ON THE EVENING OF 27 JULY, a mild sun shone on the elegant and imposing New York City Hall building in Manhattan. Commuters headed underground to subways departing for outer boroughs and bedroom suburbs. In a dance studio adjacent to City Hall, a Korean-American boy practised physics-defying moves with a Mexican-American girl. A short flight of stairs up, a few hundred people had gathered in an auditorium for a public meeting of the Lower Manhattan Community Board. The meeting was supposed to be one of the city’s regular exercises in local representation, where people can raise with board members issues that concern them. Citizens spoke about walking tours, extending bus routes, hospitals … and then a man from the audience shouted: “What about the mosque!” In an instant the auditorium was charged with angry shouts of “No mosque! No mosque at Ground Zero!”
A shrill debate about religious freedom, limits of tolerance and the meaning of 9/11 has been raging for the past two months in the US around the plans of a New York imam, Abdul Faisal Rauf, and a developer, Sharif Gamal, to build a 13-floor Islamic centre with a prayer space, three blocks from Ground Zero. Supporters say the Cordoba House project will be a venue for reconciliation between Islam and the west, delivering a powerful rebuttal to the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked the trade towers; opponents call it an offence to the memory of those who died in 2001. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a group named 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and several interfaith leaders from New York churches and synagogues are among those who want to see the centre built. Lined up against them are the leaders of Tea Party Express—a highly conservative socio-political movement of mostly white male Republican supporters who have been accused of racism—Republicans such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, rightwing bloggers and some families of 9/11 victims.