What's in a name? Far more than Lower Manhattan mosque planners thought about.

The controversy grows over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero as more politicians enter the fray.
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010

No matter where you stand on the question of building a mosque near Ground Zero, you have to hand one thing to the framers of this issue: They understood the power of words to create and perpetuate an issue.

Calling the proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan a "Ground Zero mosque" stirs up a far more passionate response on either side of the issue than calling it "an Islamic cultural center and mosque in Lower Manhattan." Strictly speaking, the proposed 13-story edifice at 51 Park Place isn't exactly a mosque, at least not as that term is generally understood (domes, minarets, etc.), and certainly isn't going to be a mosque that's 13 stories tall.

The proposed building would contain many things -- a cooking school, basketball courts, a swimming pool, child-care facilities, a restaurant, a library, an auditorium, a Sept. 11 memorial (!) and, yes, a Muslim house of worship, or mosque. It would be located two blocks from a corner of the Ground Zero site, in a neighborhood already packed with places of worship, including another Muslim prayer house that predates the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Read the preceding paragraph and ask yourself: Doesn't "Mosque at Ground Zero" sound more like the sort of thing that could get opponents like Newt Gingrich to declare the project "a political statement of radical islamist triumph"?

Politicians, revolutionaries, editors and advertisers have long understood the power of a single word to recast and reframe an issue to explosive effect. By calling the estate tax the "death tax," conservatives broadened a narrow debate over the obligations of wealthy families into a question of taxation for all. Similarly, "pre-owned" vehicles sound a lot nicer than "used" ones.

Journalists, at least the ones still obligated to neutrality, have tried to dance around loaded phrases for years. What to call someone who takes up arms against a government -- a "terrorist," an "insurgent," a "partisan," or a "militant"? Who or what are "freedom fighters"? Is Israel's barrier on the West Bank and Gaza Strip a "security fence" or a "separation wall"? Are they "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers"? Is it fair to label someone who opposes abortion "pro-life" when doing so suggests that an opponent is "anti-life"?

In Washington, naming a piece of legislation is a dark semantic art, fraught with deception and political manipulation. No matter what their flaws or merits, on name alone, it's hard to be against something called "the Patriot Act" or the "the Clean Skies Act." Calling anything a "reform" or "progressive" initiative implies that the reform is necessary or that opponents are regressive.

The general rule in navigating this minefield is clarity and accuracy, says Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society, an organization dedicated to maintaining both of those things in newspapers, magazines and Web sites.

"Terms that get caught up in religious or political ideology can be misleading, so we try to avoid those," she says. But even "neutral" labels have limitations and can be misleading, she adds. If you oppose abortion except in cases of incest and rape, are you therefore "quasi-pro-life," she asks. If you oppose abortion but are in favor of the death penalty, what are you then? (The Associated Press and The Washington Post are advising their journalists to avoid the terms "Ground Zero mosque" or "mosque at Ground Zero" because they're inaccurate.)

Corporations try to play the opposite game. Instead of bland neutrality, they spend millions of dollars annually on names they hope will evoke a positive, emotional connection with consumers, says Hayes Roth, the chief marketing officer of Landor Associates, a company that creates names for marketers and organizations.

Ideally, he says, a great brand name is connected to "a great story." Apple, for example, is an ingeniously simple and resonant name for a computer because it suggests simplicity, familiarity and ease of use, all attributes for a potentially intimidating device like a computer.

This is where the promoters of the downtown Islamic cultural center/mosque may have let events slip beyond their control, he suggests: They didn't come up with a name that would have blunted the emotional uppercut of "mosque near Ground Zero."

The project's original name, Cordoba House, simply confuses the issue, Roth argues. "Most people will think of a town in Spain if they think anything at all," he says. But that name also plays on the fears raised by opponents; the Great Mosque of C?rdoba was built on the site of an early Christian church about 1,100 years ago, then rebuilt as a Catholic church a few centuries later after the resurgence of Christianity.

While C?rdoba also became known for its tolerance of Christians, Jews and Muslims, the name can just as easily be linked to interreligious conflict and conquest -- the kind of historic "triumph" that Gingrich is protesting. "It's not a clean story," Roth says. "If the idea of the building is to honor religious freedom in general and respect for others and to remember 9/11," the name doesn't convey that. Nor does the project's new, anesthetized name, Park 51.

Indeed, Roth says, the entire controversy might have been averted if the organization behind the project had selected a name that recognized the neighborhood as the site of epic tragedy and conveyed unassailable, inarguable intentions, using words like "memorial," "reconciliation," "international," "interfaith" or "understanding."

Not coincidentally, Landor recently completed work on logos and brand identifiers for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, located at Ground Zero. Landor's shorthand "identity" for the project is simple and to the point and unlikely to raise any hackles at all: "9/11 Memorial."

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