An ambitious plan to build a mosque next to New York’s Ground Zero is prompting hope — and anger — in a city scarred by terrorism.
There’s little to see now at the site, an abandoned clothing store two blocks from the former World Trade Center where nearly 3,000 people died on September 11, 2001.
But Feisal Abdul Rauf, a New York imam and a leader of the project, says the planned multi-story Islamic center will transform both the drab lower Manhattan street and the way Americans have looked on Muslims since 9/11.
Boasting a mosque with sports facilities, a theater and possibly day care, the center would be open to all visitors to demonstrate that Muslims are part of their community, not some separate element.
“There’s nothing like this that we know of in the United States,” Rauf told AFP. “This will be a community center for everyone, not just for Muslims, but non-Muslims.”
These are tense times for American Muslims who find themselves increasingly painted both by the public and law enforcement bodies as a possible source of terrorism.
A failed car bomb in New York’s Times Square on May 1 was allegedly planted by a Pakistani-born American, prompting senior figures in Washington to recommend stripping basic rights from US passport holders suspected of Islamist militant links.
The Islamic center is part of Rauf’s program, called the Cordoba Initiative, meant to build bridges between the West and the Muslim world.
But because of the proposed mosque’s location, just around the corner from the gaping Ground Zero hole, Rauf’s call for peace is seen by some as a battle cry.
“The outrage continues,” says website www.nomosquesatgroundzero.wordpress.com under a close-up of the collapsing Twin Towers.
Accusing the Cordoba Initiative of trying to “sneak it through,” the protest site says the center will “cast a rude shadow over Ground Zero.”
Others compare the idea to building a German cultural center at Auschwitz.
“Spitting in the Face of Everyone Murdered on 9/11,” writes Blitz, a self-described “anti-jihadist newspaper.”
That level of anger is not uncommon among New Yorkers who blame Islam, rather than just Al-Qaeda or other militant groups, for 9/11 and the global confrontation with the United States.
“This is the wrong neighborhood to put the mosque in,” Scott Rachelson, 59, said as he went to his office. Rachelson, who works with people seeking compensation over 9/11 related damages, said his life changed forever the day that two hijacked airliners smashed into Manhattan.
“I was here. For me, and everyone else who was here, we have post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “It feels like yesterday.”
A woman living in the apartment building next to the proposed mosque said she couldn’t accept the project.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me a little nervous,” said Jennifer Wood, 36, as she took her young son for a walk. “It seems a little in the face, a little too much too soon. I don’t know why it has to be here — this is a big city.”
An eloquent and erudite man, Rauf sounds slightly weary when asked about hardcore opposition, but says he hopes the center will become a catalyst for helping Muslims and the wider community to integrate.
“It’s about building an American Islamic identity, because we have second-, third-generation Muslims who don’t feel they are part of (the country),” he said.
“The complaint throughout the years has been: ‘Where’s the voice of the moderate Muslims?'” Rauf said. “Well, here we are.”
Many look forward to the center, which Rauf estimates will cost 105-140 million dollars to build, possibly financed with bonds.
Mohammed-Iqbal Hossain Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi immigrant running a newspaper kiosk across the street, called for an end to prejudice.
“The people who will come to pray here are working people. We are coming here to pray to God,” the 42-year-old said, lifting his hands skyward with a huge smile.
“Ground Zero — that is about terrorists. Terrorism is a different thing. There are a billion or more Muslims around the world. They aren’t all terrorists! I hope people will see us coming here and see that all of us come from one god.”
Walking past the shuttered-up Burlington Coat Factory retail store to catch a Subway train, local worker Angela Long, 60, said Muslims can be as American as anyone else.
“I don’t believe that Islam equals terrorism. There are crazy people everywhere,” she said.
And those arguing that a mosque has no right to exist near Ground Zero?
“They should read our Constitution,” she said.