Princeton Provost Christopher Eisgruber, Near Eastern studies faculty member Mark Cohen and politics faculty member Amaney Jamal weighed in on the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero during a panel discussion in McCosh Hall on the Princeton University campus on Monday evening.
While they acknowledged the passionate and unsettled emotions that continue to surround the World Trade Center site nearly a decade after the attacks, panelists stressed that that the proposed mosque also had the ability to foster religious tolerance.
Professor Cohen, a leading scholar of the history of Jews in the Middle Ages under Islam, opened the discussion by arguing that the mosque could bridge the divide between Muslim and non-Muslims in America.
"This could be a place where Muslims, Jews, Christians and secular people could gather for social and cultural activities," Professor Cohen said. "This might contribute to a mutual understanding of one another that none of the three religions in the past has had a good record of fostering."
Amaney Jamal spoke next and discussed the increasing hostility towards Muslims since the terrorist attacks.
"Since 9/11, year-in and year-out we've seen an increase in anti-Muslim acts," Professor Jamal said. "Hate crimes have increased and recent polls suggest that 43 percent of Americans have a 'disfavorable opinion of Muslims.' This is an increase from 33 percent immediately after the attacks."
Professor Jamal argued that over the course of the last decade, "the tide seems to be shifting drastically against Muslims in America."
As an example of this increasing prejudice, Professor Jamal referred to the "accusations" during the 2008 presidential campaign that Barack Obama was Muslim.
"Lo and behold we had this great African president who might drastically change the United States, but he might be Muslim — which was a problem," Professor Jamal said. "This was very demoralizing. The Muslim community is a liability in this country. The Democratic Party saw us as a hindrance, not an asset, to the campaign."
Moving to focus on the proposed mosque, Professor Jamal said that the Park 51 debates are a natural culmination of the discussions of the last 10 years. Park 51, originally named the Cordoba Mosque, is the address where the proposed mosque would be housed.
"Mosques are the most critical vehicles for social and cultural cooperation," Professor Jamal argued. "True they are houses of worship, but what we find is that religiosity corresponds with positive political involvement."
Muslims who attend the mosque are more likely to vote and more likely to contribute to causes," he added.
Arguing that mosques have become "objects of scrutiny," Professor Jamal asserted that at the core of the issue was the belief held by many that the Muslim-American today is "not only an outsider but a suspicious outsider, working to undermine everything American."
Concluding the panel, Princeton Provost Eisgruber noted that while the developers of Park 51 had a legal right to build at Ground Zero, there were ethical considerations also at play.
"What kind of duties do we have to respect other people's conceptions of culturally significant spaces?" Provost Eisgruber asked the audience. "Is there some kind of duty to respect a certain degree of neutrality around these areas?"
Provost Eisgruber compared the current situation to an argument in the 1980s surrounding the erection of a convent at the site of the former Auschwitz Death Camp. Ultimately, in 1993, Pope John Paul II ordered the Catholic nuns to move the location of the proposed convent.
"We have a limited duty to honor a perimeter of neutrality around culturally significant site," Provost Eisgruber argued. "Erecting a permanent facility is different than staging a temporary march."
However, Professor Eisgruber stressed that the reasons for feelings of injury at the erection of a mosque at Ground Zero should not be rooted in prejudice.
"Would the opponents of Park 51 be upset about the erection of an interfaith Christian center at Ground Zero?" Professor Eisgruber asked. "I seriously doubt it. That makes me think that, in many cases, what's doing the work here is merely a sense of prejudice."