A Mosque by Any Other Name

It has perhaps been the most divisive issue of this year, more so than healthcare, soldiers in Iraq, or any tax increase. The plans by Sharif el-Gamal to build an Islamic community center two blocks away from the site of the 9/11 attacks in Lower Manhattan has grown from a local issue into an international controversy. Although the arguments and debates surrounding this issue have ranged from the constitutionality of the building to calls for an investigation of the center’s funding, the most telling aspect of this ordeal has been the way that this center has been portrayed by the talking heads in the media to the general public.

Some, in fact, may be confused by the term “Islamic community center,” as it is more generally known as “The Ground Zero Mosque.” In headlines by Newsweek (on its cover), the Associated Press, the New York Times, and CNN, the project has been identified as a mosque as opposed to a “community center.” In the many rallies and protests that have taken place in New York City, the signs of the picketers more frequently display messages about a mosque with little mention of a community center. Digging deeper into this pattern of characterization, what becomes clear is that there is a negative connotation that the word “mosque” holds in our language today, and that the media has been using this to sensationalize this story.

But is it really sensationalism if this building will in fact be a mosque? It’s true that the definition of a mosque is very general, defined by Merriam Webster as “a building used for public worship by Muslims,” but it is also true that the media and opponents of this project have for some reason neglected to acknowledge the rest of the offerings of this center. Few of the headlines have told the story of the pool that will be a part of the center, or the gym, or the offices, or even the performing arts center. Even fewer have mentioned that part of the building will be used as a public memorial to honor those killed on 9/11. For a site that will serve all of these functions, the label of a “community center” is far more apt but has seen far less ink. The notion that this discrepancy in nomenclature is simply a subjective observation is false as well. Conducting a Google search of different terms used around this issue brought back over 41 million results for “Ground Zero Mosque,” with only five million hits for “Ground Zero Islamic center.” The title “Ground Zero Islamic cultural center” brought back less than 700,000 results.

It may be easy to brush off these differences for the fact that “mosque” is shorter than the above iterations, but in fact calling this site simply a “mosque” is grossly lacking in description and adds to confusion. In a nation where only 37 percent of the population personally know a Muslim, one would think that the term “prayer room” could convey the notion more clearly, and yet “mosque” persists.

The hardest name to find within all of these descriptions is Park51, the actual title of the proposed community center. While the list of names and titles that Park51 has received starts to become hazy, the constant use of “mosque” makes two problems painfully clear.  The first is that to the American public, the word “mosque” is still a loaded word stemming from Islamophobia, one that makes us more uneasy than the words “Islamic center.” Like all things that we know little about, we become unreasonably suspicious, and that “mosque” combines the unknown with religion makes it that much more provocative.

Furthermore, following the rest of the news makes it even more clear that the real issue is that a mosque is being built at all, not its proximity to Ground Zero: mosques all over the country have faced road blocks and discrimination, from next door in Boston to Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

The second, and more disturbing, aspect of this saga is that the media have picked up on and exploited the fact that “mosque” draws our eyes more than anything else. To gain readers, web traffic, and discussion, the more accurate “community center” label has been discarded for the irrationally indecent “mosque” over and over again. While calling this center a mosque is technically correct, its prevalence manifests the desire to generate caution and alarm from an unjustifiably loaded term.  In an interview with CBS news, Sharif el-Gamal voiced his hopes that Park51 be, “universally known as a hub of culture, a hub of coexistence, a hub of bringing people together.” So far, what this center is being known as is creating more problems rather than anything it actually aims to do. As the rallies and protest continues two blocks from Ground Zero, one must wonder how many of the opponents would have been fine with a community center, but not okay with a mosque.

Marcel E. Moran ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Eliot House.

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