2010-09-02 / This Week's Attitude

Hysteria Over Manhattan Islamic Center Is Flawed

This Week’’s Atti tude
By Neil S. Friedman
There’ve been a lot of heated debates and a few demonstrations over the planned construction of an Islamic community center a few blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood. Though it’s out of sight from where the National September 11 Memorial and Museum will stand, it’s not out of mind.

To ignite opposition, it is sometimes referred to as the Ground Zero mosque. The term may be suitable to rally foes, but it’s incorrect. The project — now referred to as the unassuming Park51 — is not across the street from the World Trade Center. I recently visited Ground Zero (to take photos for next week’s Courier) and went to the controversial Islamic Center site. It is two blocks north of where the Twin Towers were, tucked away between several buildings that stand between it and the large area now under reconstruction, so there is no direct line of sight. It’s only connection may be that a component of the center will have a place for prayer and contemplation, just as the memorial will be.

Some argue the Muslim center is insensitive to the families of the 9/11 victims and would desecrate the area. But any argument about hallowed ground seems hollow when you discover what type of businesses now operate in the shadow of Ground Zero — two strip joints, a sex shop with a peep show, bars, fast food restaurants and an off-track betting parlor. (All the vices anyone can hope for.) No one seems to object to them or the unlicensed vendors who shamelessly hawk photos and images of the iconic Twin Towers to tourists visiting the site.

While the opposition can’t understand why this particular location was chosen, the developer said he looked for years at other sites in lower Manhattan to build a YMCA-style center, but never found a suitable space with the right zoning until he came upon the Park Place building.

For months the deal went mostly unnoticed. Last December, a front page New York Times article reported the building, which was purchased the previous summer, would eventually house an Islamic center approved by city officials and the local community board.

Two weeks later, conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, subbing for Bill O’Reilly on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” practically endorsed the center during an interview with Daisy Khan, the wife of one of the center’s organizers, Imam Feisal Abdul Raul.

Then there was silence, until Community Board 1 held hearings last spring, at which time the developers publicly revealed their plans. The next day the media provided grist for misguided outrage when the project was referred to as “the World Trade Center mosque” and the matter suddenly became snowballing discord. Opponents probably never bothered to examine the developers’ proposal, which include razing the current building, erecting a 13- story replacement to house a 500-seat auditorium, exhibition space, a library, a pool, a fitness center, a day care and senior center and, yes, a mosque. There are no plans for the exterior to include the familiar minaret that tops traditional mosques.

Where exactly is Ground Zero? Is it a place or a symbol? Most Americans probably assume it encompasses 16 acres that was the World Trade Center. For the record, Ground Zero has no definitive boundary, though the 9/11 Memorial will be the centerpiece of the site.

During a recent demonstration, protestors demanded the Islamic center be moved somewhere else. How far away would be far enough to satisfy them? Ten blocks? A mile? Another borough? Out of the state?

One protester told a reporter, “They should put it in the Middle East.”

There’s your answer because several places have hosted recent anti-mosque rallies, including Brooklyn, Staten Island, Tennessee, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and California.

Nonetheless, there are those who need to be reminded that scapegoating, motivated by hysteria, whether it’s aimed at Muslims, illegal Mexican immigrants or anyone, can only foster blind hatred.

While the impulsive reaction to the Islamic center was predictable, perhaps this fury deserves to be redirected to the delay in rebuilding Ground Zero. After years of mismanagement and arguments about what the area should contain, the only thing visible at the site of the 9/11 devastation are early stages of construction.

That would be a more suitable avenue for protesters to vent their passions, not at a proposed Islamic community center that is lacking sufficient funds and may never rise above the fray.

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