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Institute of Advanced Study

The Mosque That Wasn't: A Study in Social Memory Making

Abstract

The ninth anniversary remembrance of the ‘9/11' destruction of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan was sharply different from the preceding eight. Whereas earlier years had been marked by a solemn procession and service of remembrance within the site, the 2010 anniversary occasioned bitter conflict and political division that carried over into the ceremony itself.  Why had it so changed? National media attention focused on the political opportunities generated by the midterm national elections, and on religious tolerance (or lack thereof) in American society. While acknowledging the importance of such factors, this essay seeks to cut a layer below the political tensions to examine the nature of the site as a place of social memory. Between 2009 and 2010, the original site had been greatly disturbed and changed by new construction. The anxieties this was producing, it seemed to me, were displaced, quite literally, onto the plans to build a new Islamic Community Center in a building a few blocks away from ‘Ground Zero.' Though many people, from the mayor to the center's planners, denied there were ever any plans to build a ‘mosque at Ground Zero,' their plain statements were ignored.  I argue that complex anxieties over remembering and forgetting gave rise to the often venomous protests surrounding the ninth anniversary, and that these stemmed from the new construction itself. ‘Ground Zero' no longer has a recognisable shape. The fact that the new memorial being built was not yet discernible within the site added to these anxieties. Using a strikingly parallel incident from fourth century CE Antioch, I analyse the controversy at the local and regional level in particular, in terms of displacement and replacement, destruction and (re)construction of an important social and cultural memory.

Insights Paper