuclear weapons. To stir up any anti-Muslim sentiment in any way is a dangerous/stupid/evil program. Pols COOL IT please. Want to stir up some positive Muslim sentiment world wide?  The bishop/nuns in Statin Island should give them the convent and Bloomberg should lay the cornerstone in the tip of Manhattan.  
8 years 5 months ago
This is not about politics Ed, this is about common sense. 

If the group in Staten Island was not connected to radical, political Islamists then, by all means, allow the prayer center or mosque.

That said, ignoring the politically aggressive or violent aspects of certain strains of Islam or certain groups is putting your head in the sand and calling it "progress" or multiculturalism.
8 years 5 months ago
PS - let us not forget how the Muslim radical groups in the the United Kingdom plan to "welcome" the Vicar of Christ during his upcoming visit:

"The Islamic Standard":

"The Birmingham event however brings the pope and who worship him into direct contact with the the large Muslim population of Birmingham and offers them the perfect chance to learn about Islam and for the Muslims to forbid the Munkar of worshipping dead men and following the dictates of the sodomite child molesting Church of Rome…"

Objections to radical muslims is not about a neighbor "praying differently" - it is about concern against illogic, violence and radicalism.  This is the basic difference between our religions: Christ renounced violence in the name of God; Muhammad endorses violence, if necessary, in the name of spreading their faith.

8 years 5 months ago
PPS - final comment.  Father writes: "I’ve already admitted I am not in practice a good neighbor on my Cambridge block, but if there was a mosque down the street from where I live, it would give me a wonderful opportunity, and challenge, to be a neighbor to Muslims who wish to pray on my street."

Could you theologically "challange" Muslims in friendly debate in Pakistan?  Perhaps, Saudi Arabia?  Indonesia?  Iran?  Even in the UK?  You cannot even do this in Dearborn, MI!

No, it is against Islamic Sharia law and, in some places, punishable by death.

Perhaps Father Clooney should get outside of Cambridge a bit more - it is a big world out there.
Gabriel Marcella
8 years 5 months ago
Gettysburg Battlefield may help shed some light on this sensitive debate. For decades the North did not allow Southerners to place monuments there to commemorate fallen Confederates. Once the monument to fallen Confederate General Armistead was erected in the 1880s, at a point known as the high water mark of the Confederate attack, the process of reconciliation between North and South gained momentum. Now you can see along the old Confederate lines beautiful monuments placed by every state of the Confederacy. We should not underestimate the emotive force of such gestures and symbols, as one will easily note when visiting the holy ground at Gettysburg. The mosque issue at Ground Zero is not the same, it is much too close to 9/11, and the forces advocating reconciliation between Islam and the West are notably weak if not reticent. We should let more time pass to heal the wounds that have not been mended.
ed gleason
8 years 5 months ago
Read Thomas Friedman's NYT piece about Pakistan and the nuclear threat. When we pull out of Afghanistan and we will,  how ling will the 'bomb' stay out of the hands of those extemists who hate the West. Stop worrying about a Muslim prayer center; think about delaying the inevitable ownership of the 'bomb' and stop worrying about NIMBY foolishness. delay is the only strategy that we have. keep ameliorating and pray.. and don't let Palin and Beck morons provoke Muslims..
Pearce Shea
8 years 5 months ago
Ed, to suggest that us being "nice" to Muslim here in the US will influence what Pakistan will or will not do with its nukes is shockingly jejune. Pakistan could care less about the plight or success of Muslims in the US. 

The other issue, not really mentioned here, is that particularly conservative, militaristic slants on the Muslim faith, make much of the location of mosques and religious centers. For these fellows, it is particularly desirable to put mosque near sites of "muslim victories" and especially to build over previous religious sites. Christians and jews have made it a similar practice in the past, but this is the only case I know where literally seeking out and building over other religions' places of worship is taken as metaphor of the supremacy of one's own religion.
Jim McCrea
8 years 5 months ago
For those who live/work in/near Ground Zero, lately heavily referred to as “hallowed ground”:

1. What is the general surrounding neighborhood like? Is it replete with the usual touristy kitschy stuff, bars, drug houses, etc., or is it truly a pristing neighborhood into which the introduction of an Islamic Center would be a travesty?

2. How far away from Ground Zero does one have to go before being far enough away from “hallowed ground?” and an Islamic Center would be an acceptable addition to the city?

I suspect for a large segment of people, the answer to #2 is —-nowhere.
ed gleason
8 years 5 months ago
Peter Shore You call my position as asking to be 'nice' which  is shockingly jejune'. . No.. I ask not to provoke... . more to the point ...  provocation is shockingly stupid and juvenile. 
David Cruz-Uribe
8 years 5 months ago
I spent some time browsing, trying to confirm (or at least expand upon) the link between the Muslim American Society (MAS), which wanted to convert the Staten Island convent into a mosque, and the Muslim Brotherhood.  I was able to find remarkably little first hand information, but I do get the sense that the MAS is a conservative muslim organization, perhaps even Islamist in its outlook.   I oppose their (reported) goal of converting the majority of Americans to Islam, thereby laying the groundwork for making the U.S. an "islamic state." 

But this raises an important, indeed fundamental question about religious pluralism:  how do we oppose such groups while maintaining the religious liberty which has been a great blessing to American Catholics (among other groups)?   How far can we go in our opposition before vitiate the freedom of religion that is enshrined in our constitution and finds great support in the Declaration of Religious Liberty of Vatican II? 

By way of comparsion:  a fairly quick search will turn up a half-dozen Christian evangelical/fundamentailist/restorationist groups whose goal is to restore America to a "Christian" nation.  But even the briefest of reviews of their beliefs (combined with my own encounters with the adherents of these views), strongly suggests that Catholics don't have a place in this vision of a Christian nation.   So, though we nominally belong to the same faith community, I find their ultimate goals as anti-thetical to my Catholic identity as the goals of an Islamist organization.  

Should I therefore oppose any attempt by such groups to open churches in my community?   And how far should I go in my opposition?  Should I use the well documented (though at times tenuous) connections between such groups and the right-wing terrorists who have periodically sprouted up over the last two decades as a basis for actively working to drive them from my community?  Should I denounce their faith as being inextricably linked to violence, both in their scripture and their history?  (This latter, of course, is a bit tricky, given our shared heritage, but doable.) 

I could go on, but I hope you see my point.
8 years 5 months ago
We witness almost daily on this site the opinions of a group of people who wish to change the Catholic Church, ostensibly on the basis of perceived errors of the hierarchy but in reality based on the desire to change a large segment of the population's political/social views by changing the religion to which they unquestioningly, faithfully follow.  Catholic bashing, because of its views on homosexuality, women in the Church, sexual abuse by priests, etc…. has become sport in this country, even from Catholics themselves.

Yet, even those Catholics who attack the Catholic Church from within are hesitant to take issue with a religion that espouses not only the hierarchical views on social issues that they so despise, but advocates violence to spread its ultra conservative views.  Something’s wrong with that picture.
ed gleason
8 years 5 months ago
Michael B. You must have missed the main thread.. it's about the 'right' taking cheap shots at Muslims wanting to build a center in downtown Manhattan. "Something’s wrong with that picture.' ????The wrong picture is the 'rightwing' disrespecting 1.5 billion Muslims for temporary political gain.

8 years 5 months ago
@EdG - Oh, I saw the thread.  My point is that the "left," even Catholics, are happy to criticize the Catholic Church, but will bend over backwards to accomodate the Muslims; they're hypocritical, on the one hand defending an ultra-conservative religion and on the other hand attacking their own religion because of its conservativeness. 

At least the "right" is consistent in protecting its own conservative institutions, such as the Catholic Church, and attacking that religion which seeks to destroy the Church and advocates violence.


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