NEW YORK (ABP) – The co-leader of an effort to build an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan said Aug. 25 that, although leaders of the project are working with interfaith “stakeholders” to determine the best course of action, moving the center farther away from the former site of the World Trade Center is “off the table for now.”
Meanwhile, a group of New York community and religious leaders including some whose family members died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks announced a new coalition — called New York Neighbors for American Values — to defend the proposed Park51 community center, which has ignited national controversy because of its location two blocks from the northern edge of “Ground Zero.”
While the multi-story facility would include everything from a swimming pool to an art gallery to exercise facilities, it would also host an Islamic prayer space. That has led to charges by opponents — including several prominent politicians — that it would be a slap in the face to victims of an act by terrorists who claimed to be followers of Islam.
Supporters of the center have claimed that only those who misunderstand the facts about the center’s purpose and location or choose to lump all Muslims with the 9/11 terrorists would view it that way.
Polls show significant majorities of Americans opposed to the project, although the same polls show a slim majority acknowledging that Muslims have the constitutional right to open the facility.
“This project is now in the public domain. It is a project that will now evolve as we begin to speak with various stakeholders,” Daisy Khan said in a teleconference with journalists and religious leaders organized by the Council on Foreign Relations. Khan is the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. She and her husband, Sufi Muslim cleric Feisal Rauf, have spearheaded the group — calling itself the Cordoba Initiative — behind the Park51 proposal.
Those stakeholders, Khan said, include interfaith religious and political leaders in New York as well as neighborhood residents and 9/11 victims’ families.
In response to a question about showing goodwill by combining the project with Christian, Jewish and other facilities, Khan said the door was open to that. “All I can say now is that we have dedicated our lives to interfaith work, and if that is the direction that the project needs to go, that is what we’ll do,” she said.
But in response to a later question about moving the project to an unspecified distance farther away from the current site to appease critics, she said, simply, “It’s off the table for now.”
Khan noted that she and Rauf had lived and worshiped near the proposed site in the Tribeca neighborhood for years. “It was our neighborhood; it was our tragedy as much as it was anybody else’s tragedy,” she said. “As Muslims, as New Yorkers and as Americans we feel that it is part of our obligation and part of our responsibility to be a part of rebuilding Lower Manhattan. And since … 9/11 was done in the name of our religion, we have an added responsibility to disprove those who distorted our religion and our scripture.”
She chalked up much of the project’s opposition to a misunderstanding of its purpose and scope.
“It will combine the best of what it means to be a Muslim and what it means to be an American, whose core values we feel are totally compatible,” Khan said. “We also feel that the voices of the moderate, mainstream majority Muslims have been drowned out by the actions of the extremists…. The theology that the extremists promote will be the exact opposite of what the center promotes, which will be pluralism.”
However, Khan acknowledged that the controversy over Park51 had, in many cases, had the exact opposite effect. She noted that opposition to other mosque projects around the country — from the New York borough of Staten Island to Tennessee to California — had been cropping up and intensifying in recent months.
“There is deep concern that this has opened up, you know, free-for-all Islamophobia,” she said.
But, Khan contended, the furor also has global implications for the United States.
“Internationally, if the center does not succeed or if we are put under pressure, this would have serious implications because it would be seen as a win for the extremists,” she said. “Because they would say, ‘We always knew America was intolerant, we always knew America had double standards’ — and it would be a gift to the extremists.”
Shortly after the call with Khan, New York Neighbors for American Values held a press conference announcing its launch. The group comprises several Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular leaders and organizations, including Judson Memorial Church, a downtown Manhattan congregation dually aligned with the American Baptist Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.
The group’s position statement says it “embraces the American constitutional values of religious freedom, diversity, and equality. We stand together and rebuff the crude stereotypes meant to frighten and divide us."
It concludes: “We reject the idea that any neighborhood in our great City is off-limits to any particular community. We welcome the effort of Muslim New Yorkers to build institutions that serve their communities and our diverse city.”
Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.
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