Published May 14, 2010
Outraged family members and community groups are accusing a Muslim group of trying to rewrite history with its plans to build a 13-story mosque and cultural center just two blocks from Ground Zero, where Islamic extremists flew two planes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
"This is a place which is 600 feet from where almost 3,000 people were torn to pieces by Islamic extremists," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother died in the attack on the Pentagon that day.
"I think that it is incredibly insensitive and audacious really for them to build a mosque, not only on that site, but to do it specifically so that they could be in proximity to where that atrocity happened," said Burlingame, who is co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America.
The 13-story mosque and cultural center will be built on the site of a four-story building that was a Burlington Coat Factory retail store until 9/11, when part of a plane's landing gear crashed through the roof. The building, which will be razed, currently houses a mosque.
The New York City Mayor's office says "It's private property, and the area is zoned for uses that include this one."
Pamela Gellar, executive director of Stop Islamization of America, blasted the organization behind the plans, Cordoba Initiative, and its leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, saying the project is "an insulting flag of conquest of Islamic supremacism."
"How can you build a shrine to the very ideology that brought down the World Trade Center?" asked Geller, whose group is planning a June 6 rally to protest the project.
"We have to do everything we can to stop this ... a huge Muslim monument, a stone's throw from Ground Zero, with a mosque pointing toward Mecca."
She called it an act of deception that the group has been able to get the green light from the Lower Manhattan Community Board, whose finance committee gave it a thumbs-up last week.
Though the Cordoba Initiative's website calls part of the $100 million-plus project a mosque, its founder, Imam Rauf, says the project is not a mosque but a community center for all faiths that will include recreational facilities, a prayer space and a 500-seat theater that can be a part of the neighborhood's trendy Tribeca Film Festival.
Rauf insists the effort is meant to help heal the wounds of 9/11, "We've approached the community because we want this to be an example of how we are cooperating with the members of the community, not only to provide services but also to build a new discourse on how Muslims and non-Muslims can cooperate together to push back against the voices of extremism."
But Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, says there are more productive ways to fight Islamic extremism.
"Even when they have the resources, they are using it for a place of worship, a cultural center for organizations," he said. They are not using it for a counterterrorism research center.
"They are not using it to lead the war like Americans need to see us do and they are wasting our resources, not to mention that being close to the hallowed ground that is so sensitive in the souls of the families of 9/11. I think it is extremely poor judgment."
Jasser also has questions about the financing.
According to reports, the building that occupies the site was purchased last year for $4.85 million in cash by Soho Properties, a real estate company run by Muslims. Imam Rauf, who's also the founder of American Society for Muslim Advancement, ASMA, was an investor in that transaction.
The balance of the $100-150 million total cost still needs to be raised, but Rauf says he's confident it will be.
Jasser says that with such a financial commitment, there needs to be full disclosure about where the money is coming from.
"There should be transparency about who those investors are," he said, "whether that money is coming from domestic interest or not, and if it's coming from foreign interests we need to know, because I think that's a liability, and it shows that there is another agenda rather than domestic security and tranquility."
Madeline Brooks, a member of the New York chapter of Act! for America, a non-profit organization that "is opposed to the authoritarian values of Islam fascism," believes the Cordoba Initiative's agenda is to co-opt the 9/11 narrative and transform it into a Muslim conquest.
"Is it a victory for Islam over non-Muslims?" she asks. "Is this a feather in his (Rauf's) cap?"
Brooks says she's received hundreds of angry e-mails from people who say they can't believe the audacity of this project. "Why here?" she asks. "Why are you offending and outraging people... stirring up a huge hornet's nest?"
Rauf says the intent is to do exactly the opposite. "[T]his is where we can amplify the voice of the moderates," he says. "We have been condemning terrorism since 9/11; our voices have not been heard."
"If they wanted peace and harmony," counters Brooks, "do you really think they'll get that?"
Burlingame says, "The idea that you would establish a religious institution that embraces the very Shariah Law that terrorists point to as their justification for what they did ... to build that where almost 3,000 people died, that is an obscenity to me."
Burlingame said she plans to attend a meeting next week of the full Community Board One. She and other groups are ramping up their opposition to the project and promise to wage a long fight to defeat it.