More perspectives on the ‘Ground Zero mosque’

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.

Most New Yorkers oppose downtown Islamic cultural center, poll shows

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%).

Opinions, opinions on ‘Ground Zero mosque’

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.”

Those mosque controversies

These are tough times for proposed mosque developments in NYC.

The pastor of a Catholic parish on Staten Island has withdrawn his support for the sale of an old convent to a Muslim group.

Since a contract was signed last month to sell the property to the Muslim American Society, the move has faced fierce opposition at meetings and rallies.

Of course, plans for a big mosque just two blocks from Ground Zero have also drawn cries of indignation, including from people who lost loved ones on 9/11.

The downtown project is being run by the Cordoba Initiative led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Since 9/11, many people have called on moderate Muslims to condemn terrorism and forge new relationships with the West.

Rauf appears to be that guy.

The Cordoba Initiative is all about improving relations between Islam and the West. Rauf pursues this goal internationally and at home.

I got a chance to talk to him in 2005 in Yonkers, when he came to an interfaith lunch convened by the American Muslim Women’s Association. He told me about behind-the-scenes work he was doing to get Muslim and Jewish leaders to dialogue in several countries.

He also told me about his work to gather young American Muslims, potential future leaders, to talk about crafting a new American Muslim identity. In fact, he oversaw a Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow retreat at the Garrison Institute.

When I spoke with Rauf, it was apparent that he knew a tremendous amount about Judaism and Christianity and that he knows numerous American leaders from both worlds.

He told me then: “Because we believe that God created humankind in the divine image, to love your fellow human beings is to love God.”

In 2003, when the popular God Squad — Monsignor Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman — spoke at Purchase College and several other local spots, Rauf joined the squad to add a Muslim perspective on things. In the picture, that’s him on the right.

At Purchase, Rauf talked about trying to persuade a major American newspaper to print a religious edict declaring that American Muslims were religiously justified in participating in a war against Afghanistan.

The first mention of Rauf in the Journal News’ digital library is from 1998, was when he came to Valley Cottage to help celebrate the end of Hanukkah and the beginning of Ramadan with a gathering of Muslims and Jews.

I also interviewed Rauf for my book about natural disasters. I remember him as being gracious, insightful and funny. He told me then:

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We should care for each other and care for the planet, utilize our smarts and our resources to take care of the planet so it takes care of us. We should be reminded of our primal relationship to the creator and of the two basic commandments of the Abrahamic religions: to love God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love your fellow human beings.

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The guy doesn’t sound like a bad potential neighbor, does he?

Of course, any time I’ve written about Muslims, people write or call and ask me how I can know their ultimate motives. I can’t, obviously.

But Imam Rauf reminds me a great deal of the more impressive priests, ministers and rabbis I’ve met over the years.

If the Muslim community in New York is going to continue to grow — and it is — Rauf sure seems like the guy you want in charge.