This question occurred to us the other day, and has been rattling about in our heads despite the lack of any clear answer. (Foxman says yes, Zakaria says no.) Let us begin by mentioning that the subject is personal for us. Father Anonymous used to live quite near the Word Trade Center, so near that his morning jog took him past the towers. He knew people who were in the buildings when they were attacked in 1993 and 2001. Some of those people died. All were emotionally scarred.
So the site of the disaster holds a special emotional power in Fr. A.'s life. To this day, when out-of-towners announce their intention to visit the site, he gives them a cool response, and suggests a trip to Ellis Island instead. Or the Statue of Liberty. Or Staten Freaking Island. If they insist, he takes them to them to the Chambers Street subway stop, points them south, and then goes shopping at the Fountain Pen Hospital on Warren Street. Great little shop, if you like pens. Plus it wasn't the site of a mass murder.
That said, is the mosque like the convent? Our current thinking is "a little yes, a lot of no."
The Carmelite convent, which existed from 1984 to 1993, was always and explicitly about religion and national identity. Poles thought of Auschwitz as a site of Polish suffering, and wanted to cleanse it, with with Pope John Paul II's 1979 Mass, and then with a permanent community of prayer. Jews thought of it as a site of Jewish suffering, and wanted to keep it free of religious symbolism (especially symbols of the majority church which had been instrumental in that suffering). Between these two communities lay vast misunderstanding, some of it cultural, some bluntly ideological. For years, Jews seem not to have known that Polish Gentiles also died in the camp. More astonishingly, many Poles were never told that the vast majority of the dead were Jews.
The proposed Cordoba House is something quite different. Far from being a place set aside for perpetual prayer, it is conceived as a community center, modeled on the 92nd St Y, which will include a prayer room among its other facilities. You know: hit the pool, buy a book, catch a lecture. Then say your prayers. It isn't really a mosque at all, any more than a hospital with a chapel is therefore a church. And although the project's publicity is all about mutual understanding, there is no explicit notion of cleansing, nor -- explicitly -- any connection to 9/11.
On the other hand, if the story were all about what is explicit, there would be no controversy. In fact, the story is all about what is not said. It's about the subtext, the things that nobody would ever say because they are not quite rational, but which hide just beneath the surface of the rational remarks. This is the world of emotion and symbol, both more powerful than reason can ever hope to be. In the case of the convent, one side said "You -- Gentiles, Catholics, Poles -- did this to us. Leave us alone to grieve." The other side said, "We suffered too, and this is how we grieve."
In the case of the community center, the first statement is actually quite similar: " You did this to us. Go away." But the second statement, coming from American Muslims, is a little different. It is less "We suffered too," although of course there were plenty of Muslim victims, and rather more, "We have a place in this society. Your freedoms, including freedom of religion, belong to us as well." The problem, of course, is that although this final statement may be made at the level of emotion, it can only be accepted at the level of rationality. It requires a commitment to the rational Enlightenment ideals which underpin American laws, which immediately removes the non-Muslim supporters of the initiative from the realm of subtext to that of text, and (paradoxically) makes them less immediately intelligible to the other sides.
At the rational level, of course, virtually nobody thinks that the little old nuns were Nazi sympathizers, or that liberal Muslims in America are Al Qaeda sleeper agents. Thinking people know better, at least with the part of their brain that actually does think. But our brains have other parts as well.
A related fact is that Cordoba House, despite the publicity, will not be built at the site of the Word Trade Center. It will be two blocks away, on a side street called Park Place. (It might as well be called the City Hall Mosque, or the Fountain Pen Hospital Mosque.) At the rational level, then, this is not at all what it is at the symbolic level. Rationally, it is a community center a couple of blocks away; only symbolically is it a "mosque at Ground Zero."
So -- are they alike? There is, obviously, a structural parallel between two institutions with a religious perspective, both placed in near proximity to the sites of terrible crimes against humanity in which religion played a significant role. At the level of symbolism, there is another parallel, since in both cases one side seeks to respect the dead, and yet the other side feels disrespected if not actually threatened.
Yet in other ways they are not the same at all. A community center is not a convent; two blocks away is not the very site; Eastern Europe is not the United States. Call us nominalists if you like (since we are); we do say that the parallels are artificial constructs, and only the thing itself is real. Meaning that each case is inevitably distinct.
In any case, whether we are confident of a parallel or not, we have no doubt about the right course of action. The Foxman/Zakaria correspondence, linked above, pits "the feelings of the families" against "freedom of religion," and while we value both, we do not value them equally. Or, to put it in our own way, we are moved by symbolism and emotion, but we hope that when called to act, we will do so on the basis of reason.