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?

Ground Zero has maintained a special place in popular American memory over the past nine years, but there is a qualitative difference between saying a place is important or special, and declaring it sacred and inviolable. What do people mean when they say Ground Zero is “sacred”? It seems clear that, in this particular situation, we can first rule out conceptions of the sacred as objective manifestations of the holy. Though the terrorist attacks on September 11 could be considered senseless or even incomprehensible, they certainly were not inexplicable, ineffable, or transcendent. Rather, historically and culturally conditioned human beings committed acts of terrible violence, acts motivated by religious and political factors.

Perhaps, instead, this “sacred” refers to a classification of things separating what is special from what is ordinary, as in Émile Durkheim’s formulation.3 But in discussions of Ground Zero’s sacredness, the line separating the sacred and the profane does not extend absolutely or comprehensively. The line is an assertion of a boundary Muslims cannot cross (at least not by the building of a cultural center), but Ground Zero’s vicinity is rife with the everyday. There is no call to remove liquor stores or strip clubs, street vendors or clothing outlets, all of which might be considered ordinary or profane, from the sacred space of Ground Zero. Opponents of the Cordoba House are not advocating the removal of all things profane from lower Manhattan, just Muslim ones.

It seems, then, that we need some other index for defining the sacred in “Ground Zero is sacred space.” Talal Asad’s influential anthropology of the secular offers an incisive entry point to this exploration. In Formations of the Secular, he points out that the sacred has not always referred to a singular object or experience that stands in absolute distinction to the profane. Contrary to Krauthammer’s assertion that the sheer fact of sacredness renders a place inviolable, Asad notes that in the past “there were disparate places, objects, and times, each with its qualities, and each requiring conduct and words appropriate to it.” He then offers a brief genealogy of “the sacred,” tracing the concept from its Roman roots (sacer, owned by the gods) to the term we are familiar with today, the Victorian anthropological term for something that is both “a transcendent force that imposed itself on the subject and a space that must never, under threat of dire consequence, be violated—that is, profaned.”4

What is most instructive is not simply that “the sacred” is a modern construction, or that the sacred/profane binary was born of Western encounters with colonial others. More critically, Asad illuminates the fact that designations of the sacred, as well as the profane, serve to make certain practices possible, desirable, and even mandatory. The sacred, from this perspective, is not so much an object that is experienced. Rather, the sacred is one part of a wider process “of how a heterogeneous landscape of power (moral, political, economic) is constituted, what disciplines (individual and collective) are necessary to it.”5

Taking Asad’s conception of the sacred, “Ground Zero is sacred space” holds a new (and more dangerous) meaning, considering the fact that Muslims are the only constituents of the profane. The impermeable line separating the sacred Ground Zero from the profane Islamic cultural center effectively identifies certain lived practices desirable and mandatory and others undesirable and illicit. Defending the sanctity of Ground Zero enforces a Christian and/or a secular vision of American life in stark juxtaposition to the lived practices of Muslims, whether those are prayers in a mosque or recreation in the Cordoba House’s gym, pool, and theater.6

Since “the sacred” in this debate is not a self-evident happening or a straightforward object of experience, the question is: Who has the authority to consecrate and enforce sacred spaces, under what circumstances, and with what consequences? What is at stake when Krauthammer asserts the sanctity of Ground Zero as demanding that the living “preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized, or misappropriated”? The recent declaration (or reiteration) of Ground Zero’s sacred status has been a part of very specific identity practices, and its defense is not innocent. If one were successful in writing off opposition to the “Ground Zero Mosque” as xenophobia or even Islamophobia, this would seriously miss the point. This debate is not simply about fear or hatred. It is about the enforcement of a particular vision of American nationalism—one that makes it abundantly clear that American Muslims do not have the authority to declare things sacred or the right to cross those sacred bounds.

When Ground Zero is declared “sacred space,” a profound statement is made about what is sacred in the nation, who can consecrate those spaces, and how those sanctities must be enforced. Defining Ground Zero as sacred space, and declaring the permanent presence of Muslims near that sacred space a defilement, is an attempt to reinforce the lines between a national self and an antinational Other. And these are not new lines. In fact, this interpretation harkens back to the exposed crossbeams of the collapsed World Trade Center that served as an altar of sorts, standing like a Christian cross in the midst of the wreckage and reinforcing for some the violent juxtaposition of Christians and Muslims. Then and now, in the immediate aftermath of September 11 and in the midst of the Cordoba House debate, the declaration of Ground Zero as sacred space effectively rewrote the history of the event itself. By erasing the suffering of American Muslims in New York and throughout the country, a terrorist attack against Americans of many faiths, including Muslims and secularists, was re-imagined as the opening salvo in a war between “Christian America” and the Muslim world. It is imperative, then, that we add another criterion to Krauthammer’s list of how spaces become sacred. Places are not only transformed by remarkable happenings, but also by perceived threats. Ground Zero has been conceived as a sacred space because it is seen as fundamental to a certain sense of American identity, an identity perceived to be under siege.

The “debate” about the Cordoba House was not about the protection of a place that is necessarily or naturally sacred in any straightforward way, but was about the consecration of space in defense of a specific set of identity practices. Ground Zero is sacred space insofar as a particular mode of American national identity named it as such, enforcing harsh lines that made certain practices profane in its vicinity, namely, the praying and educating and swimming and playing of American Muslims. This vision of American life does not include Muslims as citizens or, if it does, it is only on the condition that they stay out of spaces deemed sacred by the authority of “real Americans.” Failing to recognize this fact, either by naming Ground Zero self-evidently sacred or by dismissing Cordoba’s opponents as bigots, ignores the complexity of the claims to sacred space at the same time that it obscures the profundity of the reality at hand. The controversy around the Cordoba House is not only, or even preeminently, about the sanctity of space. Ultimately, it is a consecration of an exclusivist vision of the American nation.

  1. President Obama, for instance, reflected, “Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground,” before clarifying that “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.” “Obama’s Remarks About Ground Zero Mosque: The Transcript,” The Washington Post, August 13, 2010;
  2. Charles Krauthammer, “Sacrilege at Ground Zero,” National Review Online, August 13, 2010;
  3. According to Durkheim, a being, place, or thing is made sacred when human beings set it apart as special and establish an absolute distinction between the two: “The sacred thing is, par excellence, that which the profane must not and cannot touch with impunity. To be sure, this prohibition cannot go so far as to make all communication between the two worlds impossible, for if the profane could in no way enter into relations with the sacred, the sacred would be of no use.” See Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Karen E. Fields (The Free Press, 1995), 38.
  4. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003), 30, 33.
  5. Ibid., 36–37.
  6. Though it might seem strange to say “secular and/or Christian,” in fact, declarations of Ground Zero’s sanctity have been proclaimed by Christian American nationalists and by secular American nationalists who are not necessarily arguing for a “Christian America.”

Full citation: Matthew J. Cressler, “Ground Zero and the ‘S-word,’” Harvard Divinity Bulletin vol. 39, nos. 1&2 (Winter/Spring 2011): 11-14.


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