Ground Zero, the Mosque, and the Sacred
Robert Nisbet, the noted American sociologist from the last century, identified a set of sociological ideas that couldn’t directly be derived from the other social sciences and therefore defined sociology as a distinct discipline. One such idea was that of “the sacred”. As is true of most basic sociological concepts (as identified by Nisbet and others before and after) creating a concise, ironclad definition of the sacred not easy. But dismissing the sacred because it is hard to define will lead to serious misunderstandings about how humans and their societies interact, usually while irritating (or worse) a whole bunch of people in the process.
Charles Krauthammer did a very good job of establishing a sense of the sacred in his recent op-ed the Cordoba Initiative mosque planned for Ground Zero in New York City…
A place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz).The key point is that it is important to recognize Ground Zero as someplace sacred, and not just something historical, because the rules for interacting with the sacred are not the same for interacting with the secular, and because both natures are presently involved in the contentions over the Cordoba Initiative mosque.
When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there — and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized, or misappropriated.
For that which is secular, people and organizations can apply wholly rational ideas, e.g. fairness, efficiency, process-based decisioning etc., to resolve discordant pressures for change. But where the sacred is involved, attitudes are fundamentally different. There is an inclination against subjecting what is held sacred to outside pressures — especially when those pressures originate with non-sacred sources. This doesn’t mean that the sacred brooks no change at all, but that the mechanisms for change must make sense to the sacred on its own terms.
Many advocates for the Ground Zero Mosque are ignoring this dynamic. As a result, they are presenting arguments for building the mosque in ways that are deeply unsatisfying, even to those who may not view the Mosque as an intentional affront. Whether they realize it or not, arguing that the “right to build” defines the extent of the issue is to argue that Ground Zero has no more meaning than a flood plain, or a building code, or other such secular things that are considered when deciding to build any run-of-the-mill physical structure. Even worse, supposedly content-neutral process-oriented arguments about the right-to-build are being used to reach a conclusion that elevates one manifestation of the sacred (the Cordoba Initiative mosque) a little bit over another (Ground Zero).
Using secular process to prioritize the sacred is rarely a wise course of action, and taking one instance of the sacred and intertwining it with some secular rules to over-run another instance of the sacred is an exceedingly poor start for a mission of peaceful outreach — especially when the idea of the sacred being devalued is one that is held by the people you are trying to reach. It is certainly not a strategy guaranteed to win more converts than it alienates, and it will awaken the possibility in some minds that fundamentally incompatible ideas about what is sacred may be clashing.
Laying out the problem in this way suggests two possible constructive ways forward. One way is to reduce as much as possible the secular arbitration of the final outcome, to remove secular forces from the position they should not be in of choosing which version of the sacred should trump another. Both mosque proponents and opponents need to say that, regardless of what the law allows, they are going to sit down together and find the common ground. This would cut both ways, e.g. denying the right to build a mosque on some lame preservation grounds would be as bad as insisting that the legal right to build a mosque ends any necessary discussion. I am not suggesting that this would lead to a quick resolution.
The other way forward would be to show people that the practices and principles that favor support of the building a mosque at Ground Zero are themselves manifestations of something sacred. Is that too much of a stretch? It may very well be — if all that is left of freedom of religion in America is a belief that every religious organization must follow identical procedures when interacting with the surrounding society. If, on the other hand, American-style freedom of religion means something more, something intended to enhance a set of sacred-in-their-own-right practices about liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and meant to allow people living here together to be able to get closer to some common conceptions that we all can accept as sacred, then there might be some room for productive discussion in this vein.
Either way, it seems that if the Cordoba Initiative is sincere, the immediate goal shouldn’t be building a mosque at Ground Zero, but instead building an environment, where building their mosque near Ground Zero isn’t controversial, through interacting and respecting what the society around them holds sacred. The wonderful thing about the sacred is that advancing it and building it up doesn’t have to depend on building a physical structure.
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