NEW YORK – those who argue that the project is insensitive to Sept. 11 victims and needlessly provocative at a time when Muslims are pressing for wider acceptance in the U.S.
"For most Americans, 9/11 remains as an open wound, and anything associated with Islam, even for Americans who want to understand Islam — to have an Islamic center with so much publicity is like rubbing salt in open wounds," said Akbar Ahmed, professor of Islamic studies at American University, a former Pakistani ambassador to Britain and author of "Journey Into America, The Challenge of Islam." He said the space should include a synagogue and a church so it will truly be interfaith.
Abdul Cader Asmal, past president of the Islamic Council of New England, an umbrella group for more than 15 Islamic centers, said some opponents of the $100 million, 13-story project are indeed anti-Muslim. But he said many Americans have genuine, understandable questions about Islam and extremism.
In light of those fears, and the opposition of many relatives of 9/11 victims, Asmal said organizers should dramatically scale back the project to just a simple mosque, despite their legal right to construct what they want.
"Winning in the court of law is not going to help improve the image of Muslims nationwide," said Asmal, a Massachusetts physician. "You have to win the hearts and minds of the ordinary American people,"
The project has touched off a national debate over religious tolerance, American ideals and the still-fresh pain of the terrorist attacks. The center's leaders, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and his wife, Daisy Khan, have a long record of interfaith outreach in New York and beyond. They insist the center will be a voice for moderate Islam and will welcome people of all religions. Supporters are outraged that critics suspect the couple of an extremist agenda.
Asra Nomani, author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam," said she backs the idea of the mosque in principle but believes the feelings of families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks should trump the plan.
"I haven't been able to support the building of the mosque right there in the location they've got," said Nomani, an advocate for women's rights and tolerance in the Muslim world.
The developers for the project, called Park51, have modeled their plan on a YMCA and Jewish Community Center. The site, two blocks from where the World Trade Center stood, will include a pool, gym and 500-seat auditorium for cultural events for the general public, along with a mosque and a Sept. 11 memorial. Rauf is now traveling overseas on his latest speaking tour for the U.S. State Department.
Even among American Muslims who back the idea, there has been grumbling about what they consider the organizers' public relations missteps. A plan to build what would essentially be a local city mosque has now turned into a national confrontation that is roiling Muslim communities nationwide. Rauf's decision to remain overseas without making a statement on the controversy has also caused some frustration. Khan, and developer Sharif El-Gamal of SoHo Properties, which owns the building, have mostly been the public face of Park51.
"The total absence of Feisal Rauf has a 'Where's Waldo' quality that is maddening in itself," U.S. Muslim writer Aziz Poonawalla, who supports the center, told the blog ordinary-gentlemen.com. "I'm quite capable of defending Rauf against some of the accusations against him, but am not inclined to carry his water for him while he gallivants about the globe."
Beyond misgivings about the location, some U.S. Muslims have raised concerns about what the mosque could become after Rauf and Khan retire and inevitably turn the center over to new leadership. Like houses of worship in all faiths, Islamic centers can change over time depending on the worldviews of congregants and the imams who lead them.
Nomani said American Muslims have not fully confronted extremism in Islam, which makes her worried that any mosque has the potential to become a haven for those with rigid views.
"Yes, there is prejudice against Muslims in the modern day, but also Muslims in the modern day have an extremist problem," Nomani said.
Tawfik Hamid, an Egyptian scholar and reformer who said he was once a member of a terrorist group, said he had a "conditional objection" to the proposed Islamic center.
He said it was not enough for Park51 leaders to call themselves moderate. Instead, they should "clearly and unambiguously" reject radicalization by opposing specific extremist practices, such as killing apostates, stoning women for adultery, calling Jews "pigs and monkeys" and "declaring war" on non-Muslims who refuse to convert.
"This, in my view, will be perceived by radicals in Islam as a defeat for their ideology," said Hamid, senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "They think in a very primitive way. If they see a mosque near ground zero, this would certainly be perceived as a sign of victory for al-Qaeda. In the end, they will think, 'They are bowing to us.'"
Few American Muslims who lost relatives in the terrorist strikes have spoken out, but those who have are also divided.
Talat Hamdani, a Muslim whose son Salman, a New York police cadet and emergency medical technician, was killed on Sept. 11, supports the proposal. "I'm not fighting for a mosque. I'm fighting for my rights," she said.
By contrast, Neda Bolourchi of Los Angeles, a native of Iran whose mother was on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, opposes the plan.
"I fear that over time, it will cultivate a fundamentalist version of the Muslim faith, embracing those who share such beliefs and hating those who do not," she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "To the supporters of this new Islamic cultural center, I must ask: Build your ideological monument somewhere else, far from my mother's grave, and let her rest."