Despite what you might have heard, a 13-story mosque is not going to be built at ground zero in lower Manhattan. For that matter, a 13-story mosque is not going to be built within a few blocks of ground zero. Rather a 13-story building is going up which will contain, among other things, a mosque.
This might seem like an academic distinction, but in the heated debate surrounding Park51, or as the building is known more commonly, the "ground zero mosque," it really is an important one.
First here are the facts: The building in question is planned to be a Muslim community center, a sort of YMCA (or, I suppose, YMMA). The plans are for it to have fitness facilities (swimming pool, gym, basketball court), a 500-seat auditorium, a restaurant and a cooking school, exhibition space, a library, art studios, a 9/11 memorial--the impudence! the outrage!--and childcare facilities (which no doubt will soon be referred to as a "Manhattan Madrasa"). And it's also going to house a mosque.
But calling the entire building a mosque is a bit like referring to the Empire State Building as a 103-story Walgreens because the pharmacy chain has a store on the ground floor.
And for that matter it's important to keep in mind that it's not at ground zero. It's two blocks north of ground zero, on a street running parallel to the old World Trade Center site. And as FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver has observed, Park51
although somewhat architecturally daring does not contain minarets or other spire-like features that would give it greater prominence than an ordinary, 12-story building. Like dozens and dozens of other buildings, and several other places of worship near to Ground Zero, it would be quite well concealed among Lower Manhattan's dense street grid.
In other words to look at the building, you wouldn't say: Aha! A mosque! But the press routinely refers to the building as a mosque, and its critics often blur or are unclear about its location. So over the weekend, Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said on Fox News Sunday that, "I do think it's unwise to build a mosque at the site where 3,000 Americans lost their lives as the result of a terrorist attack." (Emphasis added.)
Again, these may seem like small points, but they're not. This debate is taking place on a gut, emotional level. Reasonable critics argue, for example, that this is about sensitivity rather than about liberty. And on that gut level, there's a real difference between a 13-story mosque (which conjures images of a foreign looking structure with minarets and so forth) rising up out of--or even adjacent to--the hole in the ground that used to be the World Trade Center, and a 13-story community center tucked away on a side street a couple of blocks from ground zero. The former lends itself to the sort of irresponsible rhetoric of triumphalist Islamicists that Newt Gingrich goes on about. The latter is, well, reality.