PORTLAND — The controversy over the proposed mosque near ground zero has generated some unfortunate anti-Muslim commentary from people who know little about Islam, as well as some unseemly moral preening by mayors and presidents, who seem to think that reciting pieties about toleration and religious freedom adequately responds to a complex and troubling conundrum.

But there are different kinds of mosques, both as to function and to architecture. Some are simple structures where devotional activities take place, and sometimes nonreligious communal functions as well. Others are built on a grand scale and for a rather different purpose.

In ancient times as well as today, placing large and imposing mosques in strategic locations has been a means of making an aggressive statement about Islam to the onlooker. (The same could, of course, be said of some Christian cathedrals.)

Two contemporary examples: Go to Gibraltar, to the westernmost point, where looking due west takes you across the Atlantic toward North America, while to your back is the Mediterranean, and what you will see is a big, bright and shiny new mosque.

It was not built for the religious needs of the very small number of Muslim inhabitants of that sparsely populated peninsula. And it certainly was not built by them. That imposing and expensive structure was built (most likely by Saudi money) to make this announcement to the world: The Mediterranean Sea, of which this is the portal, is an Islamic lake.

A second example: In London there is an active project, not yet built but well along in the planning stage, to build a massive mosque that will dominate the London skyline, far overshadowing St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Now, there is no shortage of mosques in London – there are many dozens of them, including some very big ones.

Targeted for completion by the start of the 2012 Olympic Games, this project’s foreign backers have a blatantly political objective. It is an aggressive, confrontational, triumphalist and in-your-face declaration that Islam is on the way to taking over in England’s capital. It remains to be seen whether Londoners will allow this audacious visual intrusion into their historical space to actually be built.

Turning to the New York proposal, we should ask which kind of mosque is contemplated.

Is it to be your friendly, neighborhood mosque-around-the-corner, serving the devotional needs of the Muslims in the immediate neighborhood?

Or is it to be the other kind, a large, dominating structure, aggressively forcing itself onto the attention of the onlooker?

What architectural style is it to be: ancient Middle Eastern, with dome and minaret, or something that will fit in naturally with the New York style? Is it meant to be a visual counterpoint to the planned ground zero memorial? If it’s just for the neighborhood, why does it have to be just down the street from ground zero?

We hear from those behind the project (or at least, those fronting for them) that it is also meant to be a study center, where American Muslims can engage with their fellow citizens and with those of our other religious traditions, as they work to integrate themselves into American ways.

That’s fine, but does it make sense to start off by a demonstration of gross insensitivity to the feelings of the great majority of Americans? Why does this operation have to be at this provocative location?

Several months ago, Ms. Daisy Khan, who, with her husband, has been cited by the press as responsible for this project, was here in Portland.

She gave a talk at the University of Southern Maine and spoke eloquently of the necessity for American Muslims to work to develop an American interpretation of Islam – particularly as regards to questions on the status of women in traditional Islamic practice.

She said nothing, however, about the New York project. We have a right to ask her and her husband to give a clear and transparent account of the source of its finances, both as to the proposed building and as to the ongoing financing of the supposed research institution.

If it should turn out that the money comes from those in the Saudi kingdom – in other words, money from the militantly expansionist Wahhabi movement – this is a matter of deep concern.

The Wahhabi do not do ecumenical forms of outreach. And some of the material they deploy in their extremely aggressive persuasive effort is poisonous.

I leave open whether this project should proceed or not. But I do urge that the questions of its location, financing and of its control and direction cry out for answers.

Presidents, mayors and ordinary concerned citizens like ourselves all need a great deal more information about this matter before we begin to make sound judgments.


– Special to The Press Herald