The secularist Center for Inquiry waded into the Park51 controversy in earnest yesterday, with disastrous results. I love CFI and I've been working with them for years, so it pains me to say that they're playing into the hands of anti-Muslim bigots on this one. Orac is right, this press release is a spectacular fail:

The Center for Inquiry Urges That Ground Zero Be Kept Religion-Free

(Amherst, N.Y.)—The Center for Inquiry (CFI), a secularist organization advancing reason, science, and humanist values, has released the following statement in response to the heated controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic religious center in lower Manhattan:

The Center for Inquiry is troubled by the rhetoric of some of those protesting the proposed Islamic religious center and mosque near Ground Zero, and it especially deplores the growing politicization of the dispute. CFI also holds that the focus of the protests is too narrow; it would be inappropriate to build any new house of worship in the area immediately around Ground Zero, not just mosques. “The 9/11 attacks were an example of faith-based terrorism, and any institution that privileges faith above reason is an affront to those who were killed and injured in those attacks,” observes Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of CFI. [continued]

Orac has already dealt with the insulting insinuation that all Muslims and all religious people are terrorists, so I'll just focus on the factual basis of CFI's objection.

CFI's argument rests false premises. The proposed Islamic community center known as Park51 is not in the immediate vicinity of the former World Trade Center site. The site is at 51 Park Place, two long blocks away. It's not a house of worship, either. It's a community center modeled on the YMCA. There is already an honest-to-goodness mosque equidistant from the WTC site.

The scale and density of Lower Manhattan is such that a building two blocks away might as well be in another world. I went down to the former WTC site on Monday. If you stand with your back to the cyclone fence on Church Street (the iconic "Ground Zero" tourist stretch) and look at the city, you can see the ancient tombstones in St. Paul's churchyard, a glossy black luxury hotel, or the Century 21 discount department store--depending on where you stand--the footprint of the towers is so huge that you can't take in all three at a glance. You can't see Park Place at all. A community center in the neighborhood will not change the ambiance of Ground Zero one iota. This is not a zero sum game. 

CFI doesn't seem to realize that the whole Park51 "controversy" was ginned up by the hateful anti-Muslim blogger Pam Geller, aided and abetted by Rupert Murodoch's NY Post. Only a professional hater, scanning the city pages for Muslims to be offended by, would have thought twice about Park51. Geller and her allies accuse Park51's founders of "Muslim triumphalism," i.e., rubbing America's nose in the victory of Muslim terrorists on 9/11 by building "mosque" nearby. If Geller and her fellow bigots hadn't raised a fuss about the proposed community center, nobody at Ground Zero would have noticed the difference. Some triumphalism.

Why has CFI chosen to throw its lot in with the likes of Glenn Beck, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin? The anti-Park51 crusade goes against CFI's humanistic values.

The Center for Inquiry is supposed to stand for facts over myths and reason over mystical thinking. Yet their press release buys into the idea that there is some consecrated zone around the former World Trade Center where normal city life must be suspended forever out of reverence for the dead. This is an incoherent, quasi-religious idea to begin with. Moreover, Lower Manhattan has never and will never live up to that fuzzy-headed ideal. The Twin Towers stood in the middle of a vibrant city with all the usual urban activities swirling around them. Life didn't stop when they fell. People didn't stop going to strip clubs, or churches or mosques in Lower Manhattan. Invoking the made-up "hallowed ground" rule to ban an Islamic community center is a highly selective application of a irrational principle. CFI should know better. 

[Photo credit: sniggitysnags, licensed under Creative Commons.]