18 August 2010


There has been a lot of discussion recently concerning a certain building in a certain location. Some call it the 'mosque at Ground Zero,' others use the more simple moniker 'Ground Zero mosque,' and still others say it is the 'Cordoba House on Park Place.'

The building in question is slated to be a cultural center, complete with a prayer room for Muslims in need of a place to pray one of the 5 times a day they are required. Being located in the heart of New York City is not why this building is being discussed ad nauseum on cable news and the internet. It's the exact location that caused the debate. The Cordoba House is being constructed two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center, now known as Ground Zero, which is itself under construction to build a monument to the victims of the September 11 attacks.

Much of the debate centers around the location of this building. Many of the framers of the debate label the Cordoba House as a mosque being build at Ground Zero. Without placing myself on the political spectrum, i want to illustrate the problems with this label.

Firstly, there is simple matter of the preposition. Prepositions are small, but powerful, words we use to describe an object's placement in a three dimensional world. (Even in four dimensions: with the use of words like 'after' and 'before' we place the object in time.) It might only be a two letter word such as 'in' or 'by' or 'at,' yet it helps us to orient our world.

A baseball coach asking his player to 'throw the ball to first base' would be rightfully upset if the player's definition of the word 'to' was more akin to 'near'. Traveling to Grandma's house, we must go 'over the river' and 'through the woods,' because any other way leads us not to Grandma's house, but to getting lost, or in the case of 'into the river,' drowned.

Saying the Cordoba House is 'at' Ground Zero places it within spitting distance of the soon to be constructed Freedom Tower. In reality, it's two blocks away. The correct preposition is 'near' or 'by' or even the hybrid, 'nearby.' It may seem like semantics, but when location is the reason behind the debate, it's interesting to note how often people against the center are using the wrong preposition.

Not only is the preposition wrong, but they tend to call it a mosque. This is where English shortchanges the Arabic. Muslims have two words for mosque, one for the place where daily prayers are held and another for the location where not only daily prayers are held, but also Friday sermons are preached. The Cordoba center will only be the former, not the latter.

This is a notable distinction. Devout Muslims pray five times every day, preferably in groups. To do so, they need a reliable place to gather to pray, privately. To call such a place a mosque is accurate, but misleading. The term 'cultural center' better describes the mission of the Cordoba Center. The word 'mosque' paints a picture which include minarets, Friday services, teachings on the Qur'an, and calls to prayer. None of those things will be present.

Whether or not it's cold-hearted to set up the building in the coming shadow of the Freedom Tower, the framers of the debate have twisted the facts into minor inaccuracies which in turn color the discussion an entirely different color. An inaccurate use of language can be just as powerful rhetoric as any.