*The Mosque at ‘Hallowed’ Ground, Part II: Some Notes on the Politics of Place & Name

One of the most notable elements in the public discourse on the proposed Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, which is conceived as a multistory building of which the mosque will constitute one part, is the extraordinary and troublesome ease with which it came to be characterized as the “Ground Zero Mosque”.   The association of ‘mosque’ with ‘ground zero’ informs all arguments emanating from those who have voiced their opposition to this project, just as it becomes the pretext for rendering this ‘Ground Zero’ as “hallowed” ground.  Some supporters of the project, and even those who might profess indifference to the entire controversy, have observed quite rightly that the Islamic center and mosque is in fact two city blocks away from ‘Ground Zero’.  But such an argument presupposes that opponents of the proposed Islamic Center are interested in, and willing to be persuaded by, facts.  If one were interested in facts, one could point to many more that are pertinent to this discussion:  at least two churches – St. Paul’s Chapel, which dates to 1766, and the Church of St. Peter, in what is described as “New York’s oldest parish” — exist in closer proximity to ‘Ground Zero’ than the proposed mosque.  The supposition that adherents of Islam wish to claim ‘Ground Zero’ solely for their own faith is nothing short of preposterous.  But none of this is very germane, since such controversies are never at all about ‘facts’.

If the numerical table begins with zero, let us likewise also commence with ‘ground zero’ and the implications of rendering this as ‘hallowed ground’.  The term ‘ground zero’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “that part of the ground situated immediately under an exploding bomb, esp. an atomic one.”  The OED has traced the first occurrence of the phrase to an article appearing in the New York Times on 7 July 1946 (p. E10), wherein it was stated, apropos of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, that “the intense heat of the blast started fires as far as 3,500 feet from ground zero”; as a further illustration of how the phrase has been deployed, it points to the September 1955 of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:  “There was no noticeable contamination even at ground zero at Hiroshima.”  We can see that the OED’s stress on “esp[ecially] an atomic” bomb, to describe the impact on the ground situated directly underneath an exploding bomb, is not misplaced.  Now, within hours of the attack upon the Twin Towers, the phrase ‘ground zero’ began to be used by American reporters:  the intent, it is reasonable to infer, was to suggest that that the destruction of the World Trade Center (and a portion of the Pentagon) was America’s Hiroshima (and Nagasaki).

It is precisely this sleight of hand, this tacit attempt to draw a parallelism between the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the one hand, and the terrorist attacks upon some of the most iconic structures of the American landscape, that must be decisively repudiated – and, at the same time, affirmed for very different reasons than those which are summoned by those who speak of the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’.  The parallelism is gravely suspect, and not merely for the reason, if at all that is a reason, considering that the loss of one innocent life is too excessive a loss, that the 3,000 odd victims of the September 11 bombings are a much smaller number than the more than 200,000 dead from the atomic bombings:  more importantly, unlike the attacks of the September 11 suicide bombers, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were authorized by the President of the United States.  The wanton destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an act of state; the same cannot be said of the September 11 attacks.  If, further, we are to identify the suicide bombers of September 11 as Muslims, as everyone has so effortlessly done so, even if it might be with the implicit encouragement of the terrorists themselves, should we not also identify Truman and the members of his war cabinet as Christians?  And, so, let us concede that the attacks of September 11 also call to mind the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:  if the atomic bombs forever altered warfare, ushering in an altogether different register of the mind at war and bringing forth a new conception of terror, we might well say that the September 11 attacks have similarly necessitated a radical rethinking of the conditions under which war might be waged.  Let those who seek to sanctify ‘Ground Zero’ also understand that the terrorism of the atomic bombings is the underpinning of all modern forms of terror.

Even as the controversy over the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ continues, many Americans have begun to describe ‘Ground Zero’, where the Twin Towers stood and then collapsed, as “hallowed ground”.  Obama himself sanctified this usage when, in the White House iftar dinner last week, he declared: “I understand the emotions that this issue engenders.  Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”   Some Americans, at least, will at once recognize the hallowed provenance of “hallowed”, as it calls to mind the address, “short, short, short” (in the author’s words), delivered by Lincoln at the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on 19 November 1863.  The north and the south were in the grip of “a great civil war”, proclaimed Lincoln, “testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”  Let us leave aside, so that we can get to the notion of “hallowed ground”, the obvious temptation to probe whether some American commentators are not convinced that the United States today is similarly faced with a test of endurance:  if the likes of the grunting troglodytes on the right are to be believed, America’s future is jeopardized both by enemies from within (so-called liberals and leftists, whatever these anodyne terms mean in the US) and from without (Muslims).  Here is what Lincoln was moved to say:  “We are met here on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.  But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Thus, to render Ground Zero as “hallowed ground” is at once to lay claim to the legacy of Lincoln, the most hallowed figure in American history, and to render the space of Ground Zero as ‘sacred’.  Lincoln significantly abjures the idea that the ground can be rendered hallow:  “But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground.”  It is human sacrifice that consecrates a ground as sacred, and what is sacred is a form of being rather than a form of becoming.  For the present purposes, though, it suffices to note that the opponents of the proposed Islamic Center are firmly attached to the idea that ‘Ground Zero’ is sacred space and that the construction of the mosque would desacralize this space.  If it is sacred, then it is sacred for a religion, or – as is the case with some religious sites or cities, such as Jerusalem — sacred for several (but not all) religions.  Yet, what makes ‘Ground Zero’ sui generis as a sacred site, if at all it is sacred in the same way that Gettysburg is hallowed ground, is that the adherents of perhaps all the faiths — and certainly Muslims — were present in the Twin Towers, and we know as well that more Muslims have paid for those bombings than the practitioners of any other faith.  Those who would deny Muslims an Islamic Center on ‘Ground Zero’, on the grounds that it is sacred space, have thus arrived at a conception of the sacred that has no room for the Muslim at all.  That opens further the doors of the Islamophobia that has already crept upon the United States.

See also Part I, The Controversy and the Meaning of ‘America’


Part III (forthcoming):   Islamophobia and the new Anti-Semitism in the US