Don’t leave Cordoba reporting to pundits

NEW YORK - AUGUST 3: Linda Rivera holds up a sign in protest of a mosque construction near Ground Zero during NYC's Landmarks Commission vote over 45-47 Park Place on August 03, 2010 in New York City. The commission voted to not grant landmark status to the building, clearing the way for the property to be converted into a mosque and community center.  (Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images)

We could probably spend weeks looking at the media coverage of the mosque proposed to be built near Ground Zero. One of the things I find so interesting about this story is how so much of the reporting on the mosque and its backers is being done by non-traditional media. And many of the mainstream reports seem less interested in that aspect of the story than looking at the opposition to the mosque. It creates a weird media climate where the best news and analysis comes from blogs and pundits and, well, the worst treatment and analysis comes from blogs and pundits.

And there hasn’t been a lot of nuance. You basically have one side claiming that those who support the mosque are surrendering the country to radical Islam and the other side claiming that those who oppose the mosque are xenophobic bigots. These approaches aren’t just uncharitable, they’re also a surefire way to avoid understanding contrary positions. Both sides could use a lot more information — straight up news — to move toward greater unity. And both sides could keep in mind that this controversy is being fought at multiple levels. There’s the issue of legality — not just in terms of First Amendment protections but plain old real estate law. And then there’s the issue of whether Cordoba’s branding as the Ground Zero Mosque, the choice of location, etc., is a good or bad thing for relations with Islam. Sometimes these issues overlap and sometimes they don’t. The media haven’t done a great job of keeping these issues distinct and it’s led to weaknesses in coverage. One notable exception? Crain’s New York said part of the debate is over “whether building the Islamic center is ‘a right’ or ‘the right thing to do.’

Let’s just look at a few approaches and think about what else the media could do to provide greater information. Time ran an “article” by Ishaan Tharoor, who says he’s a “writer/reporter” there. It reads like an op-ed but it’s not billed as such. Anyway, here’s how he puts the conflict:

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans,” [Mayor Mike] Bloomberg said in a speech that day. “We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.”

Bloomberg’s predecessor didn’t agree. The former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, claimed that the project, which is partially intended to be an interfaith community center, would be a “desecration,” adding that “decent” Muslims ought not object to his opinion. Other GOP politicians and talking heads who have far less to do with the events of 9/11 — or, for that matter, New York — have joined the chorus, arguing in some instances that a mosque near Ground Zero would be a monument to terrorists.

Such Islamophobia is unsurprising in the post-Cold War age of al-Qaeda and sleeper cells.

So to sum up — Bloomberg “says” things while Guiliani only “claims” things. And that some Muslims might agree with Guiliani is just patently absurd. Also, you’re only allowed to have an opinion if you were mayor of New York City or a victim of 9/11 apparently. And that’s before we get to the part where opposition to a mosque being build near Ground Zero is asserted to be the product of an ‘irrational fear of Islam.’

Sigh.

The Washington Post ran a powerful op-ed from Neda Bolourchi, a Muslim woman whose mother was killed by Muslim extremists when they commandeered passenger aircraft and crashed them into the World Trade Center Towers. And guess what? She’s with Guiliani:

Though I have nothing but contempt for the fanaticism that propelled the terrorists to carry out their murderous attacks on Sept. 11, I still have great respect for the faith. Yet, I worry that the construction of the Cordoba House Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center site would not promote tolerance or understanding; I fear it would become a symbol of victory for militant Muslims around the world. …

I do not like harboring resentment or anger, but I do not want the death of my mother — my best friend, my hero, my strength, my love — to become even more politicized than it already is. To the supporters of this new Islamic cultural center, I must ask: Build your ideological monument somewhere else, far from my mother’s grave, and let her rest.

The piece is very powerfully written and Bolourchi doesn’t hide from some of the religious issues while she makes her impassioned plea. It was a great idea for an op-ed and a good idea for the Post to run it. Last week when we looked at coverage of the Anti-Defamation League’s opposition to Cordoba, religion reporter Bob Smietana asked why we weren’t seeing more voices of family members of Muslim victims. Bolourchi’s is a start but it would be nice to see people like her featured in an actual news story!

And what I’d really like to see is more reportage to get at the issue Tharoor dismisses and Bolourchi raises. Will this site become a symbol of victory for militant Muslims around the world? Here’s another op-ed, written by Muslims, that says it is meant to be a deliberate provocation. How about some coverage of that view — and competing ones — in the mainstream media?

It brings up another area that is ripe for exploration — is Islam in America really as monolithic as the mainstream media present it? Of course not. So let’s assume that the folks behind this project are as peace-loving as your average Iowa Mennonite. I’d still like a better idea of who they are and what their theology is. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in that outside of columns such as this one by Forbes‘ Claudia Rosett. Asserting that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is moderate doesn’t really satisfy the great number of questions interested people have about him and everyone else involved with financing and directing this project. Since there is a debate on the matter — other people are concerned by some of his positions and ties — more reportage is needed. Might even sell some papers.

Print Friendly

  • BC

    I think your focus is a little myopic here–as if this one mosque is the only one that is controversial.

    I think a recent NYT article provides critical context–showing that opposition to building of mosques is widespread, that opponents initially used the sorts of arguments that have been used against the Cordoba project, but now voice very clear anti-Muslim prejudice.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/us/08mosque.html?_r=3&hp

    This is the problem of reporting on the issue–it takes this as an isolated incident. It isn’t.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    BC,

    I will have a piece up about the NYT article tomorrow, but in fact the opposition the Ground Zero mosque has is unique.

    You don’t see the ADL or Wiesenthal Center coming out against any other mosques. You don’t see national politicians coming out against other mosque projects. You don’t see Rudy Guiliani concerned about any other mosque. You don’t see Muslims criticizing other mosque projects.

    There are some concerns over mosques that are more widespread — and the news out of Germany today that it shut down a mosque because it was the “main center of attraction for the jihad scene” will probably only highlight those shared concerns even more. But Cordoba should be treated as a unique project even while those concerns are covered.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The other issue that needs mainstream, factual, reporting is the issue of the funding of many of the mosques across the nation. How much Saudi money is involved these days? Will the imams selected to lead these mosques represent the views of the mainstream Muslims in those communities or the views of the funders?

    Again, there are facts on the ground to report about the projects. Let’s investigate the facts with the vigor that reporters would focus on, oh, a chain of community center/worship centers being build across the nation with money from, oh, Pat Robertson’s trust funds — with Robertson getting to name the pastors.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Crain’s New York said part of the debate is over “whether building the Islamic center is ‘a right’ or ‘the right thing to do.’

    But… if it’s ‘a right’, then the law has nothing to say about whether it’s ‘the right thing to do’. One blogger who I think has covered the legal arguments pretty well is here:

    http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2010/08/adl_blows_it_on_manhattan_mosq.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2010/08/pointless_lawsuit_to_be_filed.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2010/08/manhattan_mosque_approved_agai.php

    That’s not to say people can’t disapprove or protest. But ‘freedom of religion’ protects even unpopular religions, or it doesn’t protect anything.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Ray,

    The point is that there are two separate debates. One involves the legality. One involves the propriety. The confused coverage of ADL’s stance (that there may be a legal right but that it’s not the right thing to do) illustrates the importance of understanding this distinction. Each debate involves completely different issues. The first deals with one First Amendment freedom (religion). The second deals with another (speech).

    The legal arguments have been covered pretty well, actually. And that’s a good thing. It’s the other arguments that haven’t been well covered.

  • Jeffrey

    The second deals with another (speech)

    I’m confused. Whose “speech” are you talking about? The speech of those opposed to the center because it isn’t “the right thing to do” (which is essentially the drumbeat in most of the links you included in your post). I’d argue that there has been a lot of coverage of those who oppose the mosque, but little coverage explaining why those who are supporting the mosque want it.

    I’d also argue the “speech” about religious liberty is both legal and “the right thing to do” coverage. If you are concerned about religious liberty and the oppression of minority religions, that’s a “the right thing to do” conversation

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Whether you are voicing support for the mosque or voicing a desire that it be built elsewhere, that’s utilizing a First Amendment freedom.

    I thought coverage of Bloomberg’s passionate speech, for instance, was well done. Although I would have liked someone to note that Bloomberg isn’t usually so strong on property rights, a pet issue of mine. The other side? Eh, not so much. But this can all be improved.

  • Dave

    Cordoba, afaik, is being built with ecumenical intent as to how it’s used. That’s inconsistent, from the viewpoint of the jihadis, with it being a victory marker for jihadists.

    Some journalists, I’m sure, have at least sporadic contact with jihadis. They should check this point out with them.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Mollie –

    The point is that there are two separate debates. One involves the legality. One involves the propriety.

    I’m confused, then. The headline exhorts, “Don’t leave Cordoba reporting to pundits”. You say that “The legal arguments have been covered pretty well, actually”.

    But who in journalism would address ‘propriety’ except pundits?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Ray,

    See, I’d love some discussion on propriety in mainstream news. When pundits do it, it’s very one-sided and has a particular aim in mind — either we’re supposed to believe the only right way to think is that this center will build bridges between religions or that the only right way to think is that this will be a symbol of victory for militant Muslims across the world (to give just two of the arguments).

    When pundits advance these arguments, they don’t also challenge them or get a real dialogue going. That can happen in a mainstream report. I’d like to see a better presentation of the variety of views, or some greater exploration of even just the pro or con arguments. Mainstream journalists can quote the pundits but also quote other interested parties, researchers, militants, etc.

    So, for instance, I’m seeing reportage on blogs about how the funding for this center is questionable and hits at the propriety issue. Let’s get a reporter with some resources on the case to help the average reader understand more about the funding, what is or is not questionable, where it’s coming from, what it means if it’s coming from, say, Saudia Arabia (including arguments that support such funding and oppose such funding), etc.

    I do appreciate how much reporting is going on in the blogosphere, but it seems odd that we’re not seeing more of such reporting in the big dailies.

  • Jerry

    but it seems odd that we’re not seeing more of such reporting in the big dailies.

    That’s an interesting question. Is it truly odd or just the way things are going with this issue being a forerunner of what is to come? Or maybe the media is in such a state of fear that they won’t report this issue because they will offend many with honest reporting?

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Interesting that Bolourchi doesn’t want any religious buildings at Ground Zero:

    From the first memorial ceremonies I attended at Ground Zero, I have always been moved by the site; it means something to be close to where my mother may be buried, it brings some peace. That is why the prospect of a mosque near Ground Zero — or a church or a synagogue or any religious or nationalistic monument or symbol — troubles me.

    Would she then oppose rebuilding St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which is at Ground Zero was was destroyed by the falling South Tower.

    The fate of St. Nicholas shows why calling this a Ground Zero Mosque isn’t factual. St. Nicholas was destroyed at Ground Zero and has yet to be rebuilt, because of complications in rebuilding on that site. The Park Place site has none of issues that St. Nicholas faces, because its not on the Ground Zero site.

    Also, why has there been no outcry over the news that Conde Nast will relocate to the new building being put up at Ground Zero — isn’t that supposed to be sacred ground?

  • Mollie

    Bob,
    As has been mentioned previously, the branding of the mosque as the Ground Zero mosque was done by the group behind it, not by its opponents. The group did say years ago that they chose the site precisely because of its proximity to Ground Zero and because a piece of the wreckage fell into the building.

  • Mollie

    Bob,

    I find it extremely hard to believe that you have such trouble understanding opponents’ arguments here. Your comment about Conde Nast suggests an inability to grasp their argument.

    I gather — having read your op-ed on the matter last week — that you have a particular viewpoint here, but I would hope that if you reported on the issue, you’d do a better job of playing fair with their arguments.

  • Chip Smith

    As has been mentioned previously, the branding of the mosque as the Ground Zero mosque was done by the group behind it, not by its opponents. The group did say years ago that they chose the site precisely because of its proximity to Ground Zero and because a piece of the wreckage fell into the building.

    Saying that they wanted to build close to the Ground Zero site is not the same thing as branding it the “Ground Zero” mosque. Have they actually branded their cultural center the “Ground Zero Cultural Center?”

    If they could have only found a property 4 blocks away, would that be okay with those worried about a “Ground Zero” mosque? What about 10 blocks? Your assertion here and in your previous post’s comments section about there being no difference between the actual Ground Zero site and a site 2 NYC blocks away does not make much sense to me. It seems that whether or not the mosque will be built on the site or 2 blocks away from the site is rather important to the question of propriety.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Mollie:

    Chip is right– they labeled this project Cordoba House– not “Ground Zero mosque.” No one disputes that they wanted to be near Ground Zero. But near Ground Zero and at Ground Zero are two different things. This is where factual reporting comes into play.

    Not sure what op-ed you’re referring to ask I don’t write op-eds, I report.

    The Conde Nast story is another fact that comes into play.
    The argument against the mosque is, in essence, that it desecrates the holy ground of the former WTC site. So why are opponents silent about Conde Nast–publishers of Vogue and Vanity Fair and Vegas Chatter–which ran a recent story about what Vegas hotels are good sites for swinging and making sex tapes. Isn’t this desecration as well.

    The other argument–that Muslims always raze the temples and churches of their foes and build mosques as an act of Jihad (which has been used to oppose mosques here in TN)–again facts are an issue. When mosque opponents claim that Muslims knocked down the Temple in Jerusalem –that’s a problem.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Beyond the legal or constitutional issues there is the issue of simple appropriateness. And there is a recent example on the historical record as an example.
    A few years ago a group of Carmelite nuns wanted to build a monastery next to Auschwitz to pray for both Jews and Christians slaughtered there. But there was strong, heartfelt feelings among many Jews that there should not be a sort of religious shrine at that horrible place.
    Pope John Paul II listened and soon, out of a compassionate regard, ordered the nuns to move elsewhere.
    I read or listen to a lot of news sites, but only heard this case quickly alluded to twice.
    Under the circumstances, that the Islamic Community seems so determined to build this mosque betrays a callous disregard for the feelings of those outside their community. And that is the real story that needs to be explored.

  • Tim J.

    There’s a nice little mine for reporters to step on right there in the name “Cordoba House.” How do they explain the origin of the name? You could, for example, say “Cordoba was the one of the leading cultural and economic centers of both the Mediterranean and Islamic world, and was home to a diverse population of Muslims, Christians, and Jews.” You could, with equal accuracy, say “Cordoba was the seat of the Islamic Caliphate during their deepest incursion into Europe.”

    I think we can safely say that any reports in the MSM will be of the first form.

  • Hat_Y

    Tim,
    If you want to know the meaning behind the name “Cordoba House”, then you should look at the founders of “Cordoba House”, because they named it.

    I think we can safely say that the MSM shouldn’t determine the meaning behind names on their own.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    I am waiting to see who is financing it myself.

    If local Muslims need a mosque, and that group was raising money to establish a mosque and community center, I say fine.

    But if it is essentially outside Middle Eastern “charity” money,(including charities that fund terrorism in some countries) and they plan to place one of their narrow minded Wahabi sect immans there, to proselytize the local Muslims into radical Islam, then I worry.

    Who will attend the mosque? are Shias welcome? Most Arabs in the US are Christian, and most Muslims in the US are not Arab, but no one is asking questions about what do local Muslims think…

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie
  • Julia

    I think we can safely say that the MSM shouldn’t determine the meaning behind names on their own.

    But the MSM can surely report on how people around the world are going to react to that name.

  • http://newmedianewmexico.blogspot.com/ Mustafa Stefan Dill

    Really interesting piece, and altogether a fascinating blog; glad I discovered it!

    It brings up another area that is ripe for exploration — is Islam in America really as monolithic as the mainstream media present it? Of course not.

    If you haven’t looked at it already, check out Akbar Ahmed’s recent book Journey into ‘America: The Challenge of Islam’.

    Ambassador Ahmed and his team visited 100 mosques across America, chronicling the issues of identity, integration and cohesion in Muslim America. Would love to have your team’s take on this.

    Last week when we looked at coverage of the Anti-Defamation League’s opposition to Cordoba, religion reporter Bob Smietana asked why we weren’t seeing more voices of family members of Muslim victims. Bolourchi’s is a start but it would be nice to see people like her featured in an actual news story!

    Agreed. Muslim organizations are generally fairly poor at PR, and at getting their story effectively out. Cordoba and Park 51 organizers should have anticipated this and should have had several stories and compelling accounts from family members of Sept. 11 Muslim victims on hand, even if a few of them are opposed to the project. I saw a similar failure after Ft. Hood, where you had to dig deep for stories of Muslims who have given years of service or even their lives in the American military defending this country.

    Part of the problem is the ummah as a whole is generally reticent and insular, and (to quote my own comment left on another blog) we don’t really engage with our non-Muslim neighbor. Muslims need to get on school boards, the PTA, neighborhood associations, run for city council, get on the chamber of commerce, invite a neighbor to dinner, lend him a lawn mower when he needs it, do some civic engagement so that bit by bit we’re known primarily as an engaged and active concerned citizen first, and Muslims second.

    Muslims are feared because we don’t take the responsibility to let them know any other kind of Muslim other than what makes the news.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I can not accept the assertion that the issue is “unique” unless you can point to any occasion when any of the “build it somewhere else” objectors have said anything like “Oh, yes, the Staten Island project is completely different.” Cathy Young notes

    Worse, while opposition to the Cordoba House has focused on its controversial location, the proposed construction of mosques and Islamic community centers thousands of miles away has also sparked an ugly hysteria…This is bigotry, pure and simple. And none of the leading foes of the “Ground Zero mosque” have denounced it.

    Also, the “you have no right to an opinion because you didn’t suffer” argument is invoked by opponents too.

    Another complaint I have is that the attitude of “the families” keeps getting depicted as monolithic in opposition. This is false, as ABC News fleetingly acknowledged the other night.

    (And how will someone know that he “sees a mosque” unless someone tells him? If the answer is “Arabic signage”, then any building with Hebrew signage becomes a “synagogue”.)

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    P.S. Anyone who is tormented by “seeing a mosque” had better not check into Jamaica Hospital. Every time I have been there I had a window view of the al-Khoei Center.

  • Petal

    Perfact site and good reasoning for the mosque to be built,like or not in 15 to 20 years time USA will have 30 to 40% of its citizans Muslims,so more and more centers like tis will be needed as some of the old churches may also be converted as they have been in France and UK.