9/11, Civil Rights, Real Estate, Religion

Allahu Akbar! Mosque Near Ground Zero Clears a Final Hurdle

Who knew that zoning law and land use could be so controversial? A proposal to build a Muslim center and mosque just two blocks away from Ground Zero has become a huge issue here in New York — and, in fact, around the country.

Opponents of the project — originally known as Cordoba House, but now more commonly referred to as Park51, a 15-story tower that will contain a mosque, 500-seat auditorium, and swimming pool — had hoped to stop the project by winning landmark status for the building currently on the site. This morning, however, NYC’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 9-0 against granting protected status to 45-47 Park Place in lower Manhattan, which will be demolished to make way for the $100 million center.

Of course, this controversy is about so much more than granting landmark status to a random downtown building designed by an unknown architect….

The dispute over the Islamic center implicates such difficult issues as rebuilding lower Manhattan, honoring the memory of 9/11 victims, and respecting religious tolerance and diversity. Writes Javier Hernandez, over at City Room:

After the commission voted, several members of the audience shouted “Shame on you!” and “Disgrace!” One woman carried a sign reading, “Don’t Glorify Murders of 3,000; No 9/11 Victory Mosque.”

The issue had divided family members of those killed on Sept. 11. Some argued it was insensitive to the memory of those who died in the attacks. Others saw it as a symbol of tolerance to counter the religious extremism that prevailed on that day.

The debate over the center has become a heated political issue, drawing opposition from former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska and members of the Tea Party. The Anti-Defamation League, an influential Jewish organization, unexpectedly entered the fray on Friday and said it opposed the project.

I was struck by the opposition by the ADL, which states that it “fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all.” After reading an interesting article over the weekend about the ADL weighing in against the project, I wondered (on Twitter and Facebook): “Why not build that mosque somewhere else in Manhattan (just not at Ground Zero)?”

I recognized, of course, that the government trying to stop the Islamic center — when it probably wouldn’t stop, say, a Catholic church or a Buddhist temple on the same site — would raise problems under the First Amendment. I simply wondered whether the Cordoba Initiative, the Muslim group behind the center, might be well-advised to pick another site somewhere else on the large island of Manhattan — not out of any legal duty to do so, but simply for prudential reasons, in a spirit of sensitivity and goodwill.

I was quickly smacked down educated by my friends on Facebook (feel free to add me, by the way, unless you’re a crazy stalker). My status update generated almost 70 comments, the vast majority of them in favor of the center. Proponents pointed out the following:

  • it’s not mainly a mosque, but a cultural center that happens to include a prayer space (like a YMCA building that might house a chapel);
  • it’s not located at Ground Zero, but a few blocks away (and there’s a “slippery slope” argument here — how far away would the center have to be?);
  • Islam is not monolithic, and on 9/11 we were attacked not by “Islam,” but by radical terrorists who (wrongly) claimed to act in the name of Islam;
  • the group behind the center, the Cordoba Initiative, is a moderate Muslim group that “aims to achieve a tipping point in Muslim-West relations within the next decade, steering the world back to the course of mutual recognition and respect and away from heightened tensions”; and
  • in light of the Cordoba Initiative’s mission, building the center so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks powerfully underscores our society’s commitment to religious diversity and understanding.

So those are some of the arguments in favor of the center. Here are some arguments against the center (from an NYT article):

Those who are fighting the project argue that building a house of Muslim worship so close to ground zero is at best an affront to the families of those who died there and at worst an act of aggression that would, they say, mark the place where radical Islam achieved a blow against the United States.

“The World Trade Center is the largest loss of American life on our soil since the Civil War,” Mr. Gingrich said. “And we have not rebuilt it, which drives people crazy. And in that setting, we are told, why don’t we have a 13-story mosque and community center? …. The average American just thinks this is a political statement. It’s not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.”

Some might roll their eyes at Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. But what about the influential Anti-Defamation League, which has condemned anti-Islamic sentiment in the past, but which also opposes the center?

[The ADL’s] national director, Abraham H. Foxman, said in an interview on Friday that the organization came to the conclusion that the location was offensive to families of victims of Sept. 11, and he suggested that the center’s backers should look for a site “a mile away.”

“It’s the wrong place,” Mr. Foxman said. “Find another place.”

Asked why the opposition of the families was so pivotal in the decision, Mr. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, said they were entitled to their emotions. “Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

Is Abe Foxman right? Or are “irrational” or “bigoted” positions unacceptable from any quarter?

Readers, what are your thoughts? Feel free to debate in the comments, and vote in our poll:

Mosque Near Ground Zero Clears Final Hurdle [City Room / New York Times]
Jewish Group Opposes Muslim Center Near Ground Zero [New York Times]

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