“In society, no one is interested in suffering or misfortune, everything is talk.” 
1Several of the controversies that have arisen since the early 2000s concerning the role of religious symbols in public have given voice to a particular demand: the right for religious or moral offense to be recognized. The opponents of the 2004 French law that prohibited the wearing of religious signs and symbols in public schools, much like the demonstrators outraged by the publication of the Danish cartoons in 2006, have lamented the insufficient protection afforded by secular liberal legislation against insults to individual religious sensitivity. Several Muslim organizations have therefore deemed inadequate the protection guaranteed by article 10, paragraph 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights with regard to free speech. In particular, these organizations asked for religious offenses to be legally recognized and punished accordingly, rather than simply punished in the context of the struggle against racial hatred or public disorder. In contrast, one of the arguments that emerged during the debates that took place in Europe from 2008 to 2010 on the subject of wearing the burqa in public centered on how shocking and alarming it was for a secular public to see it worn. In this case, it was a question of protecting the feelings and liberal dispositions of involuntary witnesses. The burqa was judged to be an “excessive” religious practice, contrary to the codes of behavior espoused by modern liberal societies.
2The increasing number of references to religious emotional affect or moral sensitivity has primarily been analyzed by political scientists in two different ways. Liberal theorists have examined the necessity for liberal, secular regimes to recognize and protect an individual’s right not to have his or her moral and religious sentiments offended.  The majority of these works warn that such recognition would pose significant risks to the defense of free speech and religious freedom. Even if two-way recognition of insult and offense may have a place in liberal government principles, liberal thinkers nonetheless have strong misgivings about the possibility of establishing punishments for religious offense.
3Approaching the issue from a radically different starting point, emotions have also been introduced as a research theme in various works in political theory seeking to criticize the presuppositions of liberalism. The call for a greater recognition of religious and moral offense as such is thus analyzed as proof of the tendency of liberal judicial and political systems to reduce the individual to a purely rational being, incorporeal and free from any emotional ties.  In spite of their differences, these two analytic approaches propose a normative analysis of the demand for recognition of moral and religious offense: neither perspective spends much time on the distinct characteristics of the emotion argument. Through an analysis of the impact of the moral offense argument invoked during the controversy over the construction of an Islamic cultural center in Manhattan in the spring of 2010, this paper proposes an entirely different response to the issue of the opposition between rights and emotions.
4On 2 July 2010, New York Times journalist Robert Wright was surprised by the unexpected magnitude of the Ground Zero controversy. He had originally thought that the American public could only embrace such a project:
“I was convinced that opinion leaders of all ideological stripes would reach a consensus by applying a basic rule of thumb: Just ask, ‘What would Osama bin Laden want?’ and then do the opposite.” 
6Indeed, one can only wonder at the nature and intensity of the controversy that erupted in the spring of 2010 around the proposed construction of an Islamic cultural center at 51 Park Place, two blocks from where the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. First of all, the notion of promoting inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue, put forth by the project’s initiators, was an idea that the American public had generally accepted, following President Obama’s election in November 2008 and his Cairo Speech in June 2009. Furthermore, the construction of the Cordoba House did not pose any legal problems which would necessitate new rules or regulations. Like numerous other issues regarding the construction, sale, and use of places of worship, the transformation of the building at 51 Park Place was in accordance with well-established legal processes regulated by two key principles of the American Constitution: the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment and the right to property. How then did Cordoba House go from a simple legal matter to be settled by the New York courts to a public controversy where the themes of moral offense and insulted sensitivity competed with Constitutional principles?
7After outlining the various stages in the development of the Ground Zero mosque controversy, this paper will examine the different registers and means of reasoning developed by the project’s opponents and its supporters. What makes the opponents’ argument distinctive is that it is based upon the use of a new type of normative repertoire: that of moral offense and suffering. Such a redefinition of the boundaries between rights and emotions does not, however, express an ethical, anti-political or anti-liberal turning point in the American public debate over religious freedom. The moral repertoire of pain and offense is instead a particular discursive strategy by which the denouncers of the Cordoba House project strove to prolong the controversy, even after they had lost every legal or technical argument that could have justified their opposition to the cultural center.
The constitutional controversy
8While certain ideological and political currents such as the Tea Party played a significant role in the development of this controversy, the Ground Zero affair was not simply the result of a single party or movement’s activism or political machinations, be it the Republican Party, the Tea Party or the Catholic church. Between December 2009 and September 2010, the world witnessed the convergence of diverse actors and the confrontation between numerous camps, themes, ways of thinking and normative repertoires. The controversy was essentially the result of imitation and escalation, through which a diverse range of participants came to support or oppose the mosque’s construction in the name of various causes and for different reasons. The arguments of one side were constructed as responses to or contextual confirmations of the other side’s reasons.
Initial positive reactions
9The plans for the construction of an Islamic Cultural Center were announced on 9 December 2010 in a New York Times article that expressed a favorable opinion of a “renewal close to Ground Zero”.  Journalists Ralph Blumenthal and Sharf Mowjood explained that the building located at 51 Park Place had been abandoned after being partially damaged by the explosion of one of the airplanes during the September 11th attacks. Since then, the building had been used as a prayer site by Muslims who regularly attended the neighboring mosque, al Farah, which was no longer large enough to accommodate the growing community. Built in 1923, the building had been purchased in 1968 by the businessmen and entrepreneurs Sy Syms (1923-2009) and Irving Pomerantz, and until 1990 the Syms clothing store had occupied the premises. After the store closed and the two associates parted ways, the building was rented to the Burlington Coat Factory Company, which is owned by the Milstein family. After the building’s roof was destroyed by one of the airplanes on 11 September 2001, Kukiko Mitani, the wife of Stephen Pomerantz and thus the building’s owner, put the property up for sale. Initially setting the building’s price at $18 million, the financial crisis forced her to finally sell the property for $4.85 million to the real estate investment group Soho Properties in July 2009. Headed by businessman Sherif El-Gamal,  Soho Properties included the Cordoba project (founded by the Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf) among its shareholders.
10The 9 December newspaper article reported the positive responses received from both political and religious leaders in New York City. Andrew Brent, the spokesperson for New York City’s Mayor’s Office, announced that Imam Rauf had informed Mayor Michael Bloomberg of his project at an iftar ceremony during Ramadan in September 2009. The mayor had not expressed any concern or worry over the project: “If it’s legal, the building’s owners have the right to do what they want with it. ”  Questioned over the risks that the Cordoba House posed to Manhattan’s security, the New York Police Department and FBI spokespeople affirmed their positive relationship with Imam Rauf, and they refuted alarmist predictions as unfounded. According to Raymond Kelly, the New York Police Department Commissioner, the construction project presented absolutely no danger to the security of Manhattan residents. Carly Sullivan, spokesperson for the Department of Buildings (the municipal service responsible for applying rules concerning urban development), denied rumors that 51 Park Place would be illegally occupied by Muslims for several months. The building, she explained, was occupied in total accordance with the law: the space was officially rented by the Muslim community once a week, thanks to the provisional assembly permit granted by the city. Lynn Rasic, spokesperson for the 9/11 National Memorial, an association on whose council Daisy Khan (the wife of Feisel Abdul Rauf) sits, described the “idea of a cultural center which strengthens ties between Muslims and people of all faiths and backgrounds” as “positive”. When questioned, religious leaders praised the initiative as a major contribution to inter-religious dialogue. Rabbi Arthur Schneider, spiritual guide since 1962 of the Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side, declared that he was highly favorable to the project. Similarly, Joan Brown Campbell, the former Secretary General of the National Council of Churches of Christ, an ecumenical organization that brings together different Protestant denominations, expressed her support for Imam Faisal. In December 2009, the Cordoba House was seen not as a scandalous project, but rather as a non-controversial, safe and legal undertaking, and furthermore as a positive initiative for relations between different religious communities.
Polemicists from the Tea Party movement
11In April 2010, the Cordoba House project reappeared in American public debate against a background marked by the Republican Party’s intensifying opposition to reforms proposed by the Obama administration, and by the upcoming midterm elections of November 2010. Long before the Cordoba House project, the reform of Social Security and Barack Obama’s desire to break with the “clash of civilizations” approach were two of the main targets for the president’s opponents, in particular the Tea Party.  Pamela Geller, author of the “Atlas Shrugged” blog, and Robert Spencer, editor of the anti-Islamic website “Jihad Watch”, became two of the main opponents of the project at 51 Park Place. Since the early 2000s, Geller has regularly used her blog to denounce the violence and absence of freedom that she views as inherent to Islam. She has also called for Israel to retake control of the Gaza strip and criticized intellectual Jewish liberals such as Noam Chomsky and George Soros for their “self-destructive” attitudes. She has frequently expressed her support for the Dutch member of parliament Geert Wielders’s ideas and those of the English Defence League,  an extreme-rightwing British movement that has established the fight against “radical Islam” as its main cause. Geller was thus among the first to react to the article published in the New York Times on 9 December. In a message published on her blog on 21 December 2010, she criticized the New York Times journalist for “trying to play to the gallery by making apologies for this monstrosity”, and then went on to speculate about Muslims in general: “What is wrong with these people? Do they not have a heart or a soul?” 
12Robert Spencer earned his master’s degree in Catholic history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, but is self-taught in theology and Islamic history. A practicing member of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church,  in 2003 he created “Jihad Watch”, a website that denounces what he defines as “the combined effort of Islamists around the world to destabilize non-Muslim societies”. As the author of several books on Islam  and a regular contributor to FrontPage magazine (whose editor is neoconservative David Horowitz), Robert Spencer enjoys the support of controversial figures and neoconservative political leaders such as the historian Daniel Pipes, former CIA Director James Woolsey, and former founder of the Project for a New American Century, Frank Gaffney. Co-authors of a highly critical book about the Obama administration,  Geller and Spencer became two of the most outspoken media figures to denounce the Cordoba House project. The two co-founded the group “Stop Islamization of America” (whose name mirrors that of its parent organization, “Stop Islamization of Europe” ), using alarmist remarks to warn that the construction of a mosque so close to where the Twin Towers fell would represent a symbolic victory for the attackers:
“After all, the Twin Towers were the symbol of American economic power. Building a mosque so close to the place where they were destroyed (by Islamic jihadists) symbolizes the domestication of this power. ” 
The vote by the municipal council and the Landmarks Preservation Commission
14Throughout May 2010, polemicists such as Geller, Spencer and the popular Fox News host Glenn Beck magnified and intensified their attacks against Islam. However, on 25 May, in a 29 to 1 vote (with 10 abstentions), the Lower Manhattan Community Board  voted in favor of the Cordoba House project. Although this vote was advisory rather than binding, it demonstrated an important gap between the way that Cordoba House was discussed by certain media outlets, on the one hand, and the analysis of the project by those political representatives most closely concerned in its development. Despite all the condemnations of Islam and warnings against Imam Rauf voiced during the public hearings on 25 May, the Lower Manhattan Community Board concluded that Cordoba House was a positive initiative.
15Far from putting a stop to the controversy, this decision only exacerbated opponents’ reactions. The 25 May vote catalyzed the organization and escalation of arguments by activists close to the Tea Party movement. In response to this vote, Geller and Spencer organized a demonstration in the name of the “Stop Islamization of America” (SIOA) group, which took place on 6 June at the corner of Church Street and Liberty Street (close to Ground Zero). The demonstrators’ placards had slogans such as “You can build a mosque at Ground Zero when we can build a synagogue in Mecca”, “Everything that I need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11”, “It’s the jihad, idiot”, and “Mayor Bloomberg, your shameful silence dishonors the ashes of 3,000 New Yorkers”.  Throughout the demonstration, speeches were made by extreme right-wing European leaders, American Copts of Arab origin, supporters of the state of Israel, and former Muslims who had converted to other religions or were now atheists. Opposition to the Islamic cultural center’s construction became an opportunity to defend a range of causes as disparate as the rights of Copts in Egypt, the right of Muslims to leave the faith or convert to another religion, Israel’s security and the survival of Christianity in the Western world. Geert Wielders gave a speech warning the American public of the danger of the country’s “Islamization”, something similar to what, in his opinion, was in the process of destroying Europe. Joseph Nasrallah, a Coptic activist of Egyptian origin, spoke in the name of “all American Copts” and denounced Islam’s deception (taqiya). Displaying a picture of an Egyptian Copt allegedly assassinated on Christmas Day by a Muslim mob, he declared that now that it had conquered Egypt, Islam was preparing to do the same thing to the United States. Sam Khosbaten, an Iranian-born American activist, spoke “on behalf of the Iranian-American community” to offer his condolences to the attack victims, and then launched into a diatribe against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Following the demonstration on 6 June, former Muslims who had converted to Christianity and groups of former Muslims who had become atheists, such as the group “Why we left Islam”,  were regularly invited to appear as guests on televised broadcasts and called upon to explain the scandalous nature of Imam Rauf’s project. Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a Hamas member,  a former spy for Israel’s Shin Bet and a Christian convert since 1999, described Imam Rauf as “crazy“ and “dangerous” during a Fox News interview on 20 August 2010.  According to Yousef, the Cordoba Initiative was merely a front for a plan to conquer America, and it was furthermore the incarnation (like every mosque on American soil) of a source of division (fitna) of the people’s unity.
16Just over a month after the 6 June demonstration, the Landmarks Preservation Commission  once again revealed the significant gap between the perception of part of the American public and the opinion of those most involved with the future of 51 Park Place. During a day of heated public hearings organized at Hunter College, one after the other speakers violently denounced the cultural center from the podium. At the end of the day, the nine commissioners decided in a unanimous vote not to grant the building landmark status. In so doing, they removed the last legal recourse opponents had to prevent the construction of the Islamic center. The Commission declared that the building did not possess sufficient architectural and esthetic characteristics to warrant landmark status. While part of the American public continued to mobilize against the project, the Community Board’s vote on 25 May and the Landmark Preservation Commission’s decision on 13 July removed every fundamental legal obstacle to the construction of the Islamic cultural center. These votes also revealed the favorable opinion of the project held by both Lower Manhattan residents and the experts in charge of protecting the city’s heritage.
The midterm election campaign at stake
17Starting in June 2010, political leaders – who had previously kept a low profile compared to activists and other controversial figures – also seized the debate. Cordoba House subsequently became a central issue between Democratic and Republican candidates competing in the November 2010 midterm elections. Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo  declared that he was in favor of Cordoba House in the name of diversity and tolerance. Rick Lazio, a former member of Congress from Long Island and a Republican candidate for governor of New York, publicly called into question Imam Rauf’s integrity. Presenting himself as the protector of the memory of September 11th victims and of New York’s security, on 7 July he sent a letter to Andrew Cuomo, demanding that the latter open an investigation into the Islamic cultural center’s funding. During his campaign for governor of New York in 2000, Lazio had already attacked his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, by criticizing her for accepting a $50,000 donation from the Muslim American Alliance, some of whose members had publicly defended Hamas. Condemning Imam Rauf’s project in 2010 similarly allowed Lazio to discredit his Democratic opponent, Cuomo,  but above all it helped him to avoid being bested by his Republican rival, Carl Paladino. A former member of the Democratic Party  who is now supported by the Tea Party movement, Paladino opposes abortion and gay rights, but also made the headlines several times for his extra-marital affairs. Paladino based his campaign on reforming New York’s education system, reducing taxes and criticizing social security reform. From July 2010, hostile criticism of Cordoba House became a major theme in his campaign. The two rival Republican candidates began to engage in a contest of one-upmanship, continuously escalating their condemnation of the Islamic cultural center. In a radio interview from 22 July, Paladino warned Imam Rauf and Soho Property:
“As governor I will use the power of eminent domain  to stop this mosque and make the site a war memorial instead of a monument to those who attacked our country.”
19The Republican candidate also rejected any references to tolerance, in the name of which his Democratic rival, Cuomo, defended the project. The standard by which Cordoba House must be evaluated, he said, was not tolerance, but rather respect for the memory of the attacks’ victims.
“He [Cuomo] says that it is about religious freedom and he says that the mosque construction should proceed. I say that it is disrespectful to the thousands who died on September 11th and their families, insulting to the thousands of troops who’ve been killed or injured in the ensuing wars, and an affront to the American people.” 
21On 15 September, the day after his victory over Lazio in the Republican primaries, Paladino continued his attack during an interview on CNN. When journalist Rick Sanchez asked if he was really able to expropriate 51 Park Place from its new owners, Paladino was forced to revise the threat he made in July:
“Let me correct on that ok? That was a partial misstatement on my part. We will go in there and we will put a restrictive covenant on the property and all of the property in the Ground Zero site.”
23Questioned over what he would consider a suitable distance from the former World Trade Center, Paladino answered:
“Ground Zero for me is the extended site over which the dust cloud containing human remains traveled. That Ground Zero site will be protected in memory of those who fell at the World Trade Center, as well as the memory of the thousands and thousands of soldiers – of American and Allied soldiers – that fell in the ensuing wars, and the 150,000 troops we still have over there defending our right to speak like this today.”
25In contrast to the arguments put forth by Paladino and Lazio, political officials defended Cordoba House in the name of religious freedom and the right to property. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg publicly supported Imam Rauf’s project during a speech delivered on 3 August 2010 on Governor’s Island, across the water from the Statue of Liberty. Joined by representatives from ten different faiths, Mr. Bloomberg recalled how critical the mix of cultures and religions is as a central element to American and New York identity. Pointing out how every religious minority – Jewish, Quaker and Catholic – had historically been a victim of the majority’s hostility and prejudices, he reminded the city that it was important to treat Muslims with greater respect and tolerance. A state attempt to force Cordoba House’s shareholders to find another location was not only contrary to religious freedom, but also contrary to the fundamental principle of ownership. Implicitly responding to Paladino’s threats, Bloomberg maintained the following:
“The simple fact is, the building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were to try, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.”
27On 13 August 2010, during the annual ifta ceremony organized by the White House, President Obama defended the Cordoba House project. Like New York’s mayor,  he emphasized religious freedom, insisted upon the difference between Islam and terrorism, and emphasized that Muslims had their place within the American nation.
The Staten Island controversy and Archbishop Dolan’s position
28The scope of the Ground Zero case helped raise the profile of another local controversy, this one related to the purchase of a vacant convent by the local Muslim community. The Staten Island arguments echoed those of the Ground Zero debate, and likewise contributed to amplifying the Ground Zero case. In May 2010, Father Keith Fennessy signed a contract to sell Saint Margaret Mary Church’s unoccupied convent to the Muslim American Society (MAS ) for $750,000. However, due to increasing opposition from Staten Island’s Catholic community, the parish priest quickly changed his mind. On 10 June during a public hearing session organized by the Midland Beach Civil Association, Ayman Hammous, the representative from MAS’s Staten Island branch, was accused of being a member of Hamas and having ties to Hezbollah. In a letter sent to Archbishop Timothy Dolan on 15 June 2010, Fr. Fennessy explained that after considering MAS’s offer more carefully, he was forced to state “I have concluded that the contemplated sale would not serve the needs of the parish.” 
29Because any sale of the parish’s property must be approved by the parish’s board of shareholders, of which the New York archbishop is a member, Archbishop Dolan  had the final say. Declining to give a clear answer throughout all of June, Archbishop Dolan did, in contrast, emphasize the similarity between the Staten Island case and the Manhattan case. In a blog post published on 8 June, the archbishop connected the two controversies to the same problem: tolerance towards “outsiders” and “new arrivals”. Nevertheless, Archbishop Dolan neither openly defended Cordoba House nor expressly approved the sale of the Staten Island convent. He believed it was entirely “acceptable ” to “ask questions about security, safety, the background, and history of the groups trying to build and buy”.  A month later, on 15 July, the archbishop finally voted against the convent’s sale, and a few days later MAS agreed to look for a different location to build the mosque. The Staten Island case thus concluded, Archbishop Dolan then indicated his willingness to serve as an intermediary to find Imam Rauf another location for the cultural center’s construction, thereby hinting at his opposition to the Cordoba House project.
30On 17 August, the archbishop gave a speech at a homeless shelter during which he referred to Pope John Paul II’s 1993 decision to forbid the construction of a convent at Auschwitz, out of respect for the memory of the Holocaust victims.  By referencing the Carmelite convent controversy, the archbishop called for Imam Rauf to show sensitivity and appealed to his sense of propriety in respecting the suffering of the September 11th victims, without openly refuting his right to build a mosque close to Ground Zero. The comparison with the Carmelite case was significant. Archbishop Dolan thus suggested that Imam Rauf’s role in the New York debate was equivalent to the pope’s role in 1993, while omitting the fact that an imam’s authority over the Muslim community is not at all comparable to the pope’s authority over the Catholic community. These theological and religious differences were erased in favor of an identification based on the spokesman-like role assigned to both the pope and the imam. They were compared based upon their ability to represent and speak for their respective congregations. Archbishop Dolan’s reference to the pope’s attitude in 1993 served as a patriotic and nationalist argument, rather than a religious one. The archbishop pleaded in favor not of the rights of Christians and Catholics, but instead the rights of Americans, who continued to bear the memory of the September 11th attacks when seeing Ground Zero. Similarly, as Geneviève Zubrzycki has shown, the controversy over the Carmelite convent and the removal of a large cross that had been placed at Auschwitz was first and foremost about Polish national identity, rather than an abstract conflict between Judaism and Catholicism. In the post-Communist context of the 1990s, when asserting the Catholic faith was intrinsically linked to the expression of Polish nationalism, those in favor of keeping the cross at Auschwitz fought for the recognition of the “rights of the Polish people” at the site. In doing so, the cross’s supporters rejected the Polish identity of Jews from Poland. While the context and the issues in the Manhattan case were very different, there nonetheless remains an analogous attitude on the part of the Cordoba House project’s opponents. Those against the project transformed the Ground Zero neighborhood into a sacred site to which only non-Muslim Americans could claim rights. In recalling the fact that the terrorists were Muslims and associating Cordoba House with the attacks, its opponents called into question the “American-ness” of the Muslims who initiated the project, as well as the patriotic loyalty of the non-Muslims who supported it.
31At the end of spring 2010, the Ground Zero controversy set off a domino effect, with many debates erupting around the country over the legalization of mosque construction and the question of whether Islam is a religion or an ideology. While mosque cases and accusations against Islam continued to increase, the terms used to describe what was at stake in the Ground Zero controversy became more and more sensational. The project’s opponents called it a “mega-mosque”,  applying an expression usually used to describe Pentecostal megachurches to the Muslim context. The building’s size and cost (estimated at $100 million) were frequently pointed out to condemn the provocative nature of this “fifteen-storey tower”. In the context of the intensifying Ground Zero debate, local controversies quickly gained national significance. At the end of July, a demonstration was organized in Riverside County California to protest the construction of a Muslim community center. Inspired by the invectives and slogans used during the New York SIOA demonstration on 6 June, the Riverside organizers invited the demonstrators to bring their dogs because Muslims “hate dogs”. Women were also encouraged to sing because in Islam “women don’t have the right to sing”. 
32The peak of the Cordoba House-inspired debates occurred in Gainesville, Florida, when an evangelical pastor, Terry Jones, planned to organize a Qur’an burning on 11 September, declaring it “International Burn a Qur’an Day”. The pastor of a small, 50-member extremist Christian community (Dove World Outreach Center ) and author of the book Islam Comes from the Devil, Terry Jones began to post Twitter messages on 12 July, announcing his plan to burn Qur’ans. Contrary to the Cordoba House project, which was the subject of a true debate between supporters and detractors of the initiative, Terry Jones’ project was almost unanimously rejected and criticized by Gainesville leaders, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious organizations, President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and General Petraeus. Although he originally led the public to believe that he would go through with his plan, the pastor abandoned it on 10 September. The Terry Jones case can be clearly distinguished from the Ground Zero controversy by the nearly unanimous disapproval expressed against the pastor’s plan. By bringing certain anti-Cordoba House arguments that had developed during the preceding months to such a climax, the incident helped to defuse the Ground Zero controversy.
33The Ground Zero debate continued between December 2009 and September 2010, giving rise to confrontations of themes, actors and different ways of reasoning. While a range of actors and paradigms were involved, the Ground Zero debate was above all a confrontation between two distinct types of reasoning: the law and public expertise on the one hand, and the political and media debate on the other. Between December and September, several major decisions and public declarations were made which, in theory, should have been able to settle the controversy: the Community Board’s vote on 25 May and the Landmark Commission’s vote on 13 July, as well as the statements by the FBI and the New York Police Department, and reminders from President Obama and the New York mayor that the Cordoba House project was consistent with the two fundamental American rights of religious freedom and the right to property. However, far from ending the debate, all of these actions and decisions only further exacerbated the opposition from certain sectors of public opinion, contributing at each turn to the arrival of new critics. The debate spread despite the fact that the Cordoba project’s opponents were consistently losing every legal and technical argument against its development. A closer analysis is necessary to understand exactly what the American public disputed for over six months. The public hearings organized by the Landmark Preservation Commission on 13 July offer a clear picture of the themes, paradigms and normative repertoires used by participants in the controversy.
Moral offense versus religious freedom
Moral relevance versus legal relevance
34“This is not a debate over religious liberty”, stated Paladino’s spokesperson before the Landmark Preservation Commission on 13 July 2010:
“It if was just a question of religious freedom”, he continued, “we would not be here discussing it. The problem is simple: it’s the structure’s siting.”
36Numerous critics of Imam Rauf felt that while the Cordoba House project might indeed be legal, it was nothing less than an affront to the victims of September 11th and an outrage, a provocation, even a monstrosity.
“It is an enormous lack of respect to build a mosque so close to what we consider hallowed ground”, a participant lamented. “I am ashamed that you can so easily envision such a project after all that we have endured, not only us New Yorkers but the entire country. We have suffered terribly. How can you authorize this while it is so painful for us?”
38The type of activities that the cultural center intended to organize was irrelevant: its opponents saw it as an irredeemably humiliating and outrageous symbol. As Paladino’s spokesperson stated, it was the expected visibility of this fifteen-storey tower that was shocking to the public, not the principle of religious freedom. It was thus not a question of forbidding the construction of a mosque in the United States, but of protesting the establishment of such a building so close to the “hallowed” ground of Ground Zero.
Reversing the accusation of intolerance
39In response to those who accused them of racism and discrimination, Cordoba House’s opponents countered that Muslims were the intolerant ones, given their insensitivity to the suffering of their fellow Americans. During the public hearings on 13 July, a speaker explained it thusly:
Moderate Muslims were called upon to block Imam Rauf and his colleagues’ attempts to create divisions within American society. “Good Muslims of every country, where are you now? How can you not speak out?” one participant cried out at the end of his comments.“What I don’t understand about the Muslim community is why they don’t show a bit of tolerance for us. Why don’t Muslims say, ‘Alright, let’s build this mosque somewhere else’? The only thing I see is them trying to divide us, and when someone divides, they conquer… I want to see some tolerance for us, since we lost 3,000 people.”
Imitating European debates over Islam
40The Manhattan controversy in many ways offers a reverse image of the polemic surrounding the publication of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. In 2006 as in 2010 legal arguments (around free speech in 2006, religious freedom in 2010) were mobilized against the normative repertoire of religious and moral sensitivity. In these two controversies, the roles of Muslims and their opponents were reversed, but the debate’s structure was the same. Critics of the Cordoba House project strategically emphasized the similarity between the two debates. During the 6 June demonstration organized by SIOA, the protestors’ placards copied the Danish cartoon images of the Prophet wearing a turban in the form of a bomb. One sign said, “And they found the cartoon insulting!”, thus making the opponents’ position a retort not only to the imam’s allies, but also to the Muslims who were offended by the cartoons in 2006. On 13 July, a participant strove to explain the significance of symbols to Muslims as a way of challenging the fact that Muslims refused to understand the symbolic meaning of the Ground Zero neighborhood for Americans:
In the debates over the cartoons, Muslims’ sensibilities were offended and this was at odds with the freedom of expression upheld by journalists and secular political leaders. The New York debate presented a diametrically opposed situation, since it was now the Muslim participants and the Cordoba House’s defenders who were appealing to the secular register of religious freedom. Their critics invoked the theme of moral injury, without specifically defining the feeling of offense taken as either Jewish or Christian. Although some individuals, falling back upon the classic paradigm of the clash of civilizations, spoke of a conflict between Judeo-Christian values and Islamic values, the majority of those using the moral offense argument explained that their outrage was due to the hallowed nature of Ground Zero, rather than to Judeo-Christian values. This sacredness came from the magnitude of the attack, rather than a single religious tradition. Even if the two aspects were undeniably linked, it was the suffering of the victims’ families that was sanctified here, more so than their religious identity.“I have Muslim friends, but I am against this project. We are asking Imam Abdul Rauf to honor us, to admit that this is a sensitive topic and that it is truly offensive for them to do it. We must be respectful of Muslims, I am not against that. But where is the respect that they owe us? There are plenty of places where they could build this mosque. In the Muslim world, symbols are taken very seriously. For example, the Prophet Mohammed. With the cartoons, what did they do? They went into the streets, they organized riots and they killed 50 people. That shows just how important symbols are for them.”
The right to irrationality and the trade in grievances
41The New York controversy thus inverted what the public invoked as a legitimate source of rights. Even if we concede the existence of religious freedom as guaranteed by the Constitution, Muslims were still being asked to abstain from exercising their constitutionally granted right. As irrational as they may seem, emotion and suffering became, on the other hand, a legitimate basis for a right. Numerous participants compared the pain experienced by Americans remembering the September 11th attacks to the suffering of Holocaust survivors. Explaining that “Holocaust survivors are entitled to express feelings which are irrational”, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) President Abraham Foxman stated that the “anguish [of the families of 9/11 victims] entitles them to positions that others would characterize as irrational or bigoted”.  The ADL also published a communiqué in which the association conceded that Muslims had the right to build a mosque where the current building at 51 Park Place stands, but nevertheless declared such a project inappropriate:
“Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen this site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.” 
Reparations and commemoration
43From the point of view of those who believe emotion has the force of law, recognizing the sacred nature of the Ground Zero neighborhood was an essential condition for reparations. The 13 July exchange between the Landmarks Preservation Commission and its audience revealed two different ways of referencing American history and memory. The commission attempted to demonstrate to the public that the building at 51 Park Place did not possess sufficient criteria to be granted historic monument status. Therefore, they concluded, nothing stood in the way of the Islamic cultural center’s construction, in conformity with America’s tradition of tolerance. The majority of the public, however, tried to convince the commission that the building did indeed deserve historic monument status because of its “participation ” in the events that occurred on 11 September 2001. This discussion was thus simultaneously directed towards two types of historic references. For the commission, it was a matter of determining if the building met the necessary aesthetic criteria of Italian Renaissance palaces in order to be classified as a historic monument. For the public, the moment being referenced as an important historical turning point was not time of the building’s construction at the beginning of the twentieth century, but instead the day of the World Trade Center attacks. The commission began the day of public hearings with a presentation of reasons explaining why the building at 51 Park Place could not, in the Commission’s opinion, receive historic monument status:
“The property does not fulfill the conditions necessary to be classified. Its characteristics are neither unique nor celebratory. The building does not meet the criteria.”
45This decision concluded an ongoing series of observations made by different Landmarks Commission members since 1989, the year when discussions regarding the possibility of granting the building special status first began. A large part of the audience, however, refused to accept this decision and affirmed that, as the only “survivor” of the September 11th attacks, the building was in fact unique. Describing the building as though it were a heroic person, numerous speakers sought to demonstrate that “the building deserves landmark status for historic reasons”. While acknowledging that the building’s aesthetic qualities were debatable, one participant asked experts to modify the basic criteria used to determine if the building should be granted historical monument status.
“The building isn’t very aesthetically pleasing, so I understand why you don’t want to grant it historical status. But to the extent that it was involved in the events of September 11th, there cannot be any debate over its historic significance. We must not forget what happened on September 11th. We are losing our history and it’s up to you to save it.”
47Transforming the Ground Zero site and its surroundings into a place of commemoration would also maintain Americans’ awareness of the dangers of Islam, and allow them to reassure themselves that such attacks could never happen again. Several witnesses insisted upon the educational role played by the building: “This building should be a museum. The entire neighborhood should become a historic neighborhood and a museum to commemorate September 11th”, one participant suggested. Similarly, another stated:
“How can we eradicate this memory? Why not commemorate this event with a multimedia research center dedicated to the events of September 11th? Families could find comfort here knowing that American history remembers those they loved.”
Parody of reason and collective propriety
49How should one analyze the importance of affect, suffering and emotions and the discredit brought upon constitutional rights in the New York controversy? What exactly permits the use of “offense” as an argument, and what type of collective contract is implicitly invoked by the opponents of the Cordoba House project? In what way does their denial of the First Amendment’s relevance demonstrate a reconsideration of the liberal ideal of debate and conflict settlement? Should the Ground Zero controversy be seen as an anti-liberal – or even anti-political – turning point for part of the American public?
The liberal recognition of moral offense
50One of the assumptions made by Imam Rauf’s critics was that invoking religious freedom was incompatible with recognizing the suffering of the Ground Zero victims’ families. One might take issue with this argument further, given that liberal political theory in no way excludes the principle of mutual recognition with regard to suffering and offense. An exhaustive analysis of the ways in which different liberal approaches envision the role of affect and offense in public deliberation and policies is beyond the scope of this paper. It is nevertheless appropriate to bear in mind the fundamental elements of these approaches in order to illustrate the ambiguity and complexity of the arguments made by the Cordoba House critics. These opponents rejected the relevance of the First Amendment and invoked a type of contract based more on emotion than reason, but nonetheless had recourse to certain, specifically liberal, ways of reasoning.
51The ideal of a deliberative democracy founded upon public reason grants a place for expressing ideological convictions and feelings of suffering and offense. But referring to comprehensive doctrines and emotional experiences cannot justify a refusal to adhere to the basic principles of a liberal democracy. It is impossible, John Rawls asserts, to be a wholehearted member of a democratic society and endorse society’s intrinsic political ideals and values, if all one does is simply acquiesce to the balance of social and political forces.  No matter how intense the feeling of offense may be, or how strong one’s attachment to a certain doctrine, it is not possible to change the Constitution and the laws in order to establish the hegemony of this doctrine or relativize one’s duties with regard to others all in the name of suffering. Additionally, no group can claim that its doctrine and its emotions are superior to the doctrines and emotions of those of others. A feminist group offended by sexist advertisements does not have the right to hope that their feelings of offense will be recognized as having greater value than the feelings of offense experienced by a religious community when viewing cartoons that they perceive as blasphemous. From the point of view of public reason, defending equality and reciprocity means that citizens must vote for the ordering of political values which they “sincerely” think the most reasonable, and not merely those which fit with their own doctrines or emotions. 
52Likewise, concerning the criteria used to regulate or punish behavior, suffering and offense are recognized as relevant criteria, but within certain limits. Beyond the differences that distinguish them, liberal theorists concur in their wariness of restricting free speech out of fear of offending others. John Stuart Mill stated that every opinion should be accepted,  however immoral it might seem to others. The limits of free speech are based upon the principle of preventing harm to others.  While recognizing that numerous acts can appear insulting or contrary to good manners, J. S. Mill refuses to legally prohibit them. Only speech that causes direct and immediate harm can be censored. In the same vein, philosopher Joel Feinberg distinguishes between the principle of harm and that of offense. Because the notion of harm is based on the idea of direct and immediate injury to others, he explains, it cannot be used to regulate offensive behavior that does not cause immediate harm. While punishment for offending others should be less severe than punishment for causing harm, the standards used to determine the nature and degree of the offense are nevertheless quite complex. Feinberg states that it is important to take numerous factors into account, such as the importance and social interest of the offending remarks or act, the number of people offended, the question of whether or not the injured party can easily extricate him or herself from the offensive situation, and whether the victim speaks as a mere individual or on behalf of an entire group. The feeling of insult described by the Cordoba House project’s critics corresponds with what Feinberg describes as a profound offense, defined by its impersonal character and based on a moral conception and not simply on a physical reaction such as disgust or annoyance. Indeed, those who rejected the construction of a mosque at Ground Zero did not speak only for themselves, nor were they provoked by an immediately bothersome experience: the feeling of offense was just as strong for people living in Florida as for those who living in Manhattan and who feared being forced to see a mosque daily. This offense came from the perception that the project was unjust to the suffering of Americans, rather than simply an inconvenience (for example, the anticipated increase in traffic close to the mosque). And yet, Feinberg  explains, even in the case of a profound offense, the difficulty of determining the degree and nature of the offense greatly complicates the possibility of punishment. For this reason, certain liberal thinkers have put forward the even more radical idea that offense is not an appropriate reason to justify the limitation of free speech. Hence, for Ruwan Ogien,  freedom of expression necessarily implies the freedom to offend. It is simply a matter of distinguishing the offense (brought about by abstract realities that provoke disgust, annoyance or indignation) from the harm (brought about through attempts at bodily harm or damage caused to material goods).
53The debate that took place in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s regarding the censorship of pornography clearly illustrates the reticence of liberal thinkers to limit free speech in the name of potential offense. In 1983, Catherine MacKinnon, an American feminist and lawyer, drafted with Andrea Dworkin, a feminist activist, the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance, in which she attempted to show that pornography should be forbidden not as an attack on morality, but as an act of discrimination against women and a form of hate speech. The ordinance argued that pornography is a form of harm against women because it creates an image of reality in which women are unequal and submissive to men. Liberal thinkers and feminists alike rejected such reasoning by pointing out that there was insufficient evidence to support the causal link between pornography and violent or discriminatory behavior towards women. They further warned against the idea of censoring disturbing ideas and images.  Similarly, while acknowledging that pornography could be offensive and contributed very little to public and social progress, Ronald Dworkin considered a total ban on pornography contrary to liberal principles. Sexists and bigots, he says, have the right to express their views, but do not have the right to make sexist or discriminatory laws. Likewise, in commenting on the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision to allow the censorship of certain types of pornography,  R. Dworkin was surprised by this decision that he believed to be “extraordinary”.
“It is the central, defining premise of freedom of speech that the offensiveness of ideas, or the challenge they offer to traditional ideas, cannot be a valid reason for censorship… Every powerful and controversial idea has a potential negative impact on someone’s self-esteem.” 
55MacKinnon,  on the other hand, rejected the relevance of the liberal argument in terms of defending free speech. She stated the harm in pornography is contained in what it does, not what it says. It is therefore invalid to protect it in the name of defending free speech:
“In light of this, Professor Dworkin’s discussion on protecting ‘views’, ‘ideas’, ‘opinions’, and ‘tastes’ through protecting pornography is beside the point… the ordinance made some of that behavior, and not thoughts, actionable. Our argument is not that ideas and actions are causally connected, although they no doubt are. It is that pornography is factually connected in many ways to a whole array of tangible human injuries.” 
57The Ground Zero controversy and the debate over the publication of the aforementioned Danish cartoons perfectly express the disagreement between MacKinnon and liberal thinkers and activists on the subject of pornography. In all three controversies, there is a clash between those in favor of applying the liberal principles of free speech and religious freedom, and those who call for a greater recognition of the value and repercussions of moral offense. In other words, while underscoring the importance of two-way recognition of suffering and offense, liberal thinkers and activists refuse to establish limits to free speech and consequential punishment in the name of offense.
Recognizing the offense and anti-liberal or anti-political critiques
58For this reason, the call for greater recognition of the pain caused by moral offense often draws upon a virulent critique of liberalism. The introduction of moral offense into the Danish cartoon debate has largely been analyzed as a critique of liberalism. Just as MacKinnon has criticized her liberal interlocutors for reducing the pornography debate to an issue of free speech, likewise for researchers such as Saba Mahmood  and Peter Danchin , liberal political theory incorrectly established the religious cartoon question as stemming from a debate on free speech, thereby revealing its inability to grasp what makes religious sentiment so unique. Saba Mahmood states that liberal thinkers are unable to appreciate the “true ” nature of the moral offense endured by Muslims at the sight of cartoons of the Prophet, for they cannot understand the unique relationship that connects followers with Mohammed. The problem with the cartoons of the Prophet, as with pornography according to MacKinnon, is what they do, not what they say. The American anthropologist describes this relationship as a type of assimilation and an “inhabitation” :
“Such an inhabitation of the model… is the result of a labor of love in which one is bound to the authorial figure through a sense of intimacy and desire. It is not due to the compulsion of the law that one emulates the Prophet’s conduct, therefore, but because of the ethical capacities one has developed that incline one to behave in a certain way.” 
60The indignation expressed by Muslims at sight of the cartoons was not based on an intellectual and analytical rebuttal of the way a symbol was misused or distorted, but instead emerged from a visceral feeling of offense experienced by every Muslim by his or her profound subjectivity. In this regard, the standard for moral offense exposes the inability of liberalism’s theoretical and political presuppositions to understand, and thus adequately protect, religion. 
61The increasing frequency of references to victims’ suffering in the public arena has often been interpreted as the sign of the anti-political “ethical turning point” of liberal democracy. Researcher Bonnie Honig  has described this approach as “mortalist humanism”, which defines humanity not by an equal ability to reason but rather by a shared vulnerability to suffering. The liberal policy of deliberation and agon is thus gradually replaced by a collective ethics of lamentation and pity.  For post-modern thinkers such as Steven White, Judith Butler and Nicole Loraux, humans are less linked by their common linguistic ability to deliberate and reason than they are by the same capacity for suffering. From this perspective, Muslim cries of suffering at the sight of the cartoons and American cries of suffering at the idea of a mosque being built at Ground Zero would express this extra-political substratum, which Butler has described as “the sound of language evacuating its sense”. 
62Trying to understand the consequences of the moral offense argument from these anti-liberal and postmodern points of view is nonetheless problematic, since the two approaches presuppose an extra-linguistic affect, whose existence precedes or surpasses linguistic exchange. And yet, how can it be claimed that the offense argument is the direct expression of a morally offended sensibility, when this has been described as inaccessible to the observer who does not share the same religious and moral beliefs, and possibly even linguistically ungraspable? Anti-liberal and anti-political hypotheses are debatable insofar as they are based on a sort of theoretical black box, which makes this moral affect totally inaccessible to outside observers. Above all, neither perspective gives enough importance to the practice of judgment, through which suffering of a religious or moral subjectivity is necessarily filtered. The opponents of Cordoba House were not satisfied expressing suffering: they also expressed judgment ( “We have been tolerant with you, now it’s your turn to be tolerant”) and made declarations that at least initially appeared reasonable ( “Why would we accept a mosque in New York when there is no synagogue in Saudi Arabia?”). I do not seek here to challenge the fact that some people were truly hurt by the cartoons or the New York mosque. But to the extent that this suffering did not impact anyone’s existence and was thus only observable to social sciences through the practice of discursive judgment, we must focus in particular on the nature of this language game around suffering, rather than speculate over the character of the inaccessible substratum. The anti-liberal perspective establishes an ontological opposition between the emotional dispositions of liberal-Protestant traditions and Muslim ones. As Talal Asad explains, Protestants know that religious symbols “are not the incarnation of the divine, but merely act as substitutes for it through an act of encoding and human interpretation”. In Islamic faith, on the other hand, “the cartoons’ negative iconography constitutes a direct attack”.  The dialogic inversion of the moral offense argument and its appropriation by a public adhering to liberal Protestant tradition – while American Muslims were the ones invoking secular constitutional rights – shows that in this case the moral offense argument was not inherently linked to any specific religious tradition or particular subjectivity. The dialogic and mimetic manner in which the arguments of the Ground Zero controversy were developed reveals that the moral offense argument is a language game  rather than the expression of an offended subjectivity. The strategic dimension of this argument also shows how the participants’ debating techniques sought to play to their audience’s preferences.  The suffering expressed by the self-appointed spokespeople of the September 11th victims, similar to the moral offense felt by Muslims in response to the Danish cartoons, did not refer to any deep or hidden extra-linguistic referent, such as a culture or an immeasurable subjective disposition. Resorting to emotions and grief or, inversely, calling upon the law, can above all be explained by the participants’ positions and by their interaction in a given context.
63Instead of resolving the political game, what the moral offense argument did accomplish was the enunciation of plausible reasons which allowed it to overcome the lack of valid legal or technical arguments against the Cordoba project. Invoking moral offense was in fact the only means that the mosque’s opponents had left to prolong the debate after the New York Municipal Council voted in favor of the project. The policy makers involved with the initiative reiterated that it was protected by the rights of religious freedom and property ownership; the city police spokesperson refuted the idea that the mosque was a security risk to New York; and the Landmark Preservation Commission refused to classify the building at 51 Park Place as a historic monument. In the absence of stating a public reason based on legal or technical arguments, establishing a new standard for civic propriety was effectively part of a political struggle where what was at stake was maintaining the very possibility of continuing to argue and prolonging the controversy. Here again, a comparison with the Auschwitz cross controversy is all the more illuminating. As Zubrzycki has shown, when the cross controversy began to die down, despite all sorts of activism by Polish Catholic associations on the rightwing and extreme rightwing of the political spectrum, and in particular by Kazimierz Switon,  300 crosses were removed but the large cross located in the former Carmelite convent remained. In this sense, all the agitation that Switon and his followers created did succeed, since the terms of the debate and the conditions for a possible compromise changed:
“By provoking the conflict’s escalation and radicalizing the demands – from keeping one cross to then keeping several hundred crosses – the Defenders of the Cross, Switon’s propaganda group, succeeded in changing the terms of what a compromise would imply. […] If, at the beginning, the presence of the Pope’s cross wasn’t inevitable and different authorities contemplated its removal and relocation elsewhere, by the time the drama concluded, its presence at the site had been naturalized and the cross had become a permanent monument of Auschwitz’s perimeter.” 
65In a similar way, the defeat of those opposed to the construction of an Islamic center in the Manhattan debate was largely compensated by what they gained: the unprecedented opportunity to spread hostility against Islam; the organization of anti-Muslim demonstrations in several US states; and the decision not to turn the Staten Island convent into a mosque. Other consequences of the Ground Zero controversy included: an increase in state initiatives banning and criminalizing any reference to Islamic law;  lawsuits brought by groups of property owners to prevent mosque construction; and even public hearings held in the United States House of Representatives in March 2011  to specifically debate Islamist radicalization and the lack of cooperation attributed to Muslim-American organizations in the struggle against this violence. In other words, even if the mosque’s opponents lost the Manhattan battle, by dramatizing and radicalizing both side’s positions they nevertheless succeeded in changing the acceptable terms of future compromises concerning the integration of Muslim Americans . This is why the Ground Zero controversy and its specific use of the moral offense argument did not, under any circumstances, represent an anti-political turning point. There still remains much to clarify about the complex and ambiguous relation that exists between participants in the controversy and the principles of liberal governance, as well as the particular type of contract they seem to invoke.
66The arguments of those opposed to the Cordoba project relied in large part on the liberal notion of grief and the importance that it should be given in interpersonal relations. According to those who are hostile to Imam Rauf, injury or offense are measured by the yardstick of individual suffering experienced rather than a moral doctrine. Even if numerous participants stated during the debate that they spoke in the name of the September 11th victims or on behalf of Americans in general, and not just in their own name, the Cordoba House project was deemed unacceptable on the basis of the suffering felt by a group of people, and not because it was a form of blasphemy against God or a sacred tradition. In other words, the Cordoba project’s opponents appealed to a liberal notion of grief where the individual is the criteria for authenticating and defining suffering, such that, in theory, everyone has an equal right to have his or her suffering recognized. Moreover, the call by the imam’s adversaries for the construction of a memorial as a means to make amends for their suffering and injury is based on reasoning which evokes the liberal ideal of distributive justice. It is a demand for the balance to be restored in the distribution of symbolic goods: the Islamic cultural center, on the one hand, and a museum dedicated to the memory of the 9/11 victims, on the other. By emphasizing the suffering of the victims’ families that they claimed to represent, the project’s opponents challenged political leaders and asked them to prevent the Islamic center’s construction by means such as “eminent domain” or the urban planning code. Finally, by directing moderate Muslims around the world to publicly demonstrate their ability to empathize with Americans’ suffering, the imam’s critics were not trying to supersede law with suffering. By comparing the suffering Muslims felt over the Danish cartoons and the suffering felt by relatives of the September 11th victims, the project’s opponents in fact established a political demand: they sought to highlight the reciprocal obligations and responsibilities of both sides. Bartering over the respective value of Muslims’ and non-Muslims’ suffering made it possible to articulate a type of collective contract, which established obligations for the two communities. The initiative’s opponents appealed to moderate Muslims who had been offended by the cartoons to show proof of their tolerance towards them, thereby suggesting that their pain was comparable to and measurable by the suffering endured by other communities. Calling upon the American government to transform the building at 51 Park Place into a memorial suggested that this suffering could not only be measured, but also even be repaired by the construction of a museum to commemorate the victims. Appealing to emotion did not replace appeals to the law: stating their entitlement to irrationality based on their suffering allowed the opponents to bring a new form of currency to the debate, since they no longer had sufficient legal reasons to support their point of view. In spite of this conformity with certain aspects of the liberal conception of individual and interpersonal relations, the ideal of a contract in support of the opponents’ demands was, however, less of a “Rawlsian”-style adherence to public reason than an agreement concerning the rules of propriety and good conduct, based upon the ability to show emotions deemed fitting by the non-Muslim majority.
Parody of reason and a contract of emotion
67Moral offense is not a reason, in the sense that the liberal political theory of deliberation uses this term. Neither is it necessarily a form of anti-reason, a shock of forceful passion that would jeopardize even the possibility of a discussion, due to the invocation of emotion’s superiority. It is rather a parody of public reason,  which is based on an understanding of intercultural and interreligious relations, defined neither by the liberal goal of overlapping consensus, nor simply as a power struggle, but rather by an ideal of civility and propriety. “Not here, but a bit farther away” was one of the most common answers given by opponents of the Cordoba House project. This argument was also one of the most debated, criticized and mocked during the controversy. People asked what standard should be used to define the border between the area considered “too close” to Ground Zero and the area where an Islamic cultural center could be built. An exhaustive list of shops and recreational facilities surrounding the Ground Zero site was also compiled to show that building an Islamic cultural center could not in any way disturb the neighborhood’s already heterogeneous and diverse nature. Such arguments and counter-arguments were all based on challenging this notion of distance as a valid public reason. What kind of argument is it to suggest that the Cordoba House be built “not here, but a bit further away”? In this way, several arguments developed during the controversy seem like a parody of the very act of public reasoning. How is it possible to make the “cloud of dust containing victims” ashes’ a universally accepted and rationally acceptable benchmark for public action? Similarly, by implying that the Cordoba House project must be opposed because in the Middle East there is no democracy and women’s rights are trampled upon, the Tea Party established a cause and effect relationship between two realities (or fantasies) that have nothing to do with each other. As absurd as it may seem, this type of argument remains audible and reasonable: it makes sense not only for the mosque’s opponents but also for the project’s supporters, who integrated their adversaries’ arguments into their own positions. While it may appear to be an untenable position from a purely logical and rational point of view, this parody of reason was quite effective in the context of the Ground Zero mosque controversy. In the absence of coherent reasons based upon the law to justify opposition to Cordoba House, the invention of the moral offense argument, and the ideal of propriety which informed it, allowed the cultural center’s detractors to prolong the debate and try to win it. The idea of civility and decorum was simultaneously the opponents’ admission that it would be impossible for them to present arguments that could lead to a positive consensus, and a rhetorical strategy to remedy this impossibility. The debate thus led to the enunciation of a code of collective civility based on the principle that one should refrain from shocking others. In the absence of agreement over values and principles, it is important to negotiate acceptable behavior. Others are simply asked to not cause a scandal, to respect the codes of public civility in cases where controversies arise, and to demonstrate a sincere desire to abide by the code. It becomes the responsibility of others to make their sincerity publicly known; to prove that they are not obscuring their true intentions; and to prove that they are capable of aligning their inner conscience with the rules of civility. But what is really expected is the capacity to “play the game”, not the transformation of inner subjectivity, whether by reason or force.
68Rather than an ethical or anti-political turning point, the New York controversy marked a “behavioral ” turning point in public debate and the underlying contractualist ideal implicitly contained in the participants’ demands. The moral offense argument brought to light a specific attitude among Americans who are hostile toward Muslims. This attitude is not so much based on fear or the desire to conquer, but rather on blame. The debate between those in favor of and those opposed to the mosque resembled the exchanges of a lovers’ quarrel rather than a war of civilizations. “How can you do this to us?” and “How can you be so insensitive?” were some of the criticisms which suggested a relationship that was, if not equal, at least characterized by mutual expectations and obligations, and not simply a relationship of domination, fear or hostility. As Thomas M. Scanlon has demonstrated,  blaming someone only makes sense in a relationship in which each side is preoccupied with the other’s judgment and feelings. A person feels offended and outraged when the emotions expressed by the other are not as expected. For Scanlon, blame is neither evaluative nor reactive: it is more than just a question of intellectual disapproval or resentment. Blame provokes a shift in attitude towards the person being blamed in a way that makes it impossible to rejoice in his or her success or to be sorry for his or her defeat. Such an attitude does not mean that one feels the other’s defeat is entirely a good thing in and of itself. And yet, it is precisely this type of interaction that developed during the New York controversy. The opponents of the Cordoba House project did not put forward a general doctrine demonstrating that Muslims cannot under any circumstances build a mosque in the United States. But, because of the precise context in which the Cordoba House proposals were made, they stated that they were incapable of not feeling offended and hurt by the idea of such a construction. For Scanlon, a fair moral and political contract is based upon public reasons which no one can rationally reject – but not on arguments to which everyone must sincerely adhere, as J. Rawls argued. Critics of the project contrived an implicit contract between American Muslims and non-Muslims which evoked Scanlon’s theory of contractualism in two important ways. The opponents did not expect Muslims to show total adherence to their arguments, since even the critics knew that their arguments were not public reasons with which everyone could or should agree. Muslims were instead called to express compassion for the validity of the dispute arising from the mosque construction. “No one can not understand that this mosque offends our sensitivity” was the essential argument of those opposed to the Cordoba initiative, rather than “everyone must fully support our vision of Islam and our vision of America”. On the other hand, the mosque opponents’ statements revealed particular expectations of why building the Cordoba House at this location in Manhattan was an issue. Since the opponents were unconvinced by and criticized the argument that the project was protected by the First Amendment, they criticized Muslims for not taking time to justify why such a project was even necessary. From this point of view, the interaction between the Cordoba House project’s supporters and its opponents was far from being an anti-political relationship or one of complete domination. On the contrary, their interactions were based on demands for the other side to justify itself.
69But if the arguments of offense and blame suggest that the search for a moral and political contract was at the heart of the Ground Zero controversy, the indirectly defined compromise offered by the mosque’s opponents differs from Scanlon’s contractualist ideal in one essential respect. What must be complied with, or at least not rationally refuted, is not public reason, but instead a repertoire of emotions and appropriate codes of conduct. In this sense, we might describe it as a contractualism of propriety and civility, rather than a political agreement based on public reason. What is at stake in this controversy is not rational and universal agreement, whether by acceptance or non-rejection, around the constitutional principle of the First Amendment. The opponents’ demands were not based on a comprehensive doctrine defining Islam in a negative way, but rather based on a feeling of outrage that only has meaning in the precise context of the controversy. The debate’s participants did not question the reasonableness of the First Amendment, which is politically and universally recognized. But by displaying their indifference to the question of what is politically reasonable, and instead emphasizing the importance of what is contextually tolerable, they turned feelings of offense into a source of truth-telling and a principle for action rivaling the First Amendment; without, however, ever seeking to invalidate the latter. The absence of emotion and consideration for the suffering of the victims’ families (suffering to which Imam Rauf’s initiative is accused of contributing) is seen not as a threat to liberal public order but as a form of incompetence, defiance, and civil incapacity. This accusation of insensitivity prompts the imam’s critics to instigate an entire process of moral inferences: “If Muslims are not capable of understanding how a mosque at Ground Zero hurts us, how can we trust in their ability to integrate into American society in the long-term?” Here again, the register of the conflict is closer to a lovers’ quarrel than a multicultural conflict or clash of civilizations. As Patricia Paperman has shown,  the inability to show an expected or conventional emotion – for example, sadness during a period of mourning – is seen as abnormal in numerous social circumstances. A series of alarming conclusions can be inferred from such anomalies. In The Stranger by Albert Camus, Meursault’s inability to feel and above all to show grief when his mother dies is retrospectively analyzed as a sign of his capacity for and predisposition to murder. Similarly, the absence of sensitivity on the part of Muslim Americans towards the suffering of the 9/11 victims’ families was interpreted as proof of their ability to harm American society. As soon as the expression of specific emotions in a particular context is identified as the appropriate way of engaging in this context, expressing emotions becomes a necessary condition for ratifying this context. Indeed, what the Cordoba House’s opponents criticized Muslims for was precisely this group’s refusal or inability to corroborate the critics’ narrative of post-September 11th America and all the associated emotions. This apparent lack of emotion is perceived not as a rejection of the principles of liberal democracy, but rather as a violation of the rules of propriety and the conditions of social cohesion, hence a sign of disengagement from the majority opinion. Where liberal thinkers would simply describe the disagreement as a dispute over the best possible use of the building at 51 Park Place, Cordoba House’s opponents saw the attitude of Muslim Americans as proof of a genuine moral failing – in other words, as proof of their inability to understand and respect the majority’s rules of social functioning and interaction.
72Total compliance with the types of behavior deemed acceptable by the non-Muslim majority or pure and simple exclusion from American society are not, however, the only two alternatives that the Ground Zero mosque debate brought to light. On the contrary, the criticism leveled against liberal democrats and Muslims – that they did not clearly express their desire to engage with the rest of American society – reveals as much about the lack of homogeneity and cohesion within that society as it does about the mistrust towards Muslims felt by a part of the American population. The blame and Islamophobic accusations which lay behind the demand for the offense to be recognized were in one sense analogous to the pornographic image: both are a type of “compensatory fantasy”, according to Judith Butler.  The call for greater recognition of moral offense is more an allegory for the impossible realization of Islamophobic politics and the lack of cohesion of an imagined homogenous majority, than the expression of the total power of a bigoted and anti-Muslim moral majority. The argument of offense is mobilized in a simultaneously accusatory, mocking and imitative context, but it does not express any infra-linguistic cultural or emotional depth or political ante. The controversy revealed that people were not irreparably hurt by the Cordoba House project nor, conversely, were they hurt by those criticizing the mosque. Furthermore, the debate showed that there is no homogenous social group in America whose cohesion would be disrupted by Muslims. The accusatory and Islamophobic statements did not make subalterns out of Muslims, and the mosque project did not irredeemably injure those offended by it. Neither indescribable suffering nor ineffable cultural traditions were involved: only words.
Honoré de Balzac, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), 131.
Andrew March, “Pain, pluralism, public reason: is religiously injurious speech a problem for secular political theory?”, presentation to the American Political Science Association, Washington, 2010; George Letsas, “Is there a right not to be offended in one’s religious beliefs?”, 1 June 2009, <http://ssrn.com/abstract=1500291>.
Wendy Brown, States of Injury. Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); Talal Assad, Genealogies of Religion, Disciplines and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Winnifred Sullivan, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
Robert Wright, “A mosque maligned”, New York Times, 20 July 2010.
Ralph Blumenthal, Sharaf Mowjood, “Muslim prayers and renewal near Ground Zero”, New York Times, 9 December 2009.
Sharif al-Gamal began his career as a Manhattan restaurant waiter before starting his own real-estate company in 2003 with the help of partners Sammy al-Gamal, his brother, and Nour Moussa, the nephew of Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League.
Blumenthal, S. Mowjood, “Muslim prayers and renewal…”.
For information about the Tea Party movement, see John M. O’Hara and Michelle Malkin, A New American Tea Party. The Counterrevolution Against Handouts, Reckless Spending and More Taxes (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2010); E. J. Dionne Jr., William A. Galston, “The Tea Party, the religious right, and the american religious landscape”, Brookings Institution, 5 October 2010, <http://www.brookings.edu/events/2010/1005_religion survey.aspx>
Matthew Taylor, “English Defense League: inside the violent world of Britain’s new far right ”, The Guardian, 28 May 2010.
In an interview with New York Magazine, Robert Spencer explains how his grandparents had been forced to emigrate from a region that henceforth belonged to Turkey because they were Christians: “Well, I’m an American and my family is from what is now Turkey and actually that is the beginning of my interest in the subject of Islam that my grandparents shortly after World War I were offered the choice of conversion to Islam or exile from the land where they had lived for many hundreds of years – that is my family had lived. And many Christians in that area had lived there” (<http://www.q-and-a.org/Transcript/?ProgramID=1086>).
Robert Spencer, The Truth about Muhammed. Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2006). This book is forbidden in numerous Muslim countries, including notably in Pakistan.
Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, The Post-American Presidency. The Obama Administration’s War on America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). Neoconservative John R. Bolton, a former ambassador, wrote the book’s introduction.
“Stop Islamization of Europe” is a lobby that was created when the Danish group “Stop Islamization of Denmark ” merged with other various anti-Islamic British associations. Established in 2007 after the Danish controversy over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, the group’s objective is to prevent Muslims from becoming a strong political force in Europe and to block the spread of Islamism.
Robert Spencer, “Why there should be no mosques at Ground Zero”, Jihad Watch, 24 May 2010.
New York City is divided into five administrative units (boroughs) : Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Each of these five boroughs is led by a borough president whose job is to inform and advise the mayor concerning problems in the borough and establish the borough’s budget. Each borough also has a community board whose members are nominated by the borough president. The community board makes recommendations to government agencies regarding problems in their districts. There are 59 community boards throughout New York City.
The group, also called “Apostates of Islam”, uses a provocative type of self-stigmatization to defend the right of Muslims to leave the Islamic faith. Under the guise of criticizing radical Islam’s intolerance and defending free conscience, the group’s articles often illustrate a form of Islamophobia.
Mosab Hossan Yousef, Son of Hamas. A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices (Carol Stream : Tyndale House Publishers, 2010).
Interview with Fox News on 20 August 2010, <http://www.nicedeb.wordpress.com/2010/08/20/videoson-ofhamas-mossab-hassan-yousef-rips-ground-zero-mosque/>.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s duty is to apply the law concerning the preservation of historic monuments. The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission was created in 1965.
Andrew Cuomo stated in the New York Post on 5 July 5: “America is all about diversity and tolerance and, thus, we should let this project proceed, even though it may justifiably make some people uncomfortable and offend some of our sensibilities”. <http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/andy_rivals_in_mosque split_wMWJIBDZge8yF3sJIYhcRL#ixzz16gLSttKy>.
Andrew Cuomo was elected governor of New York in November 2010.
Paladino had called for a change in the state constitution, which he believed was wrongfully turning New York into a “European welfare state”. He had notably hoped to end the Medicaid program. <http://www.nytimes.com/ 2010/09/20/nyregion/20medicaid.html?_r=2&ref=nyregion>.
The government has the power under eminent domain (expropriation) to seize property or to dispossess citizens of their private property without consent so that the government can build a public benefit project.
C. Paladino : “I’d use eminent domain to block Ground Zero mosque”, Paladino for the People, <http://www.paladinoforthepeople.com/news2.php?id=51&t=2>, 22 July 2010.
Michael Bloomberg said: “Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest” (cited in <http://www.politico.com>, 3 August 2010).
The Muslim American Society is a non-profit organization founded in 1993 by American students of Arab origin. Set up in different regional and local chapters, the MAS organizes cultural, social and charitable activities and also offers various types of religious teaching.
Paul Vitello, “Staten Island church reconsiders deal to sell a vacant convent for use as a mosque”, New York Times, 17 June 2010.
Timothy Michael Dolan was born in 1950 and chosen by Pope Benedict XVI to be the Archbishop of New York in 2009. Archbishop Dolan is considered a doctrinal and political conservative. While he strongly denounced the priests involved in the pedophilia scandals, he took a firm stance against abortion and criticized several democrats, including Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, for distorting the Church’s doctrine through their support for abortion.
Archbishop Dolan, “Welcoming the outsider”, 8 June 2010, <http://www.blog.archny.org/?p=725>.
The controversy over the convent that Carmelite nuns established in a building overlooking Auschwitz in 1984 erupted in 1989 when Jewish New York activists along with Rabbi Avraham Weiss occupied the area to protest the fact that the convent had not yet been closed (it was initially expected to close in 1987). The nuns finally vacated the convent in 1993 after Pope John Paul II personally intervened and asked the nuns to leave the premises. The Carmelite convent debate became entangled with and further amplified a fierce controversy sparked in 1989 when Polish Catholics placed around 300 crosses on land next to Auschwitz. This action was in response to a rumor that a large cross the nuns set up in 1988 in the convent’s courtyard in honor of the pope would be removed. For more information, see Geneviève Zubrzycki’s The Crosses of Auschwitz. Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006); Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, The Convent of Auschwitz (New York: George Braziller Inc., 1991); Emma Klein, The Battle for Auschwitz. Catholic-Jewish Relations under Strain (Portland: Valentine Mitchell, 2001).
On 27 May The Week entitled one of its articles “A ‘mega-mosque’ near Ground Zero?” SIOA and Jihad Watch launched an online petition addressed to Mayor Bloomberg called “Stop the 9.11 mega mosque at Ground Zero”. The size and estimated cost of the building were often highlighted to denounce the provocative character of the “fifteen-storey tower’s” construction, whose cost was estimated to be $100 million.
Evan McMorris-Santoro, “CA anti-mosque protest organizers: bring dogs because Muslims ‘hate dogs’ ”, TPM Muckracker, 27 July 2010, <http://www.tpmmuckracker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/07/ca_anti_mosque protest_organizers_bring_dogs_because_muslims_hate_dogs.php>.
Created in 1985, the Dove World Outreach Center is a charismatic Evangelical church in Gainesville, FL made up of around 50 members. Operating almost like a cult, it has been led in an authoritarian manner by Pastor Terry Jones and his wife Silvia since 2001. Since its establishment, the church has been known for its strong opposition to abortion and gay rights, and for its Islamophobic statements.
Quoted by Paul Vitello, “Debate heats up about mosque near Ground Zero”, New York Times, 30 July 2010.
ADL, “Statement on Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero”, <http://www.adl.org/PresRele/CvlRt 32/5820_32.htm>, July 28, 2010.
John Rawls, “The idea of public reason revisited”, The University of Chicago Law Review, 64(3), 1997, 765-807.
J. Rawls, “The idea of public reason revisited”, 797.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Press, 1978), 15.Online
J. Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 9.
Joel Feinberg, Offense to Other. The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).
Ruwen Ogien, La Liberté d’offenser. Le sexe, l’art et la morale (Paris: La Musardine, 2007).
See the article by Nat Hentoff, “Pornography war among feminists”, The Washington Post, 4 April 1992, p. A23.
“Butler v. Her Majesty the Queen”, 27 February 1992, <http://scc.lexum.org/en/1992/1992scr1-452/1992scr1-452.html>.
Ronald Dworkin, “The coming battles over free speech”, New York Review of Books, 11 June 1992, <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1992/jun/11/the-coming-battles-over-free-speech/>.
Catherine A. MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin (eds), In Harm’s Way. The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).
Catherine MacKinnon responds to Ronald Dworkin in “Pornography, an exchange”, New York Review of Books, 3 March 1994.
Saba Mahmood, “Religious reason and secular affect: an incommensurable divide?” Critical Inquiry, 35, 2009, 836-62.
Peter Danchin, “Defaming Muhammud. Dignity, harm, and incitement to religious hatred”, Duke Forum for Law and Social Change, 2, 2010, 5-38.
S. Mahmood, “Religious reason…”, 12.Online
Peter G. Danchin, “Islam in the secular Nomos of the European Court of Human Rights”, Michigan Journal of International Law, 34(4), 2011, 663-747.
Bonnie Honig, “Antigone’s two laws: Greek tragedy and the politics of humanism”, New Literary History, 41, 2010, 1-33 (6).
Nicole Loraux, The Mourning Voice. An Essay on Greek Tragedy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002); and Mothers in Mourning. With the Essay of Amnesty and its Opposite (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998); Stephen K. White, The Ethos of a Late-Modern Citizen (Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 2009); Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter. On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993).
Judith Butler, Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004), 34.Online
T. Asad, Genealogies of Religion…, 3.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (New York: Blackwell, 2001), 86; B. Honig, “Antigone’s two laws…”.
William Riker, The Art of Political Manipulation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).
Kazimierz Switon (1931-) is a former Solidarity member and a former extreme rightwing member of parliament from Confederation for an Independent Poland. In June 1998, he settled close to the pope’s cross and began a hunger strike which lasted 42 days. His action drew a range of protests and movements in support of keeping the cross at the site.
G. Zubrzycki, The Crosses of Auschwitz…, 14.
On 2 November 2010, a bill introduced by two Republican Congress members to amend Oklahoma’s State Constitution passed with 70% of the votes. Entitled “Save my State”, the amendment forbade judges from referencing Sharia law in their decisions: “The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures. Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia law. ” Following a lawsuit filed against the amendment by the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Judge Vicki Miles-Lagrange struck down the amendment because it violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Since November 2010, similar amendment bills have been introduced in about fifteen different state congresses.
Congressman Peter King (R-NY), Chairman of the House’s Homeland Security Committee, was strongly opposed to the Islamic Center’s construction and initiated the congressional hearings held on 10 March 2011.
See “The extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community and that community’s response”, <http://homeland.house.gov/hearing/hearing-%E2%80%9C-extent-radicalization-american-muslim-community-and-communitys-response%E2%80%9D>
Robert Hariman, “Political parody and public culture”, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 94(3), 2008, 247-72.
Thomas M. Scanlon, Moral Dimensions. Permissibility, Meaning, Blame (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).Online
Patricia Paperman, “L’absence d’émotion comme offense”, in Patricia Paperman, Ruwan Ogien (eds), La couleur des pensées. Sentiments, émotions, intentions, Raisons pratiques. 6 (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS, 1995), 175-97.
Judith Butler, Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), 68.