Over the next two weeks, we will run several feature articles on the number and religious identity of Muslims in New York City. Our journey has taken us to many mosques and Muslim community centers.
The recent controversies over the plan to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero and to acquire and transform a Catholic site in Staten Island into a mosque shows how the life of New York City is best characterized as postsecular. Religion is playing an increasingly important role in people’s everyday lives, our politics, and how we symbolize who is New York City.
At the beginning of August New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made perhaps his most emotionally stirring speech on whom we are as a city. He ended with the ringing observation, “Political controversies come and go, but our values and traditions endure -- and there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God's love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us today can attest."
The controversy over the Muslim center near Ground Zero seems to be headed toward a compromise in which the city or state will help find an alternative site that is in lower Manhattan but further away from Ground Zero. While the imam is in the Middle East, his funders that are close to the United States may suggest that a compromise would be best. In the meantime a consensus is being built here around the shift of locations. Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s offer to conciliate the controversy is a move among religious leaders to find a way out that honors the central role of faith and religious liberty in the city and the sensitivities of a city still hurting from the 911 attacks.
The proponents of the compromise say that it will take away the possibility that the Muslim community center would be a constant reminder of division and conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. Rather, a Muslim endorsed compromise would state unequivocally that Muslim Americans are real partners with an interest inbuilding our city community. The city’s and state’s contribution to the settlement would reinforce Bloomberg’s policy that religion has an integral role in the city’s future well-being.
During our journey, we have asked ministers and lay about what they thought about the controversy. A typical answer was like the one we received from a Pentecostal youth pastor in Flatbush, Brooklyn, "I don't know what to think. On the one hand, I think we need freedom of religion. On the other hand, the idea that the Muslims would found a center next to Ground Zero makes me uneasy. I worry about their endorsement of sharia law [Muslim law] for the city."
We have found that the vast majority of neighborhood religious leaders are waiting for our city leaders to show the way to settle the controversy. We will see if the "grand compromise over the ground zero mosque" succeeds in providing the leadership that the city needs or if some other solution is needed.