Prayer hall or provocation?
By Gregg Carlstrom
The site of the planned mosque and Islamic community centre in lower Manhattan [AFP]
Barack Obama, the US president, spoke forcefully on Friday night in support of the proposed mosque and Islamic community centre near the site of the former World Trade Centre in New York that was destroyed in the September 11 attacks.
The project is popularly called the "Ground Zero mosque", perhaps a slight misnomer on two counts.
It will not be located at Ground Zero, but rather at 45-47 Park Place, two city blocks (200 metres) north of the World Trade Centre site. The buildings currently at that location were damaged during the September 11 attacks.
Nor is it only a mosque: Planners will spend up to $100 million to build an Islamic community centre called Cordoba House, which will house a mosque, an auditorium, a swimming pool and a bookstore.
Public opinion cuts sharply against the project. Dozens of politicians have condemned it, and opinion polls show it is unpopular, with a majority of Americans opposed to its construction.
Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, delivered a stirring defence of the project last week, appealing to the city's long tradition of religious diversity.
"The simple fact is that this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship," Bloomberg said.
The project has been attacked on three grounds. One of them is simply anti-Muslim bigotry based on smears and false claims, like conservative columnist Andrew McCarthy's assertion in National Review that the mosque is part of a "civilisational jihad" against the West.
A second criticism is the location, which some Americans say is insensitive to the victims of the attacks. David Paterson, the governor of New York, offered to find land for the community centre elsewhere in the city.
The site of the planned centre was most recently a department store [Google Earth]Critics say it would be inappropriate to build a mosque on the "hallowed ground" of Ground Zero.
Yet there is already a mosque two blocks north of the Cordoba House site, Masjid Manhattan, which has been open since 1970.
As several commentators have pointed out, there is also a strip club - New York Dolls - just one block north of the mosque site. No one has complained about that profaning of the sacred.
And the building will not displace any important historical landmark: The planned community centre on Park Place was most recently a Burlington Coat Factory, a national chain of discount department stores.
National polls find strong opposition to the project: A Rasmussen poll conducted in July found 54 per cent of Americans oppose it, with just 20 per cent in favour.
Interestingly, support for the project is stronger among those who will actually live near it.
In the borough of Manhattan - where the mosque will be located - 46 per cent support the community centre, with just 36 per cent opposed.
The imam behind the mosque has been accused by critics of radicalism, despite his years-long affiliation with the US government.
Feisal Abdul Rauf is scheduled to travel to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates later this year on a public diplomacy trip sponsored by the US state department. It will be his second such trip to the Gulf; the first was organised in 2007, by the Bush administration.
Abdul Rauf will travel to the Gulf this year on a state department-sponsored trip [AFP]Abdul Rauf visited Egypt in January as part of an exchange programme run by the state department. He has also advised the FBI.
Yet he has still been accused of holding radical views. Two Republican members of the US house of representatives - Peter King, from New York, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, from Florida - sent a letter to the US state department accusing Abdul Rauf of radicalism.
"Abdul Rauf has cast blame for 9/11 on the US, and even refuses to call Hamas what it is, a foreign terrorist organisation," they wrote. "This radical is a terrible choice to be one of the faces of our country overseas."
Abdul Rauf's Hamas comments came in a June radio interview: He did not endorse the group, but declined to label it a "terrorist organisation". "The issue of terrorism is a very complex question," he said.
(King, incidentally, has a decades-long history of support for the Irish Republican Army, which is officially branded a terrorist organisation by the government of the United Kingdom.)
Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Abdul Rauf told CBS's 60 Minutes programme that "terrorism has no place in Islam", but suggested that US policies have encouraged groups like al-Qaeda.
"I wouldn't say the United States deserved what happened on 9/11, but the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened," Abdul Rauf said.
That is hardly a fringe opinion in the United States: The chairman and vice-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, the US government panel that investigated the attacks, wrote in a 2007 Washington Post op-ed that US foreign policy has contributed to a "rising tide of radicalisation and rage in the Muslim world".
Obama gave strong backing to the community centre and mosque on Friday [AFP]Bloomberg was asked about Abdul Rauf's views, and declined to criticise him.
"My job is not to vet clergy in this city," Bloomberg said. "Everyone has a right to their opinions. You don't have to worship there... [this country] is not built around only those religions or clergy people that we agree with. It's built around freedom."
The mosque cleared the final obstacle to construction last week when New York's preservation board voted not to extend historic status to the building at 45-47 Park Place. That designation would have made it impossible to continue the construction.
"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country," Obama said during his iftar speech. "That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan."