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Cordoba House “Ground Zero Mosque”: PR & Path Forward Part-2 | Messaging Failures


MM’s Coverage of Park51 (Mislabeled “Ground Zero Mosque”)

Cordoba House “Ground Zero Mosque”: PR & Path Forward Part  1Part 2 | Part 3

Messaging Failures Lead to Tipping Point for Islam in the U.S.

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For the first time, I almost believed in the famous “change” that my skepticism has prevented me from embracing. Time and time again, I saw a stark difference between words and action on the part of our nation’s leader. This latest moment was our President backing the Cordoba House Project during his address at the White House Iftar. I thought to myself, principled, bold and decisive leadership in spite of the growing anti-Islam hysteria. Well, as usual, hope was not enough as we now have the sorry display of the amateur hour; “I didn’t mean it and then again well, yes, I meant it,” a flip-flop so quick that John Kerry would be proud.

As disappointed as I am in the President’s leadership, I can’t lay the blame anywhere other than on our own community. Our collective messaging is a cacophony of name calling, alienating stances, special interests and a complete disconnect from the national dialogue that has allowed this issue to morph into a watershed moment for the perception of Islam and Muslims in the U.S. At stake is nothing less then the mass adoption of the clash of civilizations theory by a majority of Americans.

CNN and FOX News polls show a full 68 or 64 percent of Americans (respectively) think it is wrong to build a mosque near ground zero. Then we have the Muslim community’s civil rights and activist organizations resorting to name calling with charges of “bigotry” against a nuanced attack on the project that “this is not about religious freedom, it is about the ‘right’ thing to do” which, effectively places American Muslims against our neighbors with us yet again acting like a entitlement driven special interest rather than a community being victimized by hate and fear-mongering.

Let’s deconstruct some of the core arguments against the Cordoba House. All of which seek to associate the religion of Islam as the cause of the worst terrorist attacks in our nation’s history becausee the object being opposed includes a masjid, an Islamic house of worship.

1) It is a “victory” mosque – Is it a victory for Islam that Muslims were among the innocent victims of the attacks? We hear from some pundits attacking the community center about this idea that the Cordoba House will be some kind of trophy. Many of these same pundits utilize the talking point that Muslim terrorists are causing the majority of Muslim deaths overseas when they try to avoid discussions of foreign policy missteps or tragic civilian casualties due to botched military action. Well, why is it okay now to ignore the deaths of Muslim victims of terror? And about this notion of victory mosques, the story of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) refusing to pray in a church after liberating Jerusalem should be sufficient. For readers who are unaware of the history of the third Caliph of Islam, once the holy city became a part of that dynasty’s territory, a delegation from the Christians asked Umar to pray in their church and he declined by saying that he was afraid that in the future Muslims would use his action as a reason to take over that particular church in order to build a mosque in its place.

2) It is a slap to the victims of 9/11 – This sentiment is a slap to the Muslim victims and first responders of the 9/11 tragedy.

3) It is too close to hallowed ground – Did not the blood of the Muslim victims of 9/11 also add to sacredness of the site? Do we really want to ignore that jummah (Islamic Friday congregational services) were held in the twin towers?

As American Muslims we can afford to listen to the concerns of our fellow countrymen. If we continue to dig in our heels, we may win a civil rights battle and lose a opportunity to truly dissipate fear, prejudice and ignorance. We can create the type of change that people so desperately sought during the 2008 elections by building bridges and increasing dialogue. If we don’t, we risk empowering a negative platform built on alienating an entire demographic in the upcoming elections.

Logic will not win the day in this controversy. It is a deeply emotional issue. On one side, you have the trauma of surviving a terrorist attack and on the other side, the added insult of being a victim of that attack combined with the suspicion that your community is somehow responsible for it.

There is a messaging solution. A way to show that the two sides are artificial.  Turn the Cordoba House into a memorial for Muslim victims of terror and the resulting cycles of violence. As American Muslims, the dehumanization of the Muslim victims of 9/11 is an all too familiar feeling. The devaluing of Muslim lives in the reporting of tragedies and conflicts is all too common. Muslim victims are often labeled “collateral damage” in drone attacks or generically by their ethnicity, rarely are they humanized with photos or stories of the survivors who have now lost their loved ones. We hear about them in the press as merely statistics. Many of the victims of 9/11 were my fellow countrymen. They were ALL my brothers and sisters in humanity. All of them. And ALL of them, even the Muslim victims were also yours.

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Paul "Iesa" Galloway is a native born Texan. He was recently called "the Yoda of interfaith affairs" by a colleague from his daytime gig. After hours Iesa serves as a consultant, messaging strategist and trainer on media, government and community relations. Iesa is a product of the "Military Brat" experience of the 1990's on US Army bases in Germany he has traveled extensively, for extended periods in Kenya, Hungary and Communist Poland on missionary trips, visited Communist East Germany with the Boy Scouts of America, as well as enjoyed time in France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Holland and Austria. Since embracing Islam, Iesa was asked to be the founding Executive Director of CAIR-Houston, where he served the community from 2002 to 2006, he has completed the Hajj pilgrimage, participated in an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the Society for Biblical Studies and completed a study abroad program on the history of Islamic Spain, Morocco and Andalusian Philosophy with the University of Houston. Iesa's education is rooted in History and Public Relations and he has a interfaith and multiracial background.



  1. Ahsan Sayed

    August 17, 2010 at 2:19 PM


    We need to bring this message to the whole world. Great piece.

    • JRL

      August 20, 2010 at 9:44 PM

      I agree. This is a message that the world needs to hear from the Muslim American community. Know that you are not alone.

      best, Judith Levine

      • Iesa Galloway

        August 21, 2010 at 12:46 PM


        Like the others here I wanted to thank you for your engagement.

        It is a very underreported story: the strong and consistent support that principled, fair-minded Americans have continually demonstrated for the American Muslim community.

        I believe that fear and ignorance are losing forces… I just hope that as a society we find ways to expedite the reestablishment of goodwill between neighbors.

        God bless,


        • JRL

          August 21, 2010 at 1:02 PM

          Dear Lesa,

          Thank you for your kind words. While there has definitely been some negativity, this sequence of events has actually galvanized support for just this kind of goodwill between neighbors. Even a negative event can, in the end, be a good thing. And while it is never an agreeable thing to experience bigotry, in some ways, it is better to know than not to know. It is positive proof of how badly the educational programs are needed that will certainly be available through Cordoba House. The programs about the importance of understanding and tolerance that have been created by other NGOs about other historical events have been made available to schools and religious organizations all over the country. And, even negative publicity is publicity. Had it not been for the bigots, it would have been much more difficult to raise funds for Cordoba House ; ) You can’t BUY this kind of press! ; )

          Wishing you and yours an easy fast.

          best, Judith Levine

  2. Jeremiah

    August 17, 2010 at 3:55 PM

    While I appreciate the sentiment behind this article, I have to disagree with the apocalyptic tone. I believe the CNN poll involved ~ 1000 people. Who knows if the participants were even representative of the ‘American voter’? It is wildly inaccurate to say that 68% of Americans oppose the ‘ground zero mosque’. If this project was so unpopular, how has it been approved by almost every appropriate body in NYC? The different officials responsible for approving the project could have found some justification for denying building permits.

    I personally would not have pursued this project, but I do not agree with the author’s characterization of the issue. There is a vocal minority that will oppose Muslims regardless of the issue. While more sensitivity on the front end might have been better, abandoning this project will not satisfy the groups that are the driving force behind the controversy.

    This is more a watershed for constitutional rights of minority groups than for Muslim-Non-Muslim relations.

    JazakAllahu khairan for your efforts.

    • abu Rumay-s.a.

      August 17, 2010 at 4:52 PM

      first, thanks to brother Isa for the analysis, I was looking forward to the article.

      To add to Jeremiah’s comment, I believe the issue was perhaps haphazardly brought forward to the Muslim community and perhaps caught most of them off guard. From the little that I’ve read it was the initiate of the Imam and his wife and none of the major Muslim organizations were consulted in its inception stage? Also, $100 million budget is going to be difficult to raise without foreign donors (which will open a whole other can of worms).
      Moreover, will the “mosque” even meet the conditions of being a “masjid” (will there be 5 times call to prayer, etc.) or will it be a “musalla”?

      Having said that, as we well know, we are living in times of extremely high tensions and initiating such projects need to be well thought out with great attention to public perceptions (because we know how the media can shape an issue at the end of the day).

      Now that the “deed is done”, Muslims are “positioned” in a difficult predicament and any outcome will have lasting ramifications..

      I personally would take the situation to reach out to those opposing the initiative based on a “sensitivity and lack of wisdom argument” to come to a common ground and exemplify that Islam does care to sensitivities of people, therefore, let us find another solution instead of butting heads..(such as relocating it or other sensible solutions).

      And God knows best…

      • darthvaider

        August 18, 2010 at 8:44 AM

        Jazak Allah khayr Brother Iesa for the analysis.

        I have to agree with Jeremiah concerning the overly apocalyptic tone of the article.

        I also found the assessment of the term ‘bigotry’ a bit misguided; the reason people get characterized as bigots is because many of those who oppose the Ground Zero Mosque have bigoted sentiments about Muslims, much the same way that many of those who oppose illegal immigration hold racist sentiments against Latinos. I agree that it’s unfair to paint everyone with a broad brush, but its a political tactic that’s been utilized by many and precedes Muslim civil rights and activist organizations. And when you have people like Newt Gingrich essentially comparing the Ground Zero Mosque to a Nazi Memorial, then why wouldnt they use that term?

        I like the idea of a Muslim memorial for victims of terror, but fear the unintended consequences of such an action- wouldnt that once again paint us as an entitlement driven special interest group? would we be effectively saying, ‘our victims count more than yours’? (I could very easily hear pundits criticizing a ‘Muslim only’ memorial absent the majority of those who lost their lives on that day) Can the same objective be accomplished with less publicity by working with the Muslim families of lost ones on 9/11 and making sure that they’re in contact with the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, perhaps even going so far as to raise money for the Musem to include a specific area to memorialize Muslims lost on 9/11?

        Maybe an alternative would be to take half the funding (~50 million if I’m not mistaken), and hold a huge press conference where that money is donated to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. State explicitly that we’re interested in healing the nations cultural/religious divide and not exacerbating it. With the other half of the money, go and build the masjid somewhere else (this is all assuming the money is available from sound sources, which, based on what I’ve read, is no given). I imagine the reception to a new mosque location would be much more welcoming if that were to take place.

        As a community, we have to be sensitive to the fact that we live in a part of the world where we are largely misunderstood. If the word ‘mosque’ or ‘masjid’ doesnt resonate with people, then fine, just call it something else. It’s called meeting people half way. Unless and until we’re able to get people back to the core of what Islam is all about- compassion, helping the indigent and poor, monotheism, living a God-centric life, and understanding our purpose in this life to attain felicity in the next- we will always be seen as a sleeper syndicate waiting to show our ‘true colors.’

        Insha’Allah we will endure, as will the message of Islam, but our ability to effectively do so in this country is predicated on us being able to weigh which battles are worth fighting and which battles we can take a pass at. The goal is transcendancy, a stage at which a single structure no longer defines us and what we’re about, but our message does. And Allah Knows Best.

        • Iesa Galloway

          August 18, 2010 at 2:59 PM

          Asalaam Alaikum,

          Masha’Allah good comments and points.

          RE: Tone – I do believe this is a significant moment for Muslims in the U.S.

          As much as I enjoyed Kieth Oblermann’s piece a simple look at the ratings shows a lot about what the public is hearing on the issue see: here

          RE: Bigotry – Or why using it as a label is not always wise.

          The example I linked to is pretty representative of how we as a community speak to the wrong audience, or do not craft messaging to the audience we are speaking to, or around strategic goals. In that link you will find a Muslim spokesperson confronted with a argument stating “it was not about religious freedom but about public sensitivities.” The smart move to make from a messaging standpoint is to work on public perception and support of the issue, not attacking or throwing loaded labels out. That will be seen as grouping everyone besides the Cordoba House supporters as bigots. The goal is to separate bigoted leadership from the public rather than to marshal support for that leadership by coming off as uncaring about the widespread concern or worse attacking an entire demographic.

          RE: A memorial being a special interest move. This is a great observation. As a minority advocating for respect and understanding we should approach advocacy by reinforcing that we are a part of the society as equals. The message should be, Muslims are equals before the law and equals that have excellent valves. In others words we have tons to offer in all aspects of life.

          If we cross the line in our own minds and start demanding unreasonable, special treatment that goes far beyond religious accommodation and then seek a special/privileged status then we would be viewed as a special interest that may not be beneficial for the whole society.

          The key to this is in striving for excellence as people because Islam calls us to be excellent.

          May Allah help us find the best way forward!


          • Mustafa Stefan Dill

            August 18, 2010 at 8:18 PM

            The smart move to make from a messaging standpoint is to work on public perception and support of the issue, not attacking or throwing loaded labels out. That will be seen as grouping everyone besides the Cordoba House supporters as bigots. The goal is to separate bigoted leadership from the public rather than to marshal support for that leadership by coming off as uncaring about the widespread concern or worse attacking an entire demographic.

            Brilliant, brother. That’s it.

            Thanks for the interesting and heart felt article, as well, great work and reasoning. I do share darthvaider’s nervousness about a memorial for Muslim victims of terror; it’s a braver and more gusty call than I would make. I think the messaging that would need to surround such an endeavor would have to be so impeccably crafted that even the most entrenched detractors couldnt fault it. I see so many ways it could be misread….

  3. Tim

    August 17, 2010 at 5:09 PM

    It is worth noting that there is a strip club and adult video store closer to the ‘hallowed ground’ than Park 51. Nobody making the ‘hallowed ground’ argument seems to mind those.

  4. Fill Esposito

    August 17, 2010 at 7:59 PM

    A strip club? Awesome!

    Seriously though, this is a tough one, and it sure is tough to express any reasonable thought with the lynch mob that is ready to torch every mosque in the USA.

    I think the *big* concern is the victory mosque. I think the way to defuse that is to install a permanent, respectful tribute to the 9/11 victims, that also decries the terrorists as evil. That’s what Joe SixPack wants reassurance about. He wants to know that Islam hates the 9/11 terrorists.

    If the Imam and his team can’t stomach that, then they’re going to have to relocate.


  5. Shama

    August 18, 2010 at 1:12 AM

    Keith Olbermann on the Ground Zero Mosque!

  6. Imtiaz

    August 18, 2010 at 8:42 AM

    I have family that died in WTC. I also look for a place to pray jummah on Friday.

    • Iesa Galloway

      August 18, 2010 at 4:24 PM

      Asalaam Alaikum,

      Would you be willing to share your story? If so please email MM and I will contact you.

      I am also interested to know if you are in the area regularly? If so what is the sense on the ground?


      • Imtiaz

        August 20, 2010 at 8:12 AM

        A while back – i think last week : There were signs by an art group Islam is Welcome here complete with a moon and star. Looking for it a day later it was gone. The signs looked like official dept. of transportation signs.

        A sense on the ground – I do not know how the regular joe business man feels: However, I can find out. The NY Daily News and Post have cover stories on it all the time. I do see people reading the articles almost all the time on my commute.

        • Iesa Galloway

          August 21, 2010 at 12:25 PM

          As someone from that area and that needs a place for Salah, what is your opinion? For many the issue has transcended its local roots and is a full blown national issue with real and serious ramifications. That said at the end of the day I hope for two things:

          1) that when a issue grows into a national issue that the local leadership would engage with the larger community and

          2) that the American Muslim community works at becoming more united by taking each segments concerns into account.

          Lastly, at the risk of being insensitive, I do encourage you to tell the story of your family members (may Allah forgive them and grant them paradise) that were taken on Sept. 11th. If you see it as a fitting way to honor their memory please draft something about them. Perhaps about who they were. their values, what they stood for, how loosing them has affected the rest of the family and how it adds to your perspectives about what is happening in world. I do not intend to offend, May Allah grant you patience, strength and make you among those who gain the benefits of this blessed month!

          Thank you for weighing in,


  7. firoz

    August 18, 2010 at 10:58 AM

    Keith Olbermann Special Comment: There Is No ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ – 08/16/10

  8. Jeremiah

    August 18, 2010 at 4:16 PM

  9. Pingback: Cordoba House “Ground Zero Mosque”: PR & Path Forward Part-3 | Move, but for the “Right Price” |

  10. Truth Muslim

    August 20, 2010 at 9:32 PM

    Salaam Alaikum

    I don’t think there is anything ‘morally’ wrong with building a Masjid at ground zero. — edited: I do not promote conspiracy theories or anything that can open up that type of distration from the topic — Iesa

    However, for the sake of avoiding controversy and the wrong kind of attention, I feel as though they should build the mosque farther from the intended ground zero site.

    There is so much hostility from the opponents of this whole ground zero mosque project, that it can surely jeopardize the safety of Muslims who attend services there in the future.

    Why not consider the safety and security of this mosque’s future visitors, whom will be mostly Muslim men, women and children? I think this is much more important than the ‘sensitivity’ of the issue.

  11. JRL

    August 20, 2010 at 10:53 PM

    As the Debate Over “Ground Zero Mosque” Grows More Shrill, I Wonder: Isn’t This What the Terrorists Wanted?
    by Eric Deggans

  12. Slides

    August 24, 2010 at 1:02 AM

    This indecisiveness of Muslims is really hurting us. There is a difference between what is legal and what is right for Muslims and the country in general.

    The mosque should be moved away from the Ground Zero site in order to show flexibility and sensibility of the strong feelings involved. This should have been done at least a week ago.

  13. JRL

    August 24, 2010 at 6:12 PM

    I did not realize that there were Jummah services at the WTC. Can someone confirm this? This is important information.

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