One requirement for a reasonable debate is to define the terms being used. The emotional dispute over the planned Cordoba House in New York, in which supporters and opponents are struggling over how to even describe it, is a case in point. Will the boxy modern building that developers have presented and local zoning boards have accepted be a Muslim cultural centre including a mosque? Or, as critics allege, a “Ground Zero mosque”, a term that evokes visions of domes and minarets rising over the ruins of the World Trade Center. The facts speak for the first option, which is why we have chosen it for our description of this project.
A new element of confusion has entered the debate with calls for a compromise in this dispute. New York Governor David Patterson started this last week, saying that moving the project away from its proposed location would be a “a magic moment in our history” and offering state help to find a new site. He bemoaned the emotional level of the debate on Tuesday: “People can’t hear each other anymore … I find it heart-wrenching. I hate to see New Yorkers squaring off against each other.”
New York’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan unexpectedly stepped in to welcome Paterson’s proposal and offer his services as a mediator. He first seemed to support the call for moving the project, but some media thought that seemed less clear after he met Paterson on Tuesday. No matter how sincere their intentions are, their effort to find common ground here is fraught with complications. A central problem, the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal in New York argued, is that “calls for the Muslim organizers to change their plans out of ‘sensitivity,’ however well-meaning, would allow the prejudices of some to define the terms of freedom for others.”
What would a compromise look like and what would it solve? Even the project’s opponents (or at least most of them) say Muslims have the right to build mosques, just not near the World Trade Center site. The location is the core of their opposition. Project leaders insist they will build on the site. There doesn’t seem to be much room there for a compromise, which this online dictionary defines as “a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg tackled this issue in his comments at his annual Iftar dinner for Muslim New Yorkers in his official residence on Tuesday evening. In his comments, he repeated the eloquent support he gave the project in an earlier speech and then argued that a compromise would not solve the problem: