While reading through a survey of articles and opinions concerning the construction of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” the question of who gets to define the limits of social groups continuously rose to my mind. None of the authors explicitly brought up the question – most just assumed that they (or the people they cite) had the best definition of “Islam” and what it means to be “American,” such that they could oppose their “true” definition with some “other” (not to mention, “distorted” or “radical”) definition. This speaks directly to the problem that these authors are trying to address, whether it is an opinion of whether or not it is appropriate to construct a mosque at Ground Zero or an analysis of how Americans have discriminated against Islam throughout history. The unspoken question that governs the results of their particular questions is that of definition: who gets the power of definition of “authentic Islam” and “American values” and what is “right.”
Some particular examples from the texts:
Claiming the existence of “the distortion of Islam in the media”
Discussion of a “fatwa…issued by senior Middle Eastern Muslim clerics that called the 9/11 attacks un-Islamic.”
Assuming the privileged role of scholars in resolving the issue, as “scholars are revisiting Islam’s primary sources to offer cogent interpretations of this contentious issue.”
Claims to advantaged information: “Camie Ayash, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, lamented that people were listening to what she called ‘total disinformation’ on Islam.”
If the involved parties recognized that ultimately their struggle was over the authority to define the terms, the discourse would shift from creating a narrative which pits their particular definition against others to legitimizing a particular definition. This is not to say that this legitimization process will not contain narratives and contrastual illustrations. Legitimacy comes from distinguishing itself from illegitimacy – thus claims to authority must on some level acknowledge that there exist alternative interpretations. However, the discourse would center primarily on the conflicting claims to legitimacy rather than on the particular definitions involved. The correct definition will come from a legitimate source. If “logic” is the legitimate means to arriving at the correct definition, then the author will state this and then provide the steps in the logic which arrives at their particular definition. If the consensus of the ulama has primary authority, then it should suffice that the ulama is in agreement concerning a definition to make it the correct understanding. The problem with this then becomes which “logic” should prevail? How do we determine what constitutes the ulama? The definition of the source of legitimacy would also have to be defined; a particular form of logic with its own a priori assumptions would have to be legitimized. This leads to an infinite regress of legitimizing definitions, forcing one to choose a priori assumptions upon which one will operate. Ultimately, legitimacy comes from the arbitrary (however motivated) selection of a priori assumptions which allows one to create a worldview.
Legitimacy comes from the manipulation of symbols (including words) such that those symbols are understood to correspond directly to reality so that posited relationships become actual relationships in the mind. A heuristic device (taxonomical categorization – or naming/labeling) is thus mistaken for natural reality, the correct way to understand and interpret reality. A posited relationship between words, which we claim correspond to reality, thus becomes the essential relationship between actual objects/events.
Let’s apply this framework to a selection from the texts. I have selected a discussion of what the “Ground Zero Mosque” actually is, and why its given name is misleading:
“It will contain a Muslim prayer space that has been referred to as the “Ground Zero mosque”, though it is not intended to be a mosque nor is it to be located at Ground Zero. In fact, the term “Ground Zero mosque,” which was coined by right-wing activist Pamela Geller, is a misnomer since it depicts the distorted impression that the center is to be constructed on the actual site of the 9/11 tragedy and former World Trade Center.”
“It is not intended to be a mosque”: this phrase assumes a definition of a “mosque.” What is the definition of mosque, and who gets to determine this definition?
“nor is it to be located at Ground Zero”: What is the size of “Ground Zero”? Is it limited to where the foundation of the World Trade Center was located? If it is a hallowed ground or sacred space, “Ground Zero” as a symbol and location, is far bigger than this limited space, it has symbolic meaning and importance. What is the appropriate distance for a symbol of Islam from “Ground Zero”?
“right-wing activist”: an attempt to dismiss the view by labeling the source of the supposedly distorted understanding of the Muslim prayer space in (at least in this context) pejorative terms.
“distorted impression that the center is to be constructed on the actual site of the 9/11 tragedy and former World Trade Center”: This, again, attempts to limit “Ground Zero” to “the actual site” of the buildings. Note the author’s use of “distorted” and “actual.”
If we approach opinion pieces uncritically, assuming that the author has a privileged access to the “truth,” we fall into the trap of mystificatory language, and we are unable to separate language and posited relationships from reality.
 Liyakat Takim, “The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy: Implications for American Islam,” Religions 2011: 134.
 Anne Barnard, “Parsing the Record of Feisal Abdul Rauf,” The New York Times, August 21, 2010.
 From a May 14, 2008 post on the “On Faith” blog in The Washington Post – quoted from: Anne Barnard, “Parsing the Record of Feisal Abdul Rauf,” The New York Times, August 21, 2010.
 Laurie Goodstein, “Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Opposition,” The New York Times, August 7, 2010.
 Liyakat Takim, “The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy: Implications for American Islam,” Religions 2011: 136.