July 30, 2010
The New York Times
An influential Jewish organization on Friday announced its opposition to a proposed Islamic center and mosque two blocks north of ground zero in Lower Manhattan, intensifying a fierce national debate about the limits of religious freedom and the meaning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The decision by the group, the Anti-Defamation League, touched off angry reactions from a range of religious groups, which argued that the country would show its tolerance and values by welcoming the center near the site where radical Muslims killed about 2,750 people.
But the unexpected move by the ADL, a mainstream group that has denounced what it saw as bigoted attacks on plans for the Muslim center, could well be a turning point in the battle over the project.
In New York, where ground zero has slowly blended back into the fabric of the city, government officials appear poised to approve plans for the sprawling complex, which would have as many as 15 stories and would house a prayer space, a performing arts center, a pool and a restaurant.
But around the country opposition is mounting, fueled in part by Republican leaders and conservative pundits. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, has urged “peace-seeking Muslims” to reject the center, branding it an “unnecessary provocation.” A Republican political action committee has produced a television commercial assailing the proposal. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has decried it in speeches.
The complex’s rapid evolution from a local zoning dispute into a national referendum highlights the intense and unsettled emotions that still surround the World Trade Center site nine years after the attacks.
To many New Yorkers, especially in Manhattan, it is a construction zone, passed during the daily commute or glimpsed through office windows. To some outside of the city, though, it stands as a hallowed battlefield that must be shielded and memorialized.
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?”
He added: “The average American just thinks this is a political statement. It’s not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.”
Several family members of victims at the World Trade Center have weighed in against the plan, saying it would desecrate what amounts to a graveyard. “When I look over there and see a mosque, it’s going to hurt,” C. Lee Hanson, whose son, Peter, was killed in the attacks, said at a recent public hearing. “Build it someplace else.”
Those who support it seem mystified and flustered by the heated opposition. They contend that the project, with an estimated cost of $100 million, is intended to span the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim, not widen it.
Oz Sultan, the programming director for the center, said the complex was based on Jewish community centers and Y.M.C.A.’s in Manhattan. It is to have a board composed of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders and is intended to create a national model of moderate Islam.
“We are looking to build bridges between faiths,” Mr. Sultan said in an interview.
City officials, particularly Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, have forcefully defended the project on the grounds of religious freedom, saying that government has no place dictating where a house of worship is located. The local community board has given overwhelming backing to the project, and the city’s landmarks commission is expected to do the same on Tuesday.
“What is great about America, and particularly New York, is we welcome everybody, and if we are so afraid of something like this, what does that say about us?” Mr. Bloomberg asked recently.
“Democracy is stronger than this,” he added. “And for us to just say no is just, I think — not appropriate is a nice way to phrase it.”
Still, the arguments against the Muslim center appear to be resonating. Polling shows that a majority of Americans oppose building it near ground zero.
Resistance is particularly strong among some national Republican leaders. In stump speeches, Twitter messages and op-ed articles, they have turned angry denunciations of the plan into a political rallying cry that they say has surprising potency.
The two major Republican candidates for governor of New York, Rick A. Lazio and Carl Paladino, are making it a central issue in their campaigns, attacking the state’s attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, who is also the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, for not aggressively investigating the project’s finances..
In North Carolina, Ilario Pantano, a former Marine and a Republican candidate for Congress, has also campaigned on the issue, and says it is stirring voters in his rural district, some 600 miles away from ground zero.
A few days ago, at a roadside pizza shop in the small town of Salemburg, he attacked the proposal before an enthusiastic crowd of hog farmers and military veterans.
“Uniformly, there was disgust and disdain in the room for the idea,” Mr. Pantano said.
The issue was wrenching for the Anti-Defamation League, which in the past has spoken out against anti-Islamic sentiment. But its 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.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s statement drew criticism almost immediately.
“The ADL should be ashamed of itself,” said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, which promotes interethnic and interfaith dialogue. Speaking of the imam behind the proposed center, Feisal Abdul Rauf, he said, “Here, we ask the moderate leaders of the Muslim community to step forward, and when one of them does, he is treated with suspicion.”
C. Welton Gaddy, the president of the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington group that emphasizes religious freedom, called the decision “disappointing,” and said he read about it “with a great deal of sorrow.”
On Friday, Mr. Sultan, the programming director for the proposed Muslim center, expressed surprise and sadness at the news. Told of Mr. Foxman’s remarks about the families of Sept. 11 victims, he said, “That response is just not well thought out.” He said that Muslims had also died on Sept. 11, either because they worked in the twin towers, or responded to the scene.
“The ADL has always been antibigotry,” he said. “This just does not seem consistent with their message.”
Paul Vitello contributed reporting.