NYC MUSLIM COMMUNITY CENTER: Why There? Why Not?

By Alan Shapiro

 
 
To the Teacher:
 
Plans to build a Muslim community center that would include a prayer room two blocks from where the World Trade Center towers once stood has generated an angry controversy. The first student reading below describes plans for the center and the impassioned disagreement over those plans. The second reading offers multiple perspectives about the community center. The third reading includes an overview of mosque protests in New York City and elsewhere in the United States.
 
Assign the readings as homework. Then, in class, conduct a fish bowl discussion,to involve all students in a close examination of the Muslim center and associated issues. The fish bowl activity and suggestions for further inquiry follow the three readings.
 
 
 
 

Student Reading 1:

Sacred ground or bridging a cultural divide?

 
"It will have a real community feel, to celebrate the pluralism in the United States, as well as in the Islamic religion. It will also serve as a major platform for amplifying the silent voice of the majority of Muslims who have nothing to do with extremist ideologies. It will counter the extremist momentum."
 
This was Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. She was speaking to members of the community board in lower Manhattan on May 6, 2010, about plans to build a Muslim community center on Park Place, two blocks north of where the World Trade Center had stood until 9/11. The proposed center would not be visible from "ground zero."
 
"It is a neighborhood ajumble with restaurants, shops (electronics, porn, you name it), churches, office cubes, and the rest of the New York mish-mash," Hendrik Herzberg wrote in The New Yorker "Zero Grounds," (8/16/10 & 8/23/10). That "mishmash" also includes the New York Dolls Gentlemen's Club and the Pussycat Lounge. Four blocks from ground zero is a Muslim mosque, Masjid Manhattan, which was opened in 1970. Another is ten blocks away.
 
"The time for a center like this has come because Islam is an American religion," Khan said. "We need to take the 9/11 tragedy and turn it into something very positive."
 
The Cordoba project, as it is called, would create a 15-story community center to be named Park51 The center would include a Muslim prayer room, a performance art center, gym, swimming pool and other public spaces. The project received the unanimous support of the community board, whose members are appointed by the Manhattan borough president and also serve as advisors to the mayor's office.
 
Ro Sheffe, a board member, said, "They own the land, and their plans don't have any zoning changes," Sheffe said. "They came to us for our opinions and to let us know their plans. It was purely voluntary on their part."
 
 
Above, an ad from the American Freedom Defense Initiative has appeared on NYC buses.
 
 
But the project was already controversial. Opponents said they objected to "building a mosque" so close to where the Twin Towers had stood. Barry Zelman said, "[The 9/11 terrorists] did this in the name of Islam. It's a sacred ground where these people died, where my brother was murdered, and to be in the shadows of that religion, it's just hypocritical and sacrilegious. " (Nicole Bliman, "Mosque to go up near New York's ground zero," (www.cnn.com, 5/7/10)
 
Others disagreed. Herbert Ouida, whose son was killed in the attack, supports the project as a way to bridge cultural divide. "I understand the anger, the bitterness and hatred, but it only generates more hatred," Ouida said. "Such a large part of the world has this faith, and to say anyone who has this faith is a terrorist, it's terrible."
 
The Muslim Society is working to raise funds for the center and plans to complete it in three to five years. (CNN, 5/7/10)
 
Sharif el-Gamal, the developer of the center, lived in Brooklyn with his divorced mother, who was Catholic, until he was nine, then with his father, a Muslim, in Liberia and Egypt, before returning to the US for college. He "has told supporters that he will take no money linked to 'un-American' values and that donations will be vetted by federal and state authorities and separate boards for the center and the mosque." (New York Times, 8/27/10)
 
 
 

Student Reading 2:

Multiple views of the proposed Muslim center

 
 
"9/11 Families Reject Towering Mosque Planned for Ground Zero Site"
 
"New York, May 24, 2010 - 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America (9/11 FSSA) adamantly rejects the plan for a mosque to be built atop a planned 15-story structure that would tower over the site where nearly 3,000 people were killed by Islamic terrorists.
 
"According to the project's leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the mosque and "Muslim-led community center" is to be called the Cordoba House, named after the historic period when the Islamic Caliphate in Cordoba ruled much of Europe and non-Muslims lived as second-class citizens under Islamic rule.
 
"Victims' families view the imam's expressed plan to "leverage" the mosque's proximity to Ground Zero to engage in proselytizing and to 'grow the Muslim community,' as shockingly insensitive to the history of the site where their loved ones were slaughtered in the worst terrorist attack by extremist Muslims in America's history….
 
"'Imam Rauf is a Muslim cleric who, immediately after 9/11, blamed the attacks on US treatment of Muslims, asserting that Osama Bin Ladin was 'made in the U.S.A,'" said Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 9/11 FSSA, whose brother was the pilot of the American Airlines flight which was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. "'We do not accept the Cordoba organization's view that we need Imam Rauf to lecture us about religious tolerance in a city still dealing with the consequences of the attack that he claims we brought on ourselves.'" (www.911familiesforamerica.org/?p=3993, 5/24)
 
— 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America, www.911familiesforamerica.org/?p=3993, 5/24/10
 
 
"The truth about the 'mosque': The leader of proposed Muslim center near Ground Zero defends his plan"
 
"My colleagues and I are the anti-terrorists. We are the people who want to embolden the vast majority of Muslims who hate terrorism to stand up to the radical rhetoric. Our purpose is to interweave America's Muslim population into the mainstream society.
 
"People who are stakeholders in society, who believe they are welcomed as equal partners, do not want to destroy it. They want to build it. And there's no better demonstration of our desire to build than the construction of this center. It will help revive lower Manhattan…. The center will be open to all regardless of religion. Like a YMCA, the 92nd St. Y or the Jewish Community Center uptown, it will admit everyone. It will be a center for all New Yorkers….
 
"I have been the imam at a mosque in Tribeca for 27 years. I am as much a part of this community as anyone else. Our mosque is as much a part of the neighborhood as any church, synagogue or surrounding business. My work is to make sure mosques are not recruiting grounds for radicals. To do that, Muslims must feel they are welcome in New York. Alienated people are open to cynicism and radicalism. Any group that believes it is under attack will breed rebellion. The proposed center is an attempt to prevent the next 9/11.
 
"What could be a better use for the citizens in lower Manhattan? What could be a better monument to the victims of that tragic day?" 
 
—Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in the Daily News, www.nydailynews.com, 5/25/10)
 
 
MOSQUE, a 30-second TV commercial for NY gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio
 
The script: "New Yorkers have been through enough. Now a terrorist-sympathizing imam wants to build a $100 million mosque near ground zero. Where is this money coming from? Who is really behind it? Incredibly, Andrew Cuomo defends it, even though this imam said America was an accessory to 9/11. Andrew Cuomo is very, very wrong. Call Andrew Cuomo, and tell him a ground zero mosque is wrong."
 
On the screen: "A black backdrop and ominous music dominate the ad, which alternately shows images of ground zero, a mosque and the faces of two men: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf…and Andrew M. Cuomo."
 
New York Times, 8/23/10. Lazio is a former Republican congressman from New York who is running for governor against Democrat Andrew Cuomo
 
 
What Imam Rauf said in a 2001 "60 Minutes" interview
 
"I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened." Asked to explain what he meant by "accessory," the imam replied, "Because we've been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA"
 
The imam also said, "Fanaticism and terrorism have no place in Islam." He is now on a US State Department-sponsored trip to the Mideast to foster religious understanding, and made similar trips for the US at the request of the Bush administration.
 
 
"Statement On Islamic Community Center Near Ground Zero" by the Anti-Defamation League
 
"We regard freedom of religion as a cornerstone of the American democracy, and that freedom must include the right of all Americans - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths - to build community centers and houses of worship….
 
"However, there are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site….The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process. Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.
 
"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. But regardless of how they respond, the issue at stake is a broader one.
 
"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."
 
—Anti-Defamation League, www.adl.org., 7/28/10
 
 
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
 
"We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That's life and it's part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11….
 
"There is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building. The simple fact is this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship.
 
"The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right — and if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the US Constitution. Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question — should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another.
 
"The World Trade Center Site will forever hold a special place in our City, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves — and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans — if we said 'no' to a mosque in Lower Manhattan."
 
— Excerpts from a speech by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, reported by the Wall Street Journal, 8/3/10
 
 
President Barack Obama, 8/13/10
 
"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances." (8/13/10)
 
 
Republican response to Obama statement
 
  • Former House speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama was "pandering to radical Islam." (New York Times, 8/14/10)
  • House minority leader John Boehner said the decision to build the center and mosque was "deeply troubling," as was the president's decision to endorse it. (Times, 8/14/10)
  • Rep. Peter King of New York said the president "is wrong." (Times, 8/14/10)
 
Obama's further remarks, 8/14/10
 
"I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about." (8/14/10)
 
 
 

Student Reading 3: 

Protests, a bonfire, and a physical attack

The New York Daily News reported on late August counter-demonstrations in lower Manhattan:
 
"Anti-'Ground Zero mosque' protesters descend on downtown Park51 site
 
"Mosque hysteria reached fevered pitch Sunday as angry protesters opposed to building an Islamic center near Ground Zero squared off with supporters of the project. In mostly peaceful counter-demonstrations, hundreds braved the rain in Lower Manhattan to voice their position on the contentious project that has spiraled into a national political issue.
 
"The two groups were kept apart in penned-in protest sites two blocks way from each other — about 200 gathered in support of the project and 1,000 against. A heavy police presence stood in between. The Park Place block where the proposed center would be built in a former Burlington Coat Factory store was closed off with police barricades.
 
"Opponents chanted 'No mosque, no way!' and carried signs reading, '9-11-01: Never Forget,' as Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the USA' blared over loudspeakers.
 
"Supporters carried signs reading, 'America! When did it become OK to be a bigot!' and screamed 'Hallowed ground, that's a lie!'" (www.nydailynews.com, 8/22/10)
 
The controversy was not confined to New York City.
 
"Far from ground zero, opponents fight new mosques" was the headline of an Associated Press report. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, "Muslims trying to build houses of worship in the nation's heartland, far from the heated fight in New York…are running into opponents even more hostile and aggressive. Foes of proposed mosques have deployed dogs to Muslims holding prayer services and spray painted 'Not Welcome' on a construction sign, then later ripped it apart….'They are not a religion. They are a political, militaristic group,' said Bob Shelton, a 76-year-old retiree who lives in the area…. (AP, 8/8/10)
 
"In Temecula, CA, (60 miles north of San Diego) opponents brought dogs to protest a proposed 25,000-square-foot mosque that would sit on four acres next to a Baptist church. Opponents worry it will turn the town into a haven for Islamic extremists, but mosque leaders say they are peaceful and just need more room to serve members." (Travis Lolley, www.news.yahoo.com, 8/8/10)
 
In Sheboygan, WI., "a few Christian ministers led a noisy fight against a Muslim group that sought permission to open a mosque in a former health food store bought by a Muslim doctor." (Laurie Goodstein, "Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Opposition," www.nytimes.com, 8/7/10)
 
The Times also reported that Terry Jones, an evangelical pastor in Gainesville, Florida, "plans to memorialize the Sept. 11 attacks with a bonfire of Korans."
 
Back in New York City, cab driver Ahmed Sharif said that a customer, Michael Enright, engaged him in what seemed to be friendly conversation. In response to a question, Sharif replied that he was a Muslim. Soon afterward, he said, Enright "made some jokes about Ramadan. He screamed 'this is the checkpoint' and he had to put me down." Enright slashed Sharif's throat and stabbed him on his face and arms. Sharif received two dozen stitches at a nearby hospital. (www.nydailynews.com, 8/26/10)
 

 

Fish bowl discussion

 
Fish bowl discussions are a useful method for involving the whole class and focusing discussion when students have differing views on a controversial issue. (For additional suggestions on how to approach difficult issues in the classroom, see Teaching on Controversial Issues: Guidelines for Teachers)
 
Begin by asking five to seven students to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room. Try to ensure that the group reflects diverse views. Ask everyone else to make a circle of chairs around the fish bowl to create a larger circle around the smaller circle and to listen carefully. Only people in the fish bowl may speak.
 
Begin by asking a question and inviting students to speak to it in a "go-around" with each student responding without being interrupted. Next, designate a specific amount of time for clarifying questions and further comments from the fish bowl group.
 
After 15 minutes or so, invite students from the larger circle to participate in the fish bowl conversation by tapping a fish bowl participant on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat. Continue with additional questions.
 
 
Some suggested questions
 
1. 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America views the imam's desire to "grow the Muslim community" from its proposed center as "shockingly insensitive to the history of the site where their loved ones were slaughtered…." Where would the Muslim center be in relation to that site? Would the center tower over it? What does the group find objectionable about Imam Rauf?
 
2. What, if anything, do you find objectionable about Imam Rauf? In his statement, he says that he is "as much a part of this community as anyone else." Do you think he is? Why or why not? The imam declares: "What could be a better monument to the victims of that tragic day?" How does he support such a view? How, according to the imam, is creating the center "an effort to prevent the next 9/11"? Do you agree? Why or why not?
 
3. What evidence does Rick Lazio offer to support his statement that Imam Rauf is a "terrorist-sympathizing imam"? How do you think Imam Rauf would respond to this accusation? What do you think the imam meant by saying in a "60 Minutes" interview that US policies were an "accessory to the crime" of 9/11? If you think you need more information before answering these questions, where might you find it? Why do you suppose Lazio raised a question about the source of funding for the center? 
 
4. Why, according to the Anti-Defamation League, would the "building of an Islamic Center at this location" be "counterproductive to the healing process"? Why is that more important than the ADL's regard for "freedom of religion as a cornerstone of the American democracy"? Do you think the controversy is "ultimately…not a question of rights, but a question of what is right"?
 
5. Why, according to Mayor Bloomberg, does the government have "no right whatsoever" to deny the Muslim group from opening a mosque? Do you agree? Why or why not?
 
6. Did Obama's first statement "endorse" the Muslim center, as Rep. Boehner charged? Why or why not? How do you interpret President Obama's addition to his first comment about the center?
 
7. "The terrorists did this in the name of Islam," one opponent of the Muslim center said. Is he correct? If so, is this good reason for the center to be cancelled? Why or why not?
 
8. What, if anything, about the Muslim center or the comments about it do you think might call for further inquiry? 
 
9. What is your opinion of the Muslim center? Has it changed since you completed the readings? Has our fish bowl discussion changed it? If so, how? If not, why not? 
 
10. How do you explain the mosque protests in a number of places across the US? The anti-Muslim acts and statements? What is your reaction to them?
 
 

For further inquiry

 
1. What do students think they know about Islam?
2. What do their responses reveal about their understanding?
3. What are they uncertain about?
4. What questions do they have?
5. How might they pursue answers to them?
 
 
See "Thinking Is Questioning" in the high school section of TeachableMoment for suggestions on teaching students how to analyze questions and, through that process, learn how to ask good ones.
 
 
 
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.