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Denzel Musumba

Denzel Musumba


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GROUND ZERO MOSQUE. The phrase sums up a controversy in terms so vivid and concise that neither journalists nor water cooler pundits can resist using them. Even if you put the words in quotation marks, on paper or in the air, the powerful combination works its magic. Of course, the phrase is also inaccurate and misleading. But how much does that constrain us when a phrase is so catchy and touches such a resonant emotional cord? Several months ago, the idea of an Islamic center at the site of a Burlington Coat Factory store in lower Manhattan emerged as both an urban renewal plan and a local issue in New York. The storefront to be replaced is two blocks from where the World Trade Center towers stood on Sept. 11, 2001. The new center would be one block closer to ground zero than the Masjid Manhattan, an existing mosque. Given the basic facts, the story received local attention in New York and popped up on some talk shows. There were questions about the appropriateness of the site, but the discussion was muted and localized. There were objections from some families of 9/11 victims, expressions of support from others. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other local officials were on board for the building, which would have multiple functions, including a gym and a prayer space that would function as a mosque. There would be a governing board with non-Muslims on it. Not a few conservatives shared the opinion that the location offered a perfect contrast between American religious freedom and the benighted intolerance of the Taliban. But then we moved into election season. It's a pushback year and Republicans are on the march. For candidates competing for the "more conservative" label, the chance to exhume the ghosts of 9/11 was too good to pass up. Of course, the actual facts of the case were somewhat complicated. But the need to explain the case was obliterated by the emergence of the perfect phrase: Ground Zero Mosque.