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Vol. 74/No. 34      September 6, 2010

Controversy over mosque
in New York heats up
(front page)
NEW YORK—A debate with street protests on both sides has broken out here in response to the planned building of an Islamic cultural center two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center, which was destroyed by al-Qaeda terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.

The two sides squared off on the morning of August 22 near the site in Lower Manhattan. Some 500 people against plans for the Islamic center marched from its proposed location to the site of the 2001 attack, now under construction. A couple of blocks away, a counterdemonstration of about 200 opposed any government restrictions on the center’s location.

Anti-mosque protesters chanted: “Not here, not now, not ever” and “Obama must go.” American flags were prominent and participants sang “God Bless America” and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The main sign printed in quantity simply had the word “sharia” (Islamic law) in bright red letters imitating dripping blood.

Other signs included calls on mosque builders to move the new center further away and outright expressions of anti-Muslim bigotry, such as “everything I ever needed to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.”

Noticeable in the crowd were a number identifying themselves as firefighters, construction workers, or U.S. marines.

By the afternoon, the counterprotest called to oppose the anti-mosque demonstration had largely ended, but around a dozen people were still present. “I am here to defend the principles of religious freedom and the Constitution,” said Victoria Stong, a self-described community activist. Those opposed to these rights are “playing the emotional card” to get support, she said, adding that she lost a cousin in the September 11 attack.

The main public figure behind the $100 million 13-story center is Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, who heads the Masjid al-Farah, a 28-year-old mosque located 12 blocks away from the former World Trade Center. Abdul Rauf is also chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, which he co-founded with John Bennett, former mayor of Aspen, Colorado. Its stated purpose is to “heal conflict between Islamic and Western communities” and engage “Islamic legal scholars in addressing the implications of contemporary Islamic governance.”

Adbul Rauf has regularly worked with the Council on Foreign Relations, including serving on a commission on “U.S. Policy Toward Reform in the Arab World,” chaired by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright. Currently he is on a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour in Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to help strengthen U.S. relations with religious and ruling-class figures there.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has been a vocal proponent of building the mosque, going so far as to say that there wouldn’t have been any opposition if it were a church or synagogue being built there.

A number of public figures have been pressing for government intervention to block the building plans on the grounds of its controversial nature. In their arguments many have pointed to the contradiction between Abdul Rauf’s stated intentions to further interfaith reconciliation by building the mosque, and the actual results.

Two outspoken prominent New York politicians, former mayor Rudy Giuliani and Gov. David Paterson, are pressuring mosque builders to move the site on the grounds of its “insensitivity.”

Another in this camp is William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. He points out that many Muslims do not favor building an Islamic center at the proposed location. Kristol cites an opinion piece by Abdul Rahman al-Rahid, editor of Asharq-Al-Awsat, a major Arabic newspaper. “I cannot imagine that Muslims want a mosque on this particular site, because it will be turned into an arena for promoters of hatred, and a symbol of those who committed the crime,” al-Rahid wrote.

Ultrarightists such as Patrick Buchanan have used the opportunity to openly argue that constitutional rights are subordinate to defending a nation born as “an extension of Christendom” and based on “Western” values.

The controversy in New York has fueled contention over the building of mosques in several other states.

President Barack Obama first spoke publicly about the mosque at an August 13 White House dinner celebrating the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” he said. “And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan…. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

The next day, he modified his tone saying, “I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.”

Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, an outspoken opponent of the mosque site, taunted Obama following his remarks. “We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they? This is not above your pay grade,” she stated.

More protests by both sides are expected on September 11, the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Related articles:
No to gov’t interference with mosque  
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