Ground Zero and the “S-Word”

As I’ve been teaching a seminar on theory in the study of religion this semester, I’ve been thinking back to a reflection I wrote a few years ago for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin about the ways a key category in Religious Studies – “the sacred” – was deployed in debates about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”  So here’s my theoretical throwback for today:

The vitriol around the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan demonstrates our society’s inability to communicate about critical issues. The proposed Cordoba House was a local issue defended passionately by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that quickly transformed into a cause célèbre, soliciting the national commentary of those as far removed from New York real estate as President Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich. But as the conversation shifted from local debate to national furor, possibilities for dialogue disappeared. The media simplified the debate into a polemic choice—is it “right” or “wrong” to build a mosque at Ground Zero? Interviews and essays have tended to follow suit. Support for the Cordoba House is often curt and dismissive, casting aside opponents as intolerant, bigoted, and ignorant. Opposition to the misleadingly termed “Ground Zero Mosque” similarly lacks any intention to dialogue. Those opposed often insist that the memory of September 11 is “sensitive,” the situation “exceptional,” and the rules “special”—effectively extinguishing any productive debate on a topic pronounced, almost a priori, nonnegotiable.

It is important to understand the underlying dynamics and consequences of this debate. One line of inquiry worth pursuing is a critical analysis of the argument that Ground Zero is a special place requiring exceptional rules. When stated most passionately, it is not uncommon for commentators to invoke the “S-word”: “Ground Zero is sacred space.” This “sacredness” has been heralded in a variety of ways, occasionally even in support of the Cordoba House.1 In this case, however, the sacred has been wielded as a self-evident defense against any permanent Muslim presence near Ground Zero. The most provocative version of this argument I have encountered is Charles Krauthammer’s “Sacrilege at Ground Zero.”2 Krauthammer’s piece illuminates ideas that rarely rise to the surface in public discussions of religion, religious freedom, and American nationalism: the explicit entanglement of the sacred with the nation. At the same time, he renders complicated processes that are sometimes quite dangerous, deceptively simple and innocent. Contrary to some of his more crass counterparts, Krauthammer does not portray the Cordoba initiative as representative of some quintessentially violent Muslim “Other.” He acknowledges that the Muslims who perpetuated unspeakable violence on September 11, 2001, were not representative of Muslims as a whole. At the same time, he argues that the Cordoba House should not be built near Ground Zero because the space is “sacred”; it is “hallowed ground.” What is more, Krauthammer boldly defines what transforms an ordinary place into sacred space. He declares that “a place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz).”

In other words, Krauthammer characterizes the creation of sacred space as a de facto happening. Something miraculous, remarkable, or unspeakable occurs, which transforms an otherwise ordinary place into a sacred space. This space, because it has been made sacred, now stands inviolable. He then offers examples to defend this logic. Gettysburg was sanctified by the sacrifice of American soldiers; hence, the U.S. National Park Service took down a (presumably “profane”) commercial viewing tower on the premises. An example that has circulated in most “Ground Zero is sacred space” arguments is that the incomprehensible horror of Auschwitz made that space sacred. This prompted Pope John Paul II to order the removal of a Carmelite convent because, in Krauthammer’s words, “this is not your place, it belongs to others.” As with Auschwitz, so too with Ground Zero: it is sacred in the sense that the space now “belongs to those who suffered and died there.” Once a space becomes sacred, the living are obliged “to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized, or misappropriated.”

Though he provides a sleek, straightforward equation (remarkable happening + place = sacred space), its simplicity hides the dimensions of power that define sacred spaces and enforce their boundaries. Beyond the fact that Krauthammer implies that the sheer presence of Muslims at Ground Zero forgets, trivializes, or misappropriates the tragedy on September 11—suffering and death shared by Muslim Americans—his meditation on sacredness also obscures the processes by which a space is marked as sacred and the consequences of such a marking. To understand adequately what this controversy reveals about religion in America, it is necessary to unpack the “sacred” in “Ground Zero is sacred space.” What is meant by “sacred” in this sense? How did Ground Zero become a “sacred space”? How are the boundaries of that sanctity enforced, and what are its consequences for American citizens? Continue reading