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

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)

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.