New York authorities have allowed the construction of a mosque in the vicinity of ground zero in New York, where both towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.

A debate on the construction of the mosque on this revered spot broke out immediately: it has become a war of symbols that reference back to the European Middle Ages — a controversy that reflects the substance of the debate that America has been conducting with itself since the attacks of Sept. 11. In the passionate discussions on the “mosque at ground zero” — as in all passionate debates — a couple of facts have disappeared: for instance, the fact that the mosque is not supposed to stand on the site of the former World Trade Center, but two blocks away. And the fact that precedent is not at issue, because there has been a mosque a few blocks from ground zero for several decades. And the fact that, after all, the proposed mosque is actually not even supposed to be entirely a mosque…

Where is the money coming from?

It is supposed to be a thirteen-story modern steel-and-glass building called “Cordoba House,” in which there will be an Islamic center — sort of in the vein of Christian YMCAs. It will consist of a lecture hall, a swimming pool, a fitness room and a basketball court; there are to be exhibitions, events for children and cooking classes. And there will also be a prayer room, to which about 2000 Muslims will come every Friday. The opening ceremony will be Sept. 11, 2011.

The American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative are behind the project, which is supposed to come to 100 million dollars. Both organizations are led by the imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and their mission, according to him, is to further positive relations between American society and local Muslims. That is the intended aim of the Cordoba House project: it is supposed to become a “symbol, a platform that will give voice to the silent majority of Muslims who suffer at the hands of extremists,” at least if we are to quote the head of the Society for Muslim Advancement and the imam’s wife Daisy Khan.

Thus far, however, it remains unclear where the Cordoba Initiative got 100 million dollars for the realization of the project. That plays right into the hands of its opponents, who see it as the money of rich Islamic fundamentalists preparing to build a victory monument to jihad in America at ground zero.

Just what does it commemorate?

To what could we compare this project in the Czech Republic? Is it as if, let’s say, Bernd Posselt were to come up with the idea to build a German cultural center in Lidice? Such a comparison has its flies in the ointment. While the terrorist attacks were carried out by an “underground” extremist organization, the razing of Lidice was executed by order of the German occupation force. Whereas we have had peaceful relations with neighboring Germany since the end of the war and actively work together with them, America is waging war with Muslim extremists. Whereas seventy years have passed since the massacre of Lidice, it has not even been ten years since the attack on the Twin Towers. And whereas the place where Lidice used to stand is only a memorial, where it is unthinkable to build anything whatsoever, ground zero is surrounded by a living city, and in its vicinity one can therefore come upon phenomena which don’t have anything in common with reverence. For instance, the famous clothing superstore Century 21, where citizens of all lands, races, nationalities and creeds meet while shopping for marvelously discounted name-brand jogging suits and socks, neighbors the site of the tragedy.

All the same, critics of the Cordoba House project constantly look for comparisons. It is as if they needed to define more precisely for themselves the threat that the Islamic center poses and against which they are warning. For example, the spokesperson of Newt Gingrich, a leading figure of American conservatives and one of the most vocal opponents of the “mosque at ground zero,” declared in an interview for the magazine that it would be the same as erecting a statue of Mussolini or Marx at Arlington Cemetery, where fallen American soldiers are buried. When the editor asked him, a bit astonished, what that German philosopher from the nineteenth century had done to America, Gingrich’s spokesperson responded, “Well, let’s go with Lenin then.” Lenin, who died in 1924, is in his interpretation a mighty figure of the Cold War and anti-American ideologies.

The Battle for Córdoba

The critics have thus far been unsuccessful at finding a fitting analogy, but the message of the threat is clear: Any mosque or Islamic center whatsoever is a symbol of America’s enemies. That was best designated by Newt Gingrich himself, who concentrated in his polemics on the symbolism of Córdoba, Spain, to which the name of the planned construction refers. “Cordoba, Spain [was] the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex. ... [E]very Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest.”

Gingrich is fighting for the preservation of the Judeo-Christian character of the U.S., which, according to him, Islam threatens. Every mosque that America allows on its territory becomes a space, in his eyes, that the enemy has conquered — a lost battle in the world competition between Christianity and Islam. He does not, however, emphasize so much that every mosque banned on U.S. territory is a lost battle for the preservation of traditional American religious tolerance.

The originators of the project, to the contrary, claim that they chose the name “Cordoba House” because during the reign of the Islamic caliphate in Córdoba there was an unprecedented religious tolerance for that age, in which Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side by side. Apparently it is not an accident that a majority of the inhabitants of tolerant Manhattan are inclined toward the project. Finally, it is necessary to mention that fear of the Islamization of America, in which Muslims form between 0.7 and 2 percent of the population, is more likely just artificially created fuel for a political campaign.

The controversy over the Islamic center in the vicinity of ground zero is thus mainly a controversy over the character of America — either it will be closed, apprehensive and spiteful, or self-confident, tolerant and open. The symbol of America is and more often has been the latter. As someone declared, prohibiting the Cordoba House center would mean a second victory for al-Qaida on the same spot.