Blogging Religiously

From a New York point of view


Archive for August, 2010

Most NYers oppose Islamic center — but defend the right to build it08.31.10

New Yorkers have very mixed impulses about the proposed Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero.

According to a new poll from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., New Yorkers agreed—by a 54% to 40% margin—with this statement: “that because of American freedom of religion, Muslims have the right to build the mosque near Ground Zero…”

At the same time, though, respondents agreed—by a 53% to 39% margin—with this statement: “that because of the sensitivities of 9/11 relatives, Muslims should not be allowed to build the mosque near Ground Zero.”

In the end, poll respondents prefer that the developers CHOOSE to move the site, which makes sense if you consider the above results.

By a large 71% to 21% percent majority, voters agree “that because of the opposition of Ground Zero relatives, the Muslim group should voluntarily build the mosque somewhere else. (italics mine)”

Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, explains: “The heated, sometimes angry, debate over the proposal to build a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero has New York State voters twisted in knots, with some of them taking contradictory positions depending on how the question is asked.”

He also says: “Overwhelmingly, across all party and regional lines, New Yorkers say the sponsors ought to voluntarily move the proposed mosque to another location.”

According to the poll, New Yorkers  (meaning across the state) agree that Islam is a peaceful religion, by a 54-21 margin (with 24% undecided).

The “peaceful” numbers vary across the state: 62-21 in NYC; 51-25 in the Burbs; and 49-28 upstate.

Finally, respondents overwhelmingly said—71  to 22 percent—that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo should investigate the financing of the proposed Islamic center.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Ground Zero, Mosque, New York state, pollwith 1 Comment →

30 Mosques, 30 days, 12,000 miles08.30.10

A colleague of mine here at LoHud/Journal News, Aman Ali, is becoming something of a star outside the newsroom.

He and a friend, both 20-something Muslims, are driving to 30 mosques in 30 different states during the month of Ramadan.

They’re blogging about it.

And they’re getting a lot of media attention, especially from CNN.

CNN did a nice report at the start of the trip. When Aman (that’s him) and his buddy, Bassam Tariq, got to Georgia, a CNN reporter and cameraman joined the roadtrip for a few days.

Their lengthy report, by Wayne Drash, is up on CNN.com. It’s quite good and you should check it out.

Aman, only 25 and already a good reporter, is a real interesting guy. He’s a stand-up comedian and seems to know everything about pop culture and what’s in the news.

He was born in Columbus, Ohio, and would break just about every Muslim stereotype.

He’s a funny dude.

Of course, this is quite a time to be making his trip—when the whole country is squabbling over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero and a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment is coming to the surface.

After a cold reception from a mosque in Mobile, Ala., Aman says: “I feel Muslims in this country are making a lot of progress. And things like that, as we make 10 steps forward, that just knocks us back 20 steps.”

Today is day 18 of their trip. Yesterday, they were in Santa Ana, Calif. I’m not sure where they are today. Yet.

By the way, they expect to travel about 12,000 miles by the end of Ramadan.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 30 Mosques, Blogging, Ramadanwith 1 Comment →

Talking to 9/11 survivors about the Islamic center proposal08.27.10

Anger. Pain. Frustration. Confusion.

I’m feeling all of it while talking to 9/11 survivors from these parts about the Great Mosque Controversy.

Several people I’ve reached did not want to talk about it.

Many others, to be honest, did not return my calls. Most of them, I assume, also did not want to talk about it.

But those survivors who have talked to me have very strong feelings.

Mostly against the proposed Islamic center.

Some in favor.

Several people have had no interest in separating the 19 lunatics who carried out the attacks from any or all other Muslims.

I’m more convinced than I was a few days ago that this controversy will get nastier if plans are not changed.

My article should be on LoHud/Journal News on Sunday.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 9/11, Ground Zero, Islamic centerwith 1 Comment →

Why did he stab the cabbie?08.26.10

The story of Michael Enright, the Putnam County guy who allegedly stabbed a Muslim cab driver yesterday, will draw national attention for some time.

At least until we have some idea why he did it.

The cabbie, Ahmed H. Sharif, has made clear that he believes he was stabbed because he is a Muslim.

Just got a press release announcing that a coalition of Muslim groups on Monday at the National Press Club in D.C. will release a “public service announcement” that responds to the Great Mosque Controversy and the cabbie stabbing.

It says: “The PSA will showcase American Muslims of diverse ages and backgrounds responding to the fears and concerns many Americans may have about Islam and Muslims.”

The producer of the PSA, a fellow by the name of David Hawa, says: “I think people need to hear from the average American Muslim about who we are and where we stand. This PSA will give me and other American Muslims the opportunity to talk directly to the American public –  free of any fear that politics or agendas are driving the discussion.”

Two other “Islam-related” notes:

1. In case you missed it, while I was on vacation, the Pew Forum released a poll showing that 18 percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim. Only 34 percent of adults say he is a Christian.

Wow.

From the release:

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According to the survey, nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) now say Obama is a Muslim — an increase from 11% in March 2009. Only about one-third of adults (34%) say Obama is a Christian, a sharp decrease from 48% in 2009. Fully 43% say they do not know what Obama’s religion is. The survey was completed in early August, before Obama’s recent comments about the proposed construction of a mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center.

The belief that Obama is a Muslim has increased most sharply among Republicans (up 14 points since 2009), especially conservative Republicans (up 16 points). But the number of independents who say Obama is a Muslim has also increased significantly (up eight points). There has been little change in the number of Democrats who say Obama is a Muslim, but fewer Democrats today say he is a Christian (down nine points since 2009).

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2. Politico has a story about a group of American imams visiting the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps.

The group stopped to pray at Dachau. An organizer said: “All of the tourists stopped in their tracks. I don’t think anyone has ever seen anything like it.”

Photo: (New York Taxi Worker Alliance)

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Cabbie, Concentration camps, Imams, Islam, Obama, Pew Forum, Stabbingwith 1 Comment →

Your mosque round-up08.25.10

In case you’re not completely sick of hearing about THE mosque, here is an update of the latest:


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NEW YORK (AP) — Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered an impassioned speech at an event marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, saying that not allowing a proposed mosque to be built near ground zero would be “compromising our commitment to fighting terror with freedom.”


“We would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting,” Bloomberg said at the dinner Tuesday in observance of Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan.


The mayor said he understood the “impulse to find another location for the mosque” but a compromise won’t end the debate.


“The question will then become how big should the no-mosque zone around the World Trade Center be,” Bloomberg said. “There is already a mosque four blocks away. Should it, too, be moved?”


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Meanwhile, Archbishop Dolan is calling for better manners, without taking a position on the controversy.


“We’re just a little bit apprehensive that those noble values may be a bit at risk in the way this conversation and debate about the site of the mosque is taking place,” he said.


“I sure don’t have strong feelings on where the mosque should ultimately be,” he added.


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Bishop Mark Sisk, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, released a public letter in support of the mosque. It’s a sharp piece based on his personal perspective—but oddly late to the debate:


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I am writing to tell you that I wholeheartedly join other religious and civic leaders in calling on all parties involved in the dispute over the planned lower Manhattan Islamic community center and mosque to convert a situation that has sadly become ever more divisive into, as Archbishop Timothy Dolan recently stated, “an opportunity for a civil, rational, loving, respectful discussion.”


The plan to build this center is, without doubt, an emotionally highly-charged issue. But as a nation with tolerance and religious freedom at its very foundation, we must not let our emotions lead us into the error of persecuting or condemning an entire religion for the sins of its most misguided adherents.


The worldwide Islamic community is no more inclined to violence that any other. Within it, however, a struggle is going on – between the majority who seek to follow a moderate, loving religion and the few who would transform it into an intolerant theocracy intent on persecuting anyone, Muslim or otherwise, with whom they disagree. We should all, as Christians, reach out in friendship and love to the peaceful Islamic majority and do all in our power to build and strengthen bridges between our faiths. We should also all remember that the violence and hateful behavior of the extremist are not confined to any one religion.  Over the centuries we Christians have numbered more than a few among us who have perpetrated unspeakable atrocities in Christ’s name.


I must admit that I also have a more personal connection with this issue. At the Episcopal Diocese of New York we know the leaders of this project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan. We know that they are loving, gentle people, who epitomize Islamic moderation. We know that as Sufis, they are members of an Islamic sect that teaches a universal belief in man’s relationship to God that is not dissimilar from mystic elements in certain strains of Judaism and Christianity. Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan are, without question, people to whom Christians of good will should reach out with the hand of hospitality and friendship, as they reach out to us. I understand and support their desire to build an Islamic center, intended in part to promote understanding and tolerance among different religions.


For these reasons I applaud the positions taken by Governor Patterson, Mayor Bloomberg and others and look forward to furthering the efforts to resolve this issue. I am convinced, aided and guided by the One God who is creator of all, that people of goodwill can find a solution that will strengthen, rather than divide, the human condition…


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Finally, there’s the Greek Orthodox perspective:


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NEW YORK (AP) — Supporters of a Greek Orthodox church destroyed on Sept. 11 say officials willing to speak out about a planned community center and mosque near ground zero have been silent on efforts to get the church rebuilt.


But the World Trade Center site’s owner says a deal to help rebuild St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was offered and rejected, after years of negotiations, over money and other issues.


Though the projects are not related, supporters — including George Pataki, New York’s governor at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks — have questioned why public officials have not addressed St. Nicholas’ future while they lead a debate on whether and where the Islamic cultural center should be built.


“What about us? Why have they forgotten or abandoned their commitment to us?” asked Father Alex Karloutsos, assistant to the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. “When I see them raising issues about the mosque and not thinking about the church that was destroyed, it does bother us.”


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(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)


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UPDATE: Now we have a 21-year-old guy from Southeast accused of stabbing a Muslim cabbie in NYC.


The driver says this: “Right now the public sentiment is very serious” because of the Ground Zero mosque debate. All drivers should be more careful.”


Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 9/11, Ground Zero, Mosquewith No Comments →

Lots of pages, not much faith08.24.10

Since I started doing this blog, I always recap the books I read on my summer vacation—highlighting their religious or spiritual themes.

This year, unfortunately, my choices were light on godliness.

I started with a late choice that I happened to see on a library shelf: The Old Man and the Sea.

I’d never read it. Seemed like an appropriate way to start my beach vacation (with the sea and all).

I loved it. It was like a super-condensed version of Moby Dick. Man pursuing fish, while losing his head. Great Hemingway language. Simple, clear and direct.

The old man pursuing the fish, Santiago, has a couple of rough days out at sea. At several points, he prays and promises to God that he’ll say hundreds of Hail Marys and Our Fathers if he makes it home with his big fish.

He says that he is not a religious man. I got the sense that he would not say the Hail Marys no matter how his fishing trip turned out.

Next up I dug into a book I had been meaning to read for many years: Catch 22.

It was smart, sharp and funny. But I mostly hated it.

I realize this is a book with a huge, cult-like following. But I felt that after 50 pages or so, I had the joke. I got the drift. Then it was page after page of the same thing.

Catch-22 doesn’t really have a plot. It’s satire bordering on slapstick, a pulling back of the curtain on a theater of the absurd.

It’s about how a squad of Air Force bombers during WWII are at the mercy of bumbling, moronic officers who are part of a giant, unthinking bureaucracy. Every character is crazy—or might be crazy—and their interactions mostly serve to show how crazy everyone is.

The famous Catch-22 itself is a military rule, a contradiction in logic. It says that crazy men cannot fly, but if you ask not to fly, you’re not crazy. So you have to fly.

So there.

Several characters, including Yossarian, the main guy, do not believe in God. Even the chaplain begins to lose his faith.

But in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, no one really has faith in anything. And they’re probably smart not to.

Maybe it was over my head.

Next I read my only non-fiction title, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson. I love boxing books because boxers are generally quirky, surprising characters who have to overcome lots of demons.

Wil Haygood, a Washington Post writer, does a terrific job capturing Harlem between 1946 and 1960, when Sugar Ray, Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes and others created a new world of black art, style and sophistication.

Sugar Ray loved being the baddest man in the ring, but yearned to be more. I didn’t know that he left boxing for several years to try to make it as an entertainer.

Haygood does a fine job of painting brief portraits of Sugar Ray’s many colorful opponents, especially the Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta.

Robinson spent a lot of time in church at different points of his life, but I didn’t come away with the feeling that he was a man of deep faith. The church was a big part of African-American life, so he went to church.

He started boxing at a community center started by a Chicago church. He had his own pew at a church in Harlem, where they held up services until Sugar Ray arrived with his entourage. And he ended his life as a regular attendee at an LA church.

At point point, I believe, Sugar Ray started dropping in on churches (and even synagogues) on his own to sort out his life. But the “pound for pound” champ, always suspicious and defensive, mostly kept his faith to himself.

Next I read a novel by an LA writer named Richard Lange.

Last year, I picked up a book of his short stories called Dead Boys. It turned out to be one of my favorite books of recent years—a collection of stories about Californians, many on the economic and social fringes, trying to keep their lives together while maintaining a bit of their dignity.

His novel is called This Wicked World. It’s not as ambitious, it seems to me, as Lange’s short stories, but made for a great read. It’s basically a well-written crime/suspense novel, filled with California neighborhoods, freeways, and sunburned inhabitants.

Religion-wise? The main bad guy doesn’t believe in God.

Then I closed my vacation with two short-story collections: Half in Love by Maile Meloy, a Montana writer, and The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind by David Guterson, who got a lot of acclaim for his novel Snow Falling on Cedars.

Both collections were real good, especially Meloy’s. She writes tight, stark stories that have a real Western feel (although a few stories take place in London, Paris and Greece).

If either collection had significant religious themes, I don’t remember them.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Books, religion, Vacationwith No Comments →

Have you heard there are plans for a mosque near Ground Zero?08.23.10

Back from vacation. A good (and sunny time) was had by all.

I’ll share my beach reading list in a day or two.

When I left, the GROUND ZERO MOSQUE controversy was a big story. Not it is a BIG STORY.

The Boston Globe and Portland Press Herald—yes, I was in Maine—had coverage every day. And it seems that every politician and interest group in the country has had something to say about whether the Islamic community center should be built.

What’s going on here? Lots of things, of course.

There seems to be a legitimate question of whether an Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero is simply too much—symbolically—for those who lost loved ones on 9/11 or otherwise had their lives changed forever. If a survivor feels that a mosque in that location would be inappropriate, who is to tell her (or him) that they are wrong?

The “They can build it, but not there” camp seems to be growing.

At the same time, this whole debate/controversy has revealed a deep anti-Muslim antipathy that some would like to take mainstream.

Many protesters make generalizations about Muslims or Islamic practice that show that we’ve learned little about a faith followed by 1.3 billion people. A Brooklyn plumber who attended yesterday’s anti-mosque rally has been widely quoted as saying that the people behind the project are “the same people who took down the twin towers.”

The whole debate is a classic example of a truism of public relations: “If you don’t define yourself, someone else will.”

As I’ve written before, the man behind the mosque proposal—Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf—and his advisers have done a terrible job of explaining themselves.

They seem to have not realized that their plans would provoke opposition.

They’ve done and said almost nothing to explain who they are—truly moderate Muslims—and why their project would be good for New York.

It’s almost hard to believe that Rauf is currently in the Middle East, representing the U.S. State Department, as his good name gets torn apart at home. Who’s running the show?

A terrific article in today’s Washington Post outlines Rauf’s utter failure at P.R.:

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So far, debate has been framed around whether a $100 million, 15-story Muslim community center and mosque should be built two blocks from where Islamic radicals brought down the World Trade Center. But interviews with people who know Rauf suggest that the project isn’t much more than an idea and that Rauf’s most controversial trait may be his ambition.

While he portrays himself as someone who runs two influential interfaith nonprofits (his Web site says he is “regarded as one of the world’s most eloquent and erudite Muslim leaders”), neither one has a staff, and the project that has inspired outrage hasn’t even begun fundraising, said Rauf’s wife and work partner, Daisy Khan.

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I’ve interviewed Rauf several times and believe that most Americans would like him if they got to know him.

But it’s probably too late for that.

Rauf and his wife, Daisy, needed to do an hour on Oprah.

Instead, they let a bunch of politicians introduce them to America.

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 9/11, Ground Zero, Islam, Public relationswith 1 Comment →

More perspectives on the ‘Ground Zero mosque’08.06.10

I’m on vacation for two weeks after today.

Will be back around around Aug. 23.

Just returned from a press conference beneath Westchester County’s 9/11 memorial at the Kensico Dam.

Two people who lost loved ones on 9/11 came out to oppose—you guessed it—the planned Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero.

They were very emotional, as you might expect.

Liam McLaughlin, the former Yonkers City Council member who is running for state Senate, organized the presser.

I’ll also have an article on LoHud/Journal News in a few days (maybe Tuesday) about how suburban Muslims are reacting to the big Ground Zero debate.

They fear that opposition to the center is kind of morphing into general anti-Islamism. The Upper Westchester Muslim Society, which is planning to build its own Islamic Center in Ossining, is getting antsy about whether all the downtown rhetoric might move north.

One thing that’s becoming clear is that the Cordoba Initiative, the group seeking to build the downtown center, is doing a poor job of PR. Their leaders need to be out there, explaining who they are, what they’ve done and what they hope to do. They also need to get their many Christian and Jewish friends (and they have many) to speak out.

Right now, most New Yorkers probably don’t know the Cordoba Initiative from any other Muslim group.

That’s not going to cut it, it seems.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 9/11, Mosque, Oppositionwith 2 Comments →

Most New Yorkers oppose downtown Islamic cultural center, poll shows08.05.10

Sixty one percent of New Yorkers oppose the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” according to a poll released today by the Siena College Research Institute in Loudonville, N.Y.

Institute Director Don Levy says: “Large majorities of all New Yorkers, every party, region and age give a thumbs-down to the Cordoba House Mosque being built near the Ground Zero site. But only just over half of all New Yorkers, even city residents say they have been following the news about the proposed mosque closely.”

By “New Yorkers,” he’s talking about people across the state, not only people in the NYC region.

Here’s the rest of Levy’s comments:

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Two of ten New Yorkers agree more with supporters that say the proposed Cultural Center would demonstrate the presence of moderate Muslims and serve as a monument to religious tolerance than with opponents that say the project is an offense to the memory of those killed in the attacks on 9/11 and that it displays unacceptable insensitivity.  Nearly four in ten agree more with the opponents and 38 percent think both sides have a legitimate case.  Over half of all New Yorkers and NYC residents either agree that the project would promote tolerance or are, at least, willing to listen.

But when it comes to a yes or no vote, more than a quarter of those that agree with the supporters, nearly half of those that see both sides and virtually all of those that question the appropriateness of the Mosque currently vote ‘No’ on the project.

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The Institute also said that 52 percent of New Yorkers would favor an immigration law like the one passed in Arizona.

Other findings on immigration, according to a release:

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Seventy percent of New York residents say that the presence of 10 to 20 million illegal immigrants poses a somewhat (30%) or very significant (40%) problem to the U.S.,  and large majorities call for comprehensive immigration reform that would include enhanced border security (79%), the creation of a process for admitting legal temporary workers (70%), and implementing a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here (65%).

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 9/11, immigration, Mosque, Polling, Research, Siena Collegewith No Comments →

Opinions, opinions on ‘Ground Zero mosque’08.04.10

There are so many statements coming out on the so-called “Ground Zero mosque”—it would actually be a community center two blocks away from Ground Zero—that I figured I should share a few in one place.

After the ADL came out against the Cordoba Initiative’s plans, the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris (of Chappaqua!) gave a qualified blessing to the center. He wrote, in part:

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We hope the Cordoba Center will fulfill the lofty mission its founders have articulated. They have set the bar high, describing it as a Muslim-inspired institution similar to the 92nd Street Y. If so, it means a facility truly open to the entire community—and to a wide spectrum of ideas based on peace and coexistence.

Once up and running, it won’t be long before we know if the founders have delivered on their promise. If so, New York and America will be enriched. If not, the center should be shunned.

Presently, there are two legitimate concerns about the proposed center.

First, with a $100 million price tag, what are the exact sources of funding? The public has a right to know that the donors all subscribe to an open, inclusive and pluralistic vision of the center.

Second, do the center’s leaders reject unconditionally terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology? They must say so unequivocally. This is critical for the institution’s credibility. There is no room here for verbal acrobatics. Otherwise, the pall of suspicion around the leaders’ true attitudes toward groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah will grow—spelling the center’s doom.

If these concerns can be addressed, we will join in welcoming the Cordoba Center to New York. In doing so, we would wish to reaffirm the noble values for which our country stands—the very values so detested by the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks.

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The American Center for Law & Justice, a public interest law firm with an evangelical bent that defends religious liberty, filed a suit today against the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (which did not give landmark status to the building that would be replaced by the Islamic center).

The ACLJ says:

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The suit charges that the city violated the New York City Charter and the New York City Administrative Code.  Among the assertions made in the suit:  the city failed to properly review and consider the public comments about the project, acted hastily in voting to deny landmark status, and failed to acknowledge the significance of the site as a historic and hallowed landmark from the tragic attacks of 9-11.

“The denial of landmark status to the building was an arbitrary and capricious abuse of discretion and contrary to decades of administrative precedent,” the petition argues.

The lawsuit also notes that the building has been under consideration for landmark status long before 9-11.  And, that the designation is even more appropriate now since part of a hijacked plane from the 9-11 attacks crashed through the roof of the building.

The petition states:  “The building stands as an iconic symbol to an uninterrupted linkage of the rise of American capitalism with our current quest to preserve our freedom and democracy.  The building, therefore, should stand as part of the commemorative and educational experience of our shared political, cultural and historic heritage.”

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The liberal group People for the American Way says:

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Of course a Muslim community center should be allowed in lower Manhattan. This is not a close question.

“Our country is built upon the bedrock principle that people of all faiths and of no faith at all are equally welcome in our nation’s civic life.  No community should be told to move away because of its religion.  Arguing that Muslims are unwelcome anywhere is a threat to religious liberty everywhere.  Religious intolerance is not the American way.

“Those political leaders who have spoken out against religious intolerance should be applauded—they have taken a stand for our most essential values.  It’s deeply disappointing that so many of their colleagues chose instead to use this incident to inflame religious strife.

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In the New York Observer, longtime Westchester pol Richard Brodsky, now running for Attorney General, says that he is personally opposed to the mosque but would defend the Cordoba Initiative’s legal right to build it.

He says: “This is the scene of a horrific mass murder. It’s not just another site. The murder wasn’t an Islamic crime, but it was a crime committed in the name of Islam by people most Muslims reject. I get that. But if you are the family of a victim, there are sensitivities involved that we should all respect.”

And: “The political conversation has reduced this to stereotypes, that if you are against the mosque you are a bigot, and if you are in favor of the mosque you are terrorist. I reject that. It’s still possible to be a public official and be thoughtful.”

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 9/11, Ground Zero, Mosquewith 1 Comment →

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