Katherine Pratt Ewing: Putting Mosque Controversies in Perpsective

Katherine Pratt Ewing: Putting Mosque Controversies in Perpsective

The fierce rhetoric generated by opponents of the mosque planned for a site a few blocks away from Ground Zero in New York points to continuing hostility toward Muslims stimulated by the 9/11 attacks. Nevertheless, this and other controversies surrounding new mosque construction are actually a sign Muslims are creating a permanent place for themselves in many areas of the United States, a process that contributors to the edited volume Being and Belonging: Muslims in the United States since 9/11 demonstrated through their detailed studies of Muslim communities in several regions of the United States.


Since the early 1980's, there has been a steady increase in the number of mosques in the U.S. Of the more than 1200 mosques that existed in 2000, nearly two-thirds had been established since 1980 (Bagby, Perl, and Froehle 2001). In the decade since 9/11 at least 700 additional mosques have been established, twice as many as in the previous decade. Yet as recently as a decade ago, there were very few mosques that actually looked like mosques, and so Muslim places of worship went unnoticed by the general public. By the late 1990’s, for example, New York had more than 100 mosques, only a handful of which had been built for this purpose, often by communities that began praying together in a warehouse or storefront. Only in the years since 9/11 has there been a significant rise in the construction of purpose-built mosques in the US. Most local communities have accepted these visible markers of Muslim space, but sometimes problems develop. Within the past three years, mosque controversies have developed in approximately 40 local communities, though the vast majority of even these contested projects have proceeded.


The most dramatic mosque-building controversy, the so-called 'Ground Zero' mosque, is directly tied to memories of 9/11. When plans to build an Islamic Center at 51 Park Place in New York City became public in the summer of 2010, Internet activists stirred public concern by posting vicious anti-Muslim rhetoric on blogs. They were joined by right-wing politicians who generated outrage over a Muslim 'victory mosque' at Ground Zero as they geared up for the approaching presidential race. Opponents sought to block the mosque, but the mosque’s developer had already bought the land, construction involved no zoning violations, and the local community board had already approved the project. Despite this nationally visible controversy, the roots of the project itself resemble similar mosque-building efforts in other cities. The developer, Sharif El-Gamal, recently described how, like many American Muslims, he had become more aware of his identity as a Muslim as a result of 9/11 and sought out a community of fellow Muslims. He bought two buildings on Park Place and converted them into an unmarked, much-needed prayer space, which was used for that purpose for several years without controversy. It was only when plans for the new construction of a large mosque were announced in 2010 that dissent erupted, in this case inflamed by its proximity to Ground Zero. Protests were staged at the site on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, yet when a newly renovated Islamic Cultural Center opened in the old buildings at the site just two weeks later, it drew little negative attention.


The Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina has, like many urban areas, experienced rapid growth of its Muslim population over the past three decades, a development that I have been following for a number of years. Some Muslims in the area experienced threats in the immediate wake of 9/11. But there were also outpourings of support from churches, newspapers, and government leaders, and the Islamic Association of Raleigh (IAR) enhanced its community outreach programs. Several new mosques have been established and a regional council of mosques has recently been created. The IAR built a mosque from the ground up in 1985. There was some local controversy in 2003 when the IAR received permission from the city to expand. The local community complained that the IAR had not communicated sufficiently with the neighborhood, and some individuals publically expressed suspiciousness about Muslim intentions stimulated by 9/11 and the association of Muslims with terrorism. But these local issues were resolved, and channels of communication with the nearby community were enhanced. The IAR has recently established satellite mosques in nearby towns. Another Muslim community in an adjacent city, the Islamic Association of Cary, housed in a strip mall storefront, had difficulty getting authorization from the city for a Muslim cemetery several years ago but is now in the midst of constructing a new mosque, somewhat slowed by the pace of fundraising but not overtly hampered by the city or neighbors. Muslims in the nearby city of Chapel Hill have purchased a house that they are converting into a mosque. The development of mosques in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina is in many respects typical of how Muslim communities establish mosques in US cities.


Since the passage of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000, the US Department of Justice has initiated 51 cases of discrimination against religious establishments based on local land-use laws. Of these cases, 7 have involved Muslim, 6 Jewish, 31 Christian, and 4 other institutions. Though there is a slightly higher rate of DOJ cases on behalf Muslim populations relative to, for example, Jews, it would be expected that the number of permit and zoning requests coming from Muslim institutions has been disproportionately large, given the growth of Muslim communities and the rapidly expanding number of mosques in many parts of the United States. These figures suggest that Muslims are not experiencing larger obstacles to the establishment of Muslim spaces than participants in other religious communities are. Though concerns about Muslim terrorist sympathies do surface in these controversies, Muslims have generally been successful in establishing local ties with non-Muslims and allaying these concerns.

The fear of Muslims as foreigners with terrorist sympathies who will undermine American culture is manifest in assertions by some conservatives that Sharia threatens to infiltrate the American judicial system. This is analogous to nineteenth century fears that Catholics were loyal to a foreign Pope and would transform America with their churches and schools. A recent article from the Catholic News Service suggested that it may be a long time before Muslims become fully established in the U.S., since it took Catholics 100 years. Yet Catholics have in many respects paved the way for subsequent minorities: their institutions remain an important precedent and model for Muslims as they establish their own schools, mosques, and cultural centers.

Reporters are often eager for a story as the anniversary of 9/11 draws near, providing a ready media outlet for politicians aiming to gain conservative votes by stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment. Mosque controversies also make splashy headlines, and it only takes a few anti-Muslim bloggers (often anonymous) to generate fierce and protracted internet exchanges with those who defend the rights of Muslims to establish themselves in the community. These two forces have come together in the “Ground Zero” mosque controversy. Like Muslims in other communities such as Raleigh, North Carolina, the reaction of Park51’s developer to all the controversy has been to increase communication with members of both the local community and with others who might be affected by the project.

Muslims are rapidly establishing new institutions and a visible presence in ways that did not exist a decade ago. It is this very visibility that sometimes triggers local resistance. Yet other religious organizations often meet similar resistance, and in most cases, compromises are worked out and construction proceeds. Though Muslims are certainly affected by anti-Muslim rhetoric in other ways, they have been very successful at creating Muslim spaces and building ties with local communities.

KATHERINE PRATT EWING is professor of religion at Columbia University. She edited the RSF volume Being and Belonging: Muslims in the United States since 9/11.


Resilient City
Editor: Howard Chernick
In Resilient City, a team of economic experts examine the city’s economic recovery in the three years following the destruction of the Twin Towers.

Contentious City
Editor: John Mollenkopf
In Contentious City, editor John Mollenkopf and a team of leading scholars analyze the wide-ranging political dimensions of New York City's recovery process.

Wounded City
Editor: Nancy Foner
In Wounded City, editor Nancy Foner brings together an accomplished group of scholars to document how a broad range of communities—residential, occupational, ethnic, and civic—were affected and changed by the World Trade Center attacks.



RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


Join our mailing list for email updates.