NEW YORK - Some media reports give the impression that Islamic fanatics have won the right to build a mosque near Ground Zero, over the wishes of the vast majority of New Yorkers. But the truth is far different. A moderate Islamic group hoping to promote tolerance and diversity, and to do its part to help rebuild the community injured by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is hoping to build a community center-and people of all faiths are supporting them.
The controversy arose when the Cordoba Initiative, which aims at "improving Muslim-West relations" announced it would renovate a building - which is already used as overflow for a nearby mosque - into an Islamic community center.
"This is a center like the 92nd Street Y or the Jewish Community Center," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative said at a press conference. "It is meant to have programs to serve the community, to serve the Muslim and the non-Muslim community. This is also our expression of the 99.999 percent of Muslims all over the world, including in America, who have condemned and continue to condemn terrorism."
An assembly of extreme-right wing Republicans, Tea Party members and others influenced by their rhetoric has denounced the project because it is to be built near to the site of the 9/11 attacks. They claim it will be a "breeding ground" for terrorists and demand that the government intervene to stop its construction.
As many point out, despite the Republican-right hype, the center isn't actually that close to the old World Trade Center site. In a huge city like New York, a few blocks is essentially a world away.
And, said Feisal, "We condemn terrorism. We recognize it exists in our faith community, but we're committed to eradicating it." He appealed for the help of non-Muslims, saying, "We cannot do this by ourselves. We need your support, we need your cooperation. We need coalitions of Muslims and non-Muslims together to achieve the common objectives that we as patriotic Americans want to achieve."
People of all political and religious persuasions have voiced support, including Christians, Jews, and others, even outspoken atheists. These disparate groups all argue that, no matter how offended some may feel, there is no basis for interfering in the Bill of Rights guarantee that the government must not discriminate based on a person or group's religious affiliation.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the Jewish American group J Street, said the fight over the Islamic center is, in many ways, a battle over the soul of the United States. "The principle at stake in the Cordoba House controversy goes to the heart of American democracy and the value we place on freedom of religion," he said.
J Street collected 10,000 signatures "to counter the opposition" to the plans "to build a community center in lower Manhattan modeled after Jewish Community Centers and Y's all over the country."
New York's Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in an August 3 speech, noted that the building OS private property and "the owners have a right to use it as a house of worship" and said, "The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right."
"Part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance," Bloomberg said. "It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11."
New York City's progressive Comptroller John Liu voiced his support for the project, saying, "The development of both the mosque and the center gained strong support of the local community board earlier this month. Both are dedicated to promoting education and understanding, and intended to help bridge the divide and unify New York."
While those raising a hue and cry over the project say the Bill of Rights religious liberty protection must be suspended so as not to offend families of 9/11 victims, many survivors disagree.
Donna Marsh O'Connor, spokesperson for September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, said, "This building will serve as an emblem for the rest of the world that Americans stand against violence, intolerance and overt acts of racism and that we recognize that the evil acts of a few must never damn the innocent."
Photo: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, addresses a gathering as groups planning a proposed mosque and cultural center near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan to be named Cordoba House spoke about their plans for the center at a community board meeting in New York, May 25. Community members both for and against the plan spoke during the meeting. (AP/Craig Ruttle)