“The Ground Zero Mega Mosque”: Q & A of a Controversy


Demonstrators against the "Ground Zero Mega Mosque"
Demonstrators against the "Ground Zero Mega Mosque"

The plan to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero divides America. What is the heated dispute all about? Get the nuts and bolts of the conflict here.

9/11. For years, thousands have gathered annually at Ground Zero to mourn and pay tribute to the victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. But this year, chances are high that the serenity of the commemorations will be drowned out by the fuming demonstration going on at Park Place, two blocks away from the holy turf.

There, a rally staged by the self-proclaimed “human rights organization” Stop Islamization of America will take place, bringing together furious activists, frustrated family members, and (inter)national populist politicians. Geert Wilders, Dutch parliamentarian and “freedom fighter”, is scheduled to speak.

Their cause: to protest in front of the building where, according to the demonstrators, the “mega mosque of Ground Zero” is to be constructed. This demonstration will be the culmination of a controversy which began months ago and has since escalated into a no holds barred feud.

In particular, opponents have raised their voices aggressively in protest. Provocative bus ads display an Islamic skyscraper next to an enflamed World Trade Center, with the caption, “Why there?”. Angry demonstrations call for “No Presents for Terrorists”, and anti-mosque commercials flood the internet after being barred from network television for their hate-inciting messages (“Where we weep, they rejoice”).

But what is the hysteria all about? Who are the players? And what is really at stake here? A Q & A of the mosque madness.

Q: According to some, Park51 is a “mega mosque”. To others, it is a community center. Which is it?

A: Park51 is a community center which will house a mosque on two of its thirteen floors. The bulk of the building will be filled with cultural, communal and religious facilities open to the public. A swimming pool, an auditorium, a library, a restaurant, art studios, childcare services – those kinds of things. There is also a September 11th memorial.

Q: Restaurant? Swimming pool? That doesn’t sound too bad.

A: It sounds especially like what a state-of-the-art American cultural community center looks like these days. It will be modeled after the Christian YMCA and Jewish JCC in Manhattan, which are both just as “mega” as their future Islamic counterpart, by the way.
What is the aim of the center?

In mission statement language, “Park51 celebrates arts, culture and ideas, bringing the best of the world to New York City, and New York City’s energy and diversity to the world.”

Translation: get a membership, get a swimsuit, and dive into top-notch, modern communal facilities. With a moral coloring. And yes, that includes a mosque.

Q: Who is behind this?

A: Park 51 is the brain wave of an American power couple, Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan.
The former, imam of a lower Manhattan mosque for 27 years, has also had a long career as an American cultural ambassador, going on speaking tours to the Middle East for both the Bush and Obama State departments.

At the same time, some of his comments after 9/11 (“Osama bin Laden is made in the USA”) have not sat well with his critics.

His wife, Daisy Khan, is the Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. She has repeatedly noted that the project will not only be “a blow to extremists” but also project “a different message of Islam: one of tolerance, love, and the kinds of commonalities we have with other faith communities.”

Q: How do an Imam and a nonprofit executive have the money to fund such a massive enterprise?

A: The building was actually purchased a year ago by the successful Soho Properties owner, Sharif El Gamal, who is also a member of Rauf’s congregation. 4.85 million dollars had to be coughed up, a steal in Manhattan real estate figures – we’re in a recession, after all.

The 100 million dollars needed for the reconstruction project will be raised at soon as a new non-profit organization is created to oversee it. According to the Park51 website, financial contributions will come from a variety of places: “we expect that our sources of funding will include individuals of different religions, charitable organizations, public funds, institutional and corporate sponsors.”

Q: The term, "Ground Zero Mosque", suggests that the cultural center will be built where the Twin Towers once stood. Is that true?

A: “Ground Zero Mosque”, as it has been coined, is by all means a misleading name since the center will not stand on the former ruins of the WTC. It is true, however, that the center is quite nearby. A two to five minute walk through lively streets lined with food vendors, businesses, small and skyscraper buildings, and strip clubs separates Park Place from Ground Zero, as this video shows.

Q: Are there other mosques near Ground Zero?

A: There is one four blocks away. And polemically put, Ground Zero is already some form of open-air mosque, as relatives of the estimated 300 Muslim-Americans who died in the 2001 terrorist attacks have been gathering there for nine years to commemorate the victims.

Q: On the legal level, can anything about the center’s construction be disputed?

A: No. As UCLA Constitutional Law professor Eugene Volokh stated, “By every legal standard, the case for allowing Park51 to be built is open and shut.”

The center’s construction is protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees the free exercise of religion.

“Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” emphasized Democratic President Barack Obama recently. This constitutional argument can be heard among Park51’s defenders, including the Democratic Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg.

The center’s construction also can not be undermined by local laws. Both the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Community Board of Lower Manhattan voted unanimously in its favor. “They own the land, and their plans don’t have any zoning changes,” stated board member of the former committee, Ro Sheffe.

Q: If the center’s construction is legally good to go, what arguments are being used against it?

A: While recent polls reveal that the majority of New Yorkers feel that the center has a right to be built, they also believe that out of sensitivity for 9/11 victims and relatives, another location should be chosen for it.

National polls indicate that the rest of America feels similarly. Many critics think that the center would be a constant and painful reminder for those who suffered losses on 9/11.

The now infamous Twitter message of 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin reflects this viewpoint: “peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.”

Q: Where do the relatives of 9/11 victims stand?

A: Very dividedly. A number of them compare the center to “spraying swastikas all over a Jewish memorial.” Others take a more lukewarm stance. A final group has actively voiced their support. A sister of one of the victims recently said in an interview that the center would be “a fitting tribute” to “what moderate Islam is all about.”

Q: Why do opponents nonetheless see the center as an affront?

A: The speeches, discourses, and posters of the most zealous opponents (“No country club for terrorists”, “Sharia!”) suggest that they do not differentiate between the ideologies of the terrorists of 9/11 and the center’s initiators.

Potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, who originally planned to speak at the Stop Islamization rally, summarizes the rationale best:

“The folks who want to build this mosque, who are really radical Islamists, who want to triumphally (sic) prove that they can build a mosque right next to a place where 3,000 Americans were killed by radical Islamists… those folks don’t have any interest in reaching out to the community. They’re trying to make a case about supremacy… this happens all the time in America.”

Q: That sounds quite similar to the discourses of the Far Right in Europe.

A: It does, doesn’t it? The discussions around the mosque mania are very reminiscent of the right-wing parties’ rhetoric during the minaret hype in Switzerland and the burqa debates in France.

This similarity would also explain why Geert Wilders has been invited to speak at the rally. His well-known narrative of Islam as a “retarded culture” and supremacist “fascist ideology” which by default is extremist is bound to strike a chord with many of the center’s staunchest opponents.
Midterm elections are coming up.

Q: Are anti-Muslim sentiments being used to attract voters?

A: A number of prominent Republicans (John McCain, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney) seem to be instrumentalizing the “mosque” as a weapon to regain seats in federal and state administrations by feeding anti-Muslim sentiments. There are exceptions, of course (Republican Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, for instance), but the majority remains quite critical.

There is also reason to believe that this attitude will work in garnering votes. The increasing number of violent controversies over proposed mosques – Tennessee, California, Georgia, Kentucky, Wisconsin, to name but a few battleground sites – clearly hints in that direction. The results of most “mosque” polls do as well.

Q: If the vox populi is against the center, are the Democrats following suit?

A: A lot of Democrats are excelling in silence. When they do speak up, electorate considerations take precedence. That could explain why Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is fighting a tough re-election battle, has actively voiced his opposition to the center.

President Barack Obama is himself ambivalent. The day following his initial defense of the center, he qualified his comments by stating, “I was not commenting and will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.”

Q: How do Muslim-Americans feel about the project?

A: There are a variety of opinions. Some are for, others are against. Here and there, they express their surprise that a community center is what has incited so much anger, instead of a new terrorist attack.

Despite the diversity of opinions, it is striking that many Muslim-Americans feel excluded from that piece of the American identity which is linked to 9/11. “As Americans, Ground Zero is our hallowed ground too. But it pains me to be excluded from this part of being American,” an American Muslim recently stated.

Another often-voiced reaction is the feeling of fear that has intensified since the beginning of the Park51 controversy. Anti-Muslim graffiti, vandalism, discussions about burning the Koran, harassment and threats are a given.

Hate crimes are a topic as well. A few weeks ago, a Manhattan cab driver was stabbed by a passenger after responding “yes” to the question of whether he was a Muslim. This event has left an impression with many Muslim-Americans. And could explain why Eboo Patel, a prominent Muslim-American activist, recently said, “I am more scared than I’ve ever been – more scared than after Sept. 11th.”

e-mail:: vanhove@uni-bremen.de - priyafs@gmail.com

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