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'Ground Zero mosque' raises questions of tolerance and grief

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2010-07-23

A controversy surrounding plans for an Islamic centre with a mosque near Ground Zero has highlighted tension between America’s cherished freedom of religion and its struggle to recover from the traumas of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Plans to build an Islamic centre with a mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan have set off a firestorm of reactions, with politicians, bloggers, religious leaders, and relatives of 9/11 victims joining an increasingly emotional debate.

The controversy surrounding the project has highlighted tension between America’s famed freedom of religion and its struggle to recover from the traumas of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

What has been referred to as the “Ground Zero mosque”, named after the World Trade Center site, would in fact be a 13-story Muslim cultural complex with a prayer room. It is the pet project of Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Manhattan imam who says the purpose of the centre would be to bridge divides between Muslims and other religious groups.

Symbol of tolerance or ‘stab in the heart’?

The building located at the site in question was built in 1858, and has been closed since sustaining damage in the Sept. 11 attacks. Detractors of the project argue that the building should be designated a “historic” structure and preserved as it is.

But the plan for the centre won wide support at community board meetings in May, when the concept was presented in more detail: in addition to the worship space, the $100 million complex would hold an auditorium, meeting rooms, exhibition areas, a bookstore, a swimming pool, and a cafeteria serving specialties from Muslim countries. Proponents who spoke on behalf of the project at the hearing said the centre would be a symbol of religious tolerance in the face of extremism. Several New York religious and interfaith groups have also backed the project.

But the most ardent voices belong to those who are against it, from prominent political figures and writers to families of people who died in the 9/11 attacks. Protesters at the community board hearings in May held signs of indignation that read “Where is sensitivity?” or “Honor 3,000. No Mosque”.

Many of those who took to the podium said building a mosque near a site where thousands of Americans were killed by Muslim extremists was in poor taste and insulting to dead victims and their families. Public opinion in New York, a city considered one of the most liberal in the US, seems to agree, with polls showing a slim majority of residents against the plan.

Amid the charged atmosphere in the months leading up to November’s “midterm” elections, politicians of both parties have also jumped into the fray, clashing over whether the debate is about religious freedom. Freedom of religion in the US is a right guaranteed and protected by the First Amendment in the Constitution, which prevents the federal government from “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Unlike in Europe, for example, there are very few laws limiting the wearing of religious garb, and practices such as Scientology are recognized as religions.

But some feel the crux of the debate about the centre is elsewhere. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin took to her Twitter account to ask “peaceful Muslims” to reject the centre, which she called a “stab in the heart.” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for his part, said calls for the project to be stopped were contrary to the cherished US tradition of religious freedom. “The government should never, never be in the business of telling people how they should pray or where they can pray”, he said.

Palin took Bloomberg to task in a subsequent post on her Facebook page, quoting an interview given by Imam Rauf to TV news show “60 Minutes”, in which he said that “United States policies were an accessory” to the 9/11 attacks.

The controversy made its way into the New York governor race, too, with candidates sparring over sources of funding for the centre that have not yet been disclosed. Republican candidate Rick Lazio has urged probes into the financing of the project and possible links to extremist groups. The current attorney general and Lazio’s Democratic opponent in the election, Andrew Cuomo, has refused to open an inquiry, saying that it would be infringing on religious freedom.

Bloggers and columnists face off

Meanwhile, political bloggers and newspaper columnists are lining up on both sides of the debate. A piece by Stephen Schwartz in conservative magazine The Weekly Standard alleged a web of radical ties linking Imam Rauf and his wife to Hamas, as well as a Pakistani jihadist. Author and journalist Robert Wright, blogging for The New York Times, slammed Schwartz for his “McCarthyite guilt-by-association tactics”, and suggested that not allowing the centre would only support Bin Laden’s “recruiting pitch   that America has declared war on Islam”.

For some, the conflict remains how to reconcile principles of religious freedom with emotions of grief and anger. The Washington Post ran a blog post by pastor and theologist Richard Land, who qualified his belief in freedom of religion by writing that “no religious community has an absolute right to have a place of worship wherever they choose, regardless of the community's objections”.

In an interview with, New York-based left-wing blogger Rich Boatti disagreed: “Once we start telling people where they can and cannot have their places of worship, we become more like Saudi Arabia and less like America”.


Date created : 2010-07-23

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