To its supporters, the Islamic centre and mosque planned near what has become known as Ground Zero will be a 13-storey testament to multi-faith harmony, moderate Islam and America’s tradition of allowing people to practise religion without government interference.
To its outspoken critics, it is a symbol of Islamic chauvinism and an affront to the relatives of the 2,750 people who perished at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
The developers of Park51, the proposed centre just two blocks north of where the Trade Center stood, overcame a hurdle on Tuesday night when the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the demolition of an old commercial building to make way for construction of the centre. The meeting brought together politicians, developers, Muslims, Jewish groups and those who lost loved ones for the latest chapter in the ongoing furore.
The so-called Ground Zero mosque has become a rallying cry for right-wing conservatives. Newt Gingrich, a Republican Party heavyweight, and the former presidential candidate Sarah Palin have criticised the centre’s location. Muslim groups complain of Islamophobia in the wake of recent failed bombing attempts by Muslim men in a Detroit-bound airliner and in Times Square in New York.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish group, contended that building the centre at the site would be “counterproductive to the healing process”. The ADL itself has been attacked for failing to defend religious freedoms. Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, a dovish, pro-Israel group, said the ADL was “giving in to the fearmongers”.
At Tuesday’s meeting, one anti-mosque activist, Andy Sullivan, shouted “Shame on you!” when committee members announced their decision. Linda Rivera left the meeting in tears, carrying a placard that said: “Don’t glorify murders of 3,000. Islam builds mosques at the sites of their conquests and victories.”
But Sharif el Gamal, the chief executive of SoHo Properties, partners in the US$100 million (Dh367.3m) scheme, said his team will continue working “tirelessly to realise an American dream”.
“We are Americans, Muslim Americans,” he said. “We are businessmen, businesswomen, lawyers, doctors, restaurant workers, cab drivers and professionals of every walk of life representing the demographic tapestry of Manhattan.”
The centre’s developers still have a long way to go before it is built. They estimate it could be as long as four years before it opens.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf heads the interfaith project called the Cordoba Initiative, which is behind the centre. He said the site will have a theatre, swimming pool and mosque. At the moment, the site at 47-51 Park Place is a soot-stained building dating back to 1857.
Gary Patel, the owner of a nearby Indian restaurant, was among the 58 per cent of New Yorkers who, according to a Rasmussen Reports telephone survey, opposed the centre. “It’s not a good idea to make a mosque near the World Trade Center,” Mr Patel said. “It was them that made a mess of the whole area. If they don’t build it, I will be happy. They are making more extremism around this area and we don’t want these people.”
Others, such as Kenneth Kresowaty, who has worked in the area of lower Manhattan for more than two decades, is among the 20 per cent who support the centre. The other 21 per cent were unsure.
“I don’t have any objections. It’s good for the community because it’s an eyesore at the moment and it can only improve the area,” Mr Kresowaty said. “This is a separate individual religion that’s allowed to exist as other religions are allowed to exist in the area.”
The current five-storey building is already a worship centre for as many as 400 Muslims on Fridays. Among them is a 30-year-old accountant, Shariq Qureshi.
“This is still a country predicated on freedom so you should be able to worship as you see fit,” Mr Qureshi said. “Being sensitive to the people affected by 9/11 is a valid concern, but if this is coming from people who are misinformed and not aware of what Islam is, then that’s a problem.”
After the meeting, the New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said the owners are entitled to use the building as a place of worship. “The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right and if it were tried the court would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the US constitution.”
Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor of New York, has demanded an investigation into the sources of money behind Park51 and said Imam Feisal has links with “radical Islamist groups”.
On his website, Imam Feisal, known as a moderate Muslim, said the centre will be a place for “understanding and healing, peace, collaboration, and interdependence”.
Meanwhile, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair), said anger over the mosque was part of a wave of Islamophobia and blasted opportunist politicians.
Ahmed Rehab, Cair’s spokesman, said anti-Muslim groups are raising money and campaigning against construction of the centre.
“The backlash you are seeing is from this organized group of campaigners rather than a public reaction, which is what they would have you believe,” he said. “Most people are genuinely open to the multicultural nature of this country.”