The Imam at Ground Zero

The debate over the mosque at Ground Zero and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is of particular interest to me. I know Imam Rauf. Five years ago, he and I were participants in an interfaith dialogue event that took place in Rome. I spoke with him over the course of several days. I have read his book, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America. In fact, he signed my copy with the inscription: “To Ron Rychlak, may God bond us in deepest spiritual kinship.”

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As a law professor, especially one who teaches Constitutional Law, I know that Rauf has the right to build his community center/mosque in any appropriately zoned area — so he legally can build it at the location in question. Of course, if it is located at Ground Zero, it will be inextricably tied to terrorism that was motivated by Islamic extremism. It may even seem like a triumphant crowning on behalf of the terrorists. That means it will always be a point of controversy and division.

Controversy surrounding the Cordoba House will limit its ability to serve as a legitimate place of peace and worship. There will always be protesters and others who want to undermine the objectives of a true religious/civic center. That should cause Rauf to carefully consider his options at this point.

Moreover, the rhetoric that is being thrown around on the internet and elsewhere will continue if the center is built. That kind of speech not only stirs up anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States, it also gives the terrorists motivation to carry out their attacks. As such, we all have incentive to set this issue aside. That can only happen if the project is stopped.

I do not think that Rauf has bad intentions; he struck me as a nice and thoughtful man when I met him in 2005 (though I am concerned about early accounts regarding the developer behind the project). The mosque that Rauf oversaw back then was only 12 blocks from Ground Zero. He’s not moving into an entirely foreign area and trying to claim victory with this new project. Still, he has to understand the feelings of others.


Boston Globe columnist James Carroll wrote a book about the Carmelite nuns who opened a convent near Auschwitz and erected a large cross, marking the site where so many innocent Jews — but also non-Jewish political prisoners, including Catholic priests — were murdered by the Nazis. In 1984, Pope John Paul II interceded and asked the nuns to move to a new location, but the controversial cross remained. Carroll, an excommunicated former priest, wrote movingly about the pain that the cross created for modern Jews.

John Paul was in no way devaluing the heartfelt mission of the nuns to pray for the souls of the dead when he asked them to move. He was teaching a lesson in respect: That was not the place for the nuns to be. Regardless of their intent or even their legal right, the location belonged to others. It had been purchased with their blood.

Most people now agree that moving the nuns was the right thing to do. Rauf should also do the right thing. Some have suggested that he could alleviate concern over the mosque by denouncing Islamic extremism. Alternatively, they say, he might hold an interfaith gathering designed to bring people together. To be honest, I don’t think efforts like this would do much to change the minds of people on either side of the debate (though his critics might quit trying to depict him as an Islamic extremist).

Rauf needs to remember something he wrote in his book What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America: “Cain loved Abel, by killing him. That’s why I advise my congregation to probe one who tells you, ‘I love you like a brother.’ The prophets understood this very well, which is why the golden rule is to love others as we love ourselves.

Americans are probing the decision to build the mosque. Arguably, it would be a statement of love. Those who worship there might be — as I believe the nuns at Auschwitz were — recognizing the loss to humanity and praying for God’s guidance. There is legitimate reason, however, for concern. One need not be Islamaphobic to probe this matter. We certainly do not want to have something built that will encourage Cain (or those like him) to repeat the crime of killing his brother.

Only Imam Rauf is in a position to resolve this difficult situation. New York Governor David Paterson proposed to help him find a different location for the center. The Catholic Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, endorsed that plan. Rauf should take them up on the offer. Ground Zero, at least for now, belongs to others. They purchased it with their blood.


  • Ronald J. Rychlak

    Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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