The American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and The Cordoba Initiative (CI) intend to build a 13-story mosque and community center named Park51 two blocks from Ground Zero, the location of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. According to the Wall Street Journal, ASMA’s executive director Daisy Khan said the symbolism of the site added to the appeal of the property. “We decided we wanted to look at the legacy of 9/11 and do something positive…[and] reverse the trend of extremism and the kind of ideology that the extremists are spreading.”

Others, however, see the location choice differently. Some have held protests against the mosque and attempted to mark one of the buildings currently at 45-51 Park Place as a landmark in order to prevent demolition. This attempt failed when the Landmarks Preservation Commission decided that it was not worthy of landmark status. The vote was supported by some, like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and opposed by others like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and the Anti-Defamation League.

The most prominent figure in the debate is President Barack Obama, who recently announced his position on the issue. Obama equates allowing the mosque to be built with upholding America’s founding principles and said, “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

The debate surrounding this single Muslim community center has echoed throughout the United States. For example, the issue has brought to light the fear of Muslims that many Americans still hold after the 9/11 attacks. These feelings have manifested in protests against the building and in the expansion of or even the current existence of mosques in communities all over the country. The outcome of this debate certainly has the potential to affect how Muslims and non-Muslims in America interact and to raise some very important questions. Will the tension between Muslim and Western cultures ever decrease or dissipate? Will Americans ever be able to minimize their fear of Muslims since 9/11? Is there a way to find balance and peace for both cultures?

Plans and hurdles

Earlier this May, before presenting Community Board 1 with the mosque plans to get public feedback, Khan discussed the purpose of the $100 million Cordoba House with the Wall Street Journal. The Muslim community center will include a prayer space, performance space, community-event rooms, fitness facilities and classrooms; it will be modeled after the 92nd Street Y. Cordoba House will help serve the growing Muslim population in Lower Manhattan and contribute to the amount of community space available in the neighborhood.

Before receiving public feedback, Khan already knew that “there [would] be some people who are a little concerned” about the mosque’s proximity to the World Trade Center site. She said that the public should not be afraid of the Manhattan Muslims who would be using the space and stressed that they were not radicals: “People often say, ‘Where are the moderate Muslim voices?’…A building like this, with this scale, will be an amplifier for that often silent majority…What most people don’t know is that the people driving this forward are very integrated into the community downtown. We are nothing to be feared.”

Khan underestimated the public’s fear and the potential for backlash. The mosque proposal was met with strong negative reactions and numerous attempts have been made to derail the mosque plans. The most viable chance of stopping CI was a petition declaring one of the buildings occupying the space needed for the mosque, a former Burlington Coat Factory, as a landmark. Classifying the building as a landmark would spare it from demolition and force the mosque to be built elsewhere. While the building has no historical significance or particular aesthetic appeal, opponents of the mosque claimed that the building’s proximity to Ground Zero made it worthy of preservation.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously decided that the building did not have the architectural significance needed to merit landmark status. amNY’s article on the verdict quoted Frederick Bland, LPC commissioner, as saying “Although it is a handsome [building]…it doesn’t really stand out.” This was no surprise to the project developer and head of Soho Properties (the organization behind the project), Sharif El-Gamal, who told the Daily News even before the commission voted, “This is not the Woolworth Building. This is not the Chrysler Building. This building does not warrant individual landmark status.”

Opponents and critics have continued to find ways to combat CI’s plans. Tim Brown, a firefighter and first responder who lost many friends in the 9/11 attacks, has filed a lawsuit against the LPC with the help of The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). According to the ACLJ’s website the lawsuit was filed on the grounds that the city “violated its own policies…[and] did not follow its own rules and procedures in this case.” amNY says that that lawsuit is “accusing the commission of letting politics steer the vote.”

It was later discovered that Soho Properties only owns half of the property needed for the mosque. Many opponents of the proposal hoped that the ownership complications would be a large enough problem to stop CI. The building is owned by Con Edison, the New York electrical utility; however, Soho Properties has taken over the lease for the building which gives it license to do as it pleases with the property. According to the New York Post, El-Gamal purchased 45-47 Park Place for $4.8 million and paid $700,000 for 49-51’s lease. Soho Properties also plans on ultimately buying the land from Con Edison, a transaction that will have to be approved by the Public Service Commission. It is currently being appraised for possible sale.

A Con Edison spokesman reassured the public that politics would play no part in the utility’s business decisions and transactions: “We are following our legal obligations under the lease. We will not allow other considerations to enter into this transaction…[the company’s] values call for respecting people without regard to their racial, ethnic or religious orientation. They are all our customers”

Nonetheless, the New York’s Conservative Party plans to pressure Con Edison to use their power to stop CI from building the mosque by running a television ad campaign. There are also currently anti-mosque bus advertisements featuring burning images of the World Trade Center and the caption, “Why there?” According to Metro NY, the ads were placed by Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative. The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) originally asked that the images be removed because many would find them offensive but ultimately allowed the ads when Geller complained that they were denying her the freedom of speech.

Geller is not the only one with legal freedoms. CI is legally free to do whatever it wants with the property and is tightening its grasp on that freedom by raising funds to purchase the leased building. What CI ultimately wants, however, is to have the public’s support so it can secure donations and a steady flow of visitors. After all, Cordoba House/Park51 is meant to be a community center—but how can it bring people together when the controversy surrounding this project is tearing people apart?

A multifaceted problem

Individual opinions on the subject vary in their exact nature depending on what specific values the individual believes is most relevant to the issue. For example, a Fox News Poll revealed that 61% of voters believe CI has the right to build a mosque near ground zero. It also revealed, however, that 64% believe actually doing so would be wrong.

One of the primary criticisms of the project is that building a mosque in the area would be insensitive, especially to families of the victims of the September 11 attacks. Suzy Kurtz, a Metro NY reader, addressed the issue in an e-mail to the newspaper, citing Islam’s role in the 9/11 attacks:
“This has nothing to do with ‘freedom of religion’ and ‘tolerance.’ A mosque in the place of the WTC is a slap in the face to those who died. Is the entire Muslim religion at fault? Of course not. But the hijackers (terrorists) flew those planes in the name of said religion. They killed thousands in the name of said religion. They destroyed lives in the name of said religion.”

Many have similarly condemned CI’s plans as distasteful considering the connection between Islam and the 9/11 attacks, regardless of whether or not they view the entire Muslim population as a threat. There are some, however, who believe that this is more than just a matter of taste—some believe that this mosque is being erected as a victory monument or that it will possibly be used in a way that will benefit Islamic terrorists. A Duke University study, however, says that mosques, religious bookstores and community fixtures bring Muslim-Americans together and prevent radical thinking.

Some simply look at the debate as a legal and political issue. New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, made a speech on Governor’s Island in front of the Statue of Liberty where he pointed out previous injustices that had taken place in America as people were rejected the freedom of religion, including everyone from Jews and Quakers to Catholics. He said we needed to consider and answer a basic question: “…should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.” He also addressed those most concerned about the 9/11 victims and their families: “We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting,” said Bloomberg. “We honor their lives by defending those rights—and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”

President Obama agrees with Bloomberg’s rationale. According to the New York Daily News, Obama said, “As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country…That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.” When this statement was interpreted by many as an endorsement of the mosque, Obama clarified by saying he was not commenting on the “wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.” Instead, he was commenting on the “right people have that dates back to our founding.”

It is equally important to honor American values and the Constitution and to be respectful to the 9/11 victims and their families. Americans have been unable to conclusively say what the right thing to do in this situation is. Regardless of where the public stands, something must be done about the proposed mosque. And to complicate matters, there are almost as many possible solutions as there are possible stances on the issue.

Moving forward

People primarily concerned with the politics and legalities of the issue are likely to agree with Bloomberg and Obama, especially out of the desire to uphold the U.S. Constitution. Bloomberg’s Governor’s Island speech also reminded the public that some 9/11 victims were Muslims, that Muslims are also New Yorkers and Americans who grieved after 9/11 and that they are part of the city.

New York governor David Paterson has been helpful in presenting a practical solution that could appease both sides: yes, build the mosque, but, no, do not build it by the World Trade Center. To entice CI, Paterson offered to provide state property if they agreed to relocate to an area further away from the World Trade Center which could appease the mosque’s fiercest opponents. According to The New York Times, Paterson believes CI has the right to build their center in that area but also thinks that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is in charge of CI, should “reconsider in the light of the strong emotional objections of many Americans.” Mosque developers, however, have since told Paterson they are not interested in moving.

Regardless of how the CI mosque issue is resolved, there are also additional issues that are represented in its public discussion. All over the nation, mosques that are expanding or being built face great opposition from non-Muslims. This opposition has even been manifested through violence and aggressive demonstrations. Associated Press writer Travis Loller referred to this opposition as a “sharper kind of fear than has showed up in New York.” In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, spray paint and dogs have been used to intimidate Muslims during their prayer services. People in Temecula, California, also used dogs and were worried that having a mosque in their town next to a Baptist church would turn the city into a haven for Islamic extremists. Islam is a growing religion and more Muslim communities may mean more opportunities for protest, intimidation or even violence from non-Muslims.

Others, however, have seen the mosque debate as an opportunity to show the world that Americans can heal their scars from 9/11, trust their Muslim neighbors again and honor our founding principles. In the Metro NY letters discussion of the issue, George Scott Kirby wrote: “I…I am slightly bothered by these negative views…in regards to this mosque…I think many critics are forgetting the value this country was founded on: freedom of religion. I would think that many would see the allowance of a mosque to be constructed as a chance to show that we might be viewed ….as tolerant and understanding people.”

Whether or not a community center should be built in a certain area is not the only question being asked in the CI debate. People are now also wondering: How should Constitutional rights be honored? How can Muslims and non-Muslims in America live together and practice their respective religions peacefully? Is there a way to strike a delicate balance between tolerance of a religion and sensitivity to a nation? Without laying a single brick, CI is raising important political and cultural questions that every citizen in the United States can take into consideration.