A public Muslim service in Peekskill

I just got back from Pugsley Park in Peekskill, where the Islamic Center of Peekskill held a very public celebration of Eid ul-Fitr, the Islamic festival that marks the end of Ramadan.

The group held their prayers and celebration outdoors so their non-Muslim neighbors could see them.

Several senior members and the groups’ imam, a 45-year-old fellow from Senegal, told me that public perceptions of Muslims will only change when non-Muslims see how Muslims act and live.

During his sermon, Imam Papa Sall repeatedly said that Muslims have to be true to themselves by living honorable, honest lives that will influence the way non-Muslims understand their faith. Words won’t do, he said.

It was a quiet morning on Main Street in Peekskill. Many people were at work, of course. A good number of people slowed down in their cars to see what was happening, but then went off to continue their day.

It was interesting, at least to me, that the Islamic Center of Peekskill chose to have this first public celebration just as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is FINALLY making the media rounds to talk about himself and the plans for the downtown Islamic center.

Maybe it’s time for a Muslim public relations firm to get off the ground and to help Muslim groups in the U.S. figure out how to better communicate with all those Americans who still know nada about Islam and are unlikely to ever pick up a Quran.

The Muslim community in the U.S. is growing by the day. Its leaders must be more visible and must do a better job of communicating.

At Pugsley Park, the Islamic Center set up a table of pamphlets. I saw many of the same pamphlets I’ve seen at various mosques and Islamic events over the years.

But “Islam: The True Religion of God” and “Who Invented the Trinity” won’t cut it anymore. They’re proselytizing tracts that might have been enough when no one was paying attention to Islam. Today, they’re liking to offend passers-by.

The American Muslim community has to do better.

NY’s mainline Protestant leaders support proposed downtown Islamic center

It’s taken a while, but New York’s mainline Protestant leaders have issued statements about the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero.

No great surprises here. The NY bishops of the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church all gently support the project, while acknowledging the pain still felt by so many.

I’ll paste their full statements below.

United Methodist Bishop Jeremiah Park declares his support for the project, writing that “denying the fundamental right of a religious community, as long as it fulfills the same legal requirements applied to all other religious communities, by singling it out for the wrong reasons, compromises the integrity of who we are at our core.”

He also writes: “Our hearts break over the sacrifice of the dead from 9/11 and the pains and sufferings of their loved ones and our country. However, to truly honor them, to truly preserve the historic significance of the Ground Zero, and to truly triumph over the evil force of 9/11, it is necessary to stand firm on what America believes in and be willing to pay whatever the price to protect and preserve freedom and equality for all.”

ELCA Bishop Robert Rimbo doesn’t offer the same outright pledge of support, but concludes with this: “There is much pain very near the surface of our emotions with regard to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. But how will preventing this center from being constructed help us to deal with that pain? There is great fear driving our lives today. How do persons of faith respond to that fear? We commend ourselves to the reliable and merciful arms of the God of Abraham, the God whom Jesus calls Abba, the God whom Muslims and Christians in various parts of the world call Allah. This God promises a reign in which all shall be well. Our faith is bigger and stronger than all our fears.”

Italics mine. Sure sounds like he is in favor getting beyond the fear and building the place.

Finally, Episcopal Bishop Mark Sisk, as I noted last week, wrote a public letter supporting the Islamic center. It includes this: “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.”

Of course, Archbishop Tim Dolan has offered to be a conciliatory voice, but has stopped short of taking a position. In a recent blog post, he wrote: “Although I have no strong sentiment about what should be decided about the eventual where of the Islamic Center, I do have strong convictions about how such a discussion should be reached: civilly and charitably.  The hot-heads on either side must not dominate.”

Here are the full UMC, ELCA and Episcopal Church statements… Continue reading

Most NYers oppose Islamic center — but defend the right to build it

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.

Your mosque round-up

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

*****

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?”

*****

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.

*****

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:

*****

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…

*****

Finally, there’s the Greek Orthodox perspective:

*****

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.”

*****

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

*****

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.”

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:

*****

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.

*****

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:

*****

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.”

*****

The liberal group People for the American Way says:

*****

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.

*****

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.”

ADL opposition to ‘Ground Zero mosque’ leads to a debate in itself

The Anti-Defamation League’s opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” is getting a lot of attention, for good reason.

Abe Foxman and his ADL are famous for fighting to protect the rights of religious minorities (namely, Jews). Its motto: “To stop the defamation of the Jewish people…to secure justice and fair treatment for all.”

So many will say, no doubt, that its position on the mosque goes against the group’s historical mission.

If you read the ADL’s statement, they’re basically saying that Muslims have every right to build a mosque in NYC, but to do so near Ground Zero is just too much for the survivors of 9/11.

The final paragraph sums things up:

*****

Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam.  The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong.  But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right.  In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.

*****

But the ADL also raises more serious questions about the Cordoba Initiative, which is seeking to build the Islamic center:

*****

In recommending that a different location be found for the Islamic Center, we are mindful that some legitimate questions have been raised about who is providing the funding to build it, and what connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values.  These questions deserve a response, and we hope those backing the project will be transparent and forthcoming.

*****

Gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, who is building his candidacy around opposition to the Islamic center, is hailing the ADL’s stance:

*****

The Anti-Defamation League deserves praise for their courage in taking the responsible and correct position of supporting my call for more transparency in the financing of this 100 million dollar Mosque at Ground Zero. Andrew Cuomo could end the public’s concern on the Cordoba Initiative by simply doing his job and shed the necessary light on this project. Andrew Cuomo must show the same political courage demonstrated by the Anti-Defamation League.

*****

Commentator Jeffrey Goldberg says the ADL made a “terrible decision.”

He writes on the Atlantic’s blog: “The fight is not between the West and Islam; it is between modernists of all monotheist faiths, on the one hand, and the advocates of a specific strain of medievalist Islam, on the other. If we as a society punish Muslims of good faith, Muslims of good faith will join the other side. It’s not that hard to understand. I’m disappointed that the ADL doesn’t understand this.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the NYC-based National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, told the NYT: “The ADL should be ashamed of itself. Here, we ask the moderate leaders of the Muslim community to step forward, and when one of them does, he is treated with suspicion.”