The Legacy of The Looming Tower

How a proposed Islamic centre near the WTC site is testing tolerance and religious freedom in the United States

This aerial photo shows the New York city block (lower right), where the 13-storey Islamic centre would be built, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site (centre left). AP PHOTO
This aerial photo shows the New York city block (lower right), where the 13-storey Islamic centre would be built, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site (centre left). AP PHOTO
01 September, 2010

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.

Sharif El-Gamal, the developer of the Cordoba House project, speaks to the press after a meeting of the New York City Landmarks Commission on 3 August. MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS

At the public meeting, the crowd continued to chant, “No mosque at Ground Zero!” as a speaker, Helen Friedman, took to the podium and held up a card: “Unmask the Mosque!” She described herself as belonging to a group called Americans for a Safe Israel and, to more cheers and claps, said: “This mosque is a Trojan horse. Remember, that too came as a gift. We are letting the enemy inside the gates!” Friedman was followed by New York State Senator Daniel Squadron, who concentrated on other local issues. Then someone asked him what he thought about the Islamic centre. “We are an open, diverse community—and no community shall be prohibited from being in lower Manhattan,” he replied. He was jeered.

Pamela Geller, a feisty, 51-year-old rightwing blogger from a group called Stop Islamization of America, spoke next. Geller, who has Tea Party links, is the co-author of a book, Post-American Presidency, which makes a series of unfounded charges against Barack Obama. In her words, the book describes “his socialist internationalism, his ties to America-haters and anti-Semites, his race-baiting, and more. He is betraying Israel; warring against free speech; refusing to take real steps to stop Iran’s nuclear program.”

Geller achieved prominence among American right-wing groups after she posted a video blog from an Israeli beach, in which, wearing a bikini, she denounced Hamas and Hezbollah. She is running a controversial poster campaign on New York City buses that directs Muslims to a website urging them to leave the “falsity of Islam.” The ads pitch these questions directly to Muslims: “Fatwa on your head? Is your community or family threatening you? Leaving Islam?” Geller described 9/11 as an attack on “each one of us” and the Islamic centre as a source of discord. She waved in jubilation after her speech, provoking more cries of  “No mosque!”

Across the room, Sharif Gamal, the developer behind the Islamic centre, stood quietly in a blue suit, typing on his iPhone. “I am not from someplace else. I am American, a New Yorker,” said 38-year-old Gamal, an athletic man with blue eyes and short curly hair, who was born in Brooklyn to an Egyptian-American father and a Polish-American mother. Gamal, who has been in the real estate business for a decade, heads a successful company, Soho Properties, in downtown Manhattan.

A few years after 9/11, Gamal walked into a small mosque in Tribeca, a lower Manhattan neighbourhood, for Friday prayers. The imam leading the prayers was Faisal Abdul Rauf, a Columbia University physics graduate, who had moved to New York as a teenager. Rauf had studied religion with his father, a scholar trained in Egypt at al-Azhar University, and had been working in New York with Jewish and Christian religious leaders to promote interfaith relations. He also acted as an advisor to the Muslim community on questions of religion and integration. His small mosque, which had been around for 28 years, was 12 blocks from the towers.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, has been branded a radical by opponents of the project. In fact, he has previously supported several interfaith initiatives. CRAIG RUTTLE / AP PHOTO

At a time of intense curiosity and scrutiny of Islam and Muslims in the US, Rauf found himself propelled into a world of television studios, think-tank lectures, international conferences, FBI briefings and meetings with American politicians. In the process, he has achieved prominence as a moderate Muslim leader, shaped by and comfortable with both the worlds of Islam and the US. A book deal followed and he published What’s Right with Islam, after which The Christian Science Monitor described him as “a bridge builder between Islam and America,” adding that the book could easily be subtitled What’s Right With America. Imam Rauf used the suggested subtitle when the book came out in paperback.

Gamal was impressed by Rauf’s sermons and became a regular at Friday prayers. When Gamal got married, Rauf conducted the ceremony. In 2004, Rauf set up a small tax-exempt foundation, the Cordoba Initiative (the initiative has no connection to the British-based Cordoba Foundation). Its goal was to achieve “a tipping point in Muslim-west relations within the next decade, bringing back the atmosphere of interfaith tolerance and respect that we have longed for since Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in harmony and prosperity eight hundred years ago.” The foundation has organised conferences on Muslim-west relations, and commissioned films with a message, such as one on the life of Abdol Hossein Sardari, an Iranian diplomat in Paris who saved several hundred French Jews from the Holocaust by granting them Iranian passports.

Meanwhile, Gamal’s Soho Properties was in the process of acquiring—for 4.85 million dollars—a five-storey building on Park Place, three blocks from the trade towers site. The building was a warehouse for the Burlington Coat Factory, an American clothes manufacturer, until it was abandoned after the landing gear of one of the hijacked aircraft tore through its roof. Initially, Gamal had planned to build a condominium complex at the site, but was convinced by Rauf’s idea for a cultural centre with a prayer space, especially as the Muslim community in New York had been growing for some time.

The plans for the centre were ambitious. At a cost of 100 to 150 million dollars, its 13 floors were intended to house a cultural centre, a 500-seat performing arts centre, culinary school, exhibition space, swimming pool, gym, basketball court, restaurant, library and art studios. The top two floors would house a domed space for prayers. “We insist on calling it a prayer space and not a mosque, because you can use a prayer space for activities apart from prayer. You can’t stop anyone who is a Muslim despite his religious ideology from entering the mosque and staying there,” said Imam Rauf’s wife and partner, Daisy Khan, who runs the American Society for Muslim Advancement, from an office housed on the Upper West Side’s famed Riverside Church. “With a prayer space, we can control who gets to use it.”

Imam Rauf is a soft-spoken man, with a trimmed salt and pepper beard, who prefers well-cut suits to traditional clothing. He modelled Cordoba House on a Jewish-run cultural centre, 92nd Street Y, a much-loved New York space for literary readings and public conversations on cultural and global affairs, where writers such as Ian McEwan, Javier Maries and Salman Rushdie have read from their work. Rauf imagined that Cordoba House would play the same kind of role for American Muslims that institutions such as 92Y played in helping the Jewish community become part of mainstream America.

He was conscious, of course, of the significance of the centre’s location: a building damaged in the attacks, three blocks from the trade tower’s site. “I have been part of this community for 30 years. Members of my congregation died on 9/11. That attack was carried out by extremist terrorists in the name of my faith,” Rauf said. “There is a war going on within Islam between a violent, extremist minority and a moderate majority that condemns terrorism. The centre for me is a way to amplify our condemnation of that atrocity and to amplify the moderate voices that reject terrorism and seek mutual understanding and respect with all faiths.”

Before the idea could morph into reality, it had to survive the bureaucratic process of approvals from New York City authorities and the lower Manhattan community boards. On 5 May this year, Rauf and Gamal took the proposal to the Lower Manhattan Community Board’s financial committee, adding that it would create 150 full-time jobs. The submission included an image of the proposed centre’s façade: a blue and green, glass and steel, modernist tower. The committee voted unanimously in support.

As word spread, a debate started about whether it was appropriate. Within a few weeks, the proposed Cordoba House was being talked about across the US as the “Ground Zero Mosque.” On 25 May, the community board planned to have a vote on the project, a vote that doesn’t have any legal power but is seen as crucial to gauge whether the local community supports it or not. A week before the vote, Tea Party leader Mark Williams called the planned centre “a monument to 9/11 Muslim hijackers.” The board meeting was charged with emotion. Some opponents shouted down a Muslim teenager who spoke in favour of the project; a supporter called activists opposing the project “brown shirts.” After four hours of testimonies, the 40-member board voted: ten abstentions, one no, and 29 yeses. New York mayor Bloomberg and Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer came out in support.

What was conceived as a project to foster inter-faith co-operation and improve relations between the west and the Islamic world now threatens to increase polarisation. The debate has moved far beyond what is legal, into the territory of national politics and questions of morality, legitimacy and meanings of 9/11. Sarah Palin tweeted, calling all peaceful Muslims to “refudiate” it. The National Republican Trust, a conservative group that runs ad campaigns to support Republican candidates, released a screen advertisement juxtaposing images of the falling twin towers and gun-toting jihadis. The accompanying narration says: “On 11 September, they declared war against us. And to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-storey mosque at Ground Zero. That mosque is a monument to their victory and an invitation for more.”

The former Republican speaker Newt Gingrich said the very name of the proposed project, Cordoba House, was an insult: “It refers to Córdoba, Spain—the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolised their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex. Today, some of the Mosque’s backers insist this term is being used to ‘symbolise interfaith co-operation’ when, in fact, every Islamist in the world recognises Córdoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest.” Gamal dropped the name. “We are calling it Park 51 because of the backlash to the name Cordoba House,” he said. “It will be a place open to all New Yorkers and that is a very New York name.”

Republican Rick Lazio, who is running for the New York governor’s seat, has made the funding of the proposed centre a key campaign issue. He sees it as funded by suspect foreign sources, and has called for an inquiry into where the 100 million dollars is coming from. Several others are calling for transparency in the money flow. Imam Rauf insists the 100 million has yet to be raised and Gamal owns the property. I asked Gamal about the purchase of the building on Park Place for 4.85 million. “I bought it with my own money and with the help of some goodwill investors,” Gamal said about his donating the land for the project.

The most poignant part of this controversy is that it has forced the families who lost sons and daughters to relive their tragedies, to speak again about their wounds, and to take sides. The atrocity has become an argument and the families forced to divide into supporters and opponents of the project. At the community board meeting in the dance studio near City Hall late last month, I watched a girl who had lost her brother in the attacks walk around the auditorium, bearing an American flag and a banner reading: “Show respect to 9/11 families.” Her face carried her pain, unlike the rhetoric and fury of the right-wing activists. Joyce Boland, a woman in her 60s with short white hair, rimless glasses, and wearing a white T-shirt, walked slowly to the podium; her face was sombre as she spoke. Vincent Boland, her son, a 25-year-old investment banker from New Jersey, was working on the 97th floor of the first tower on 9/11 when a hijacked aircraft was flown into it. “We got no more than a few inches of skin and a couple of pieces of bone. Ground Zero is the burial place of my son,” Boland said, her voice choking with emotion. “I don’t want to go there and see an overwhelming mosque looking down at me.”

The feelings of parents such as Boland have raised the questions of memory, trauma and moral authority. The Anti-Defamation League, an influential Jewish organisation that declares its mandate to “fight bigotry, prejudice and racism,” has condemned the attacks on the centre. The ADL, headed by Abraham H Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, has also conceded the legal right of the backers to build, but urged them not to build so near the trade towers site. “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,” an ADL statement said.

Linda Setlech, who worked at Ground Zero and sports an American flag purse, opposes the Cordoba Center project. CRAIG RUTTLE / AP PHOTO

When I spoke to Foxman, he drew a parallel with an older controversy, when Carmelite nuns turned an empty warehouse outside the perimeter of Auschwitz into a convent. “The Jewish community was offended by that and we insisted it was not the right place,” Foxman said. After eight years of debate, Pope John Paul II asked the nuns to move into a building a mile away. “If you want to reach out and heal the wounds, you don’t do it in an in-your-face way, in somebody’s cemetery. Two blocks from Ground Zero is Ground Zero,” said Foxman.

Several Jewish organisations and intellectuals disagree with Foxman and were surprised by the ADL’s stand. It provoked the economics Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman, to write in his New York Times blog, “It causes some people pain to see Jews operating small businesses in non-Jewish neighborhoods; it causes some people pain to see Jews writing for national publications (as I learn from my mailbox most weeks); it causes some people pain to see Jews on the Supreme Court. So would ADL agree that we should ban Jews from these activities, so as to spare these people pain?”

Whose pain counts? Whose pain has a greater moral authority? How many blocks from the trade tower site would an Islamic centre be respectful? There are no easy answers to these questions. But these are questions with which Talat Hamdani, a Pakistani-American woman, is grappling. Her son, Salman Hamdani, a paramedic and a cadet with the New York City police department, was headed to work on the morning of 11 September 2001. Salman saw the planes hit the towers and rushed to the trade towers site to help people trapped inside. He lost his life in the process. New York City and NYPD honoured him as one of its heroes.

“I lost my son on that day and I support this centre. The opposition comes from a deep-rooted Islamophobia,” said Hamdani. While her son was rushing towards the trade towers, the daughter of her friend Donna Marsh O’Connor, a Syracuse University writing instructor, was on the 97th floor of the second tower. She couldn’t be saved either. After struggling with their grief for a few years, Hamdani and O’Connor joined the 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. “On that day I lost both my daughter and my country. Ideas of revenge led us to war in Iraq. I can’t get my daughter back, but I am not letting go of my country. To be American is to understand that the laws are made for the greater good. We can’t base public policy on emotions,” O’Connor told me. “Building the Islamic centre near the trade towers will be a loud and clear rebuttal to the extremists who attacked America.”

Demonstrator Gary Phaneuf is ejected for shouting during a Landmarks Commission hearing in New York. The debate over the Cordoba Center has been politicised by the conservative Tea Party movement. KEITH BEDFORD / REUTERS

On a recent Friday afternoon, I visited the trade towers site. Tourists peered through a boundary into Ground Zero. Business executives stood outside office entrances drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Hundreds of workers manned cranes, jackhammers and drills under a blazing sun as they continued the decade-long effort to build a memorial to the World Trade Center. Designed by architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the memorial will have two massive pools with waterfalls where the towers stood, a plaza with 400 trees; and a museum recording the lives of the victims, whose names will be inscribed on the pool walls.

I walked the three blocks to 45 Park Place where the Islamic centre is planned to be built, and which has been serving as a place for Muslim Friday prayers for the past several months. Faint outlines of the old name, Burlington Coat Factory, remain on the building’s façade. The Italian palazzo architecture, which would have signified the grandeur of the Old World in the 1850s, was now a memorial to chipped paint and rusting iron bars. The congregation of IT consultants, investment bankers, businessmen, and street vendors was led by a doctoral candidate from Columbia University, who published his first novel a few years ago. It seemed to be a reflection of the financial success of American Muslims, a predominantly middle-class community that various estimates put at between three and seven million; 59 percent of whom have at least an undergraduate degree, according to a 2004 poll by Zogby.

On the sidewalk, I met a young man who had stepped out after the prayers. Tony Bennett, a 26-year-old son of a black father and a Latina mother, is a short man with a prizefighter’s body and a monk’s demeanour. He wore the regulation blue jacket of the construction workers in New York. Bennett, who also uses the Muslim name Yasin Mohammad, is from a working-class area in Queens, New York. Bennett works on Ground Zero, mostly manning a jackhammer. On Friday afternoons, he walks over to Park Place to offer his prayers. “America is my country and we all have to learn to live with respect. That is how it shall be,” he said and headed back to Ground Zero. I watched him walk away and it seemed that his quiet, unpublicised choice was a greater example of reconciliation and hope.

To be able to move to build the Islamic centre by demolishing the old 1850s warehouse at 45 Park Place, Imam Rauf and his team had to wait for a decision from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which was deliberating whether the building should be preserved as a historic landmark. A Christian legal rights group, American Center for Law and Justice, had appealed to the commission that the building should be considered a landmark because of the landing gear that fell through its roof.

New York waited for the decision. On the morning of 3 August, a few hundred people filled a university auditorium near the trade towers site. Nine members of the Landmarks Commission took turns to speak and unanimously declared that the Italian palazzo building on Park Place did not have a special architectural or aesthetic character and thus did not merit a historic status. Stephan Bryns, the Landmarks Commissioner, argued that being damaged in the 9/11 attacks and being close to Ground Zero didn’t give it historic landmark status, either. To cries of “This is a betrayal!” and “Shame on you!” he said: “One cannot designate hundreds of buildings on that criterion alone.” Supporters cheered.

The Lower Manhattan building that is the proposed site for the Cordoba Initiative Mosque and Cultural Center . Jewish community leaders, rabbis and others recently gathered in front of the building to support the plan. SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES

A very New York moment, high on the symbolism of the city’s freedoms and immigrant nature, followed. Over at the Governor’s island, stood Mayor Bloomberg; behind him the Statue of Liberty, still welcoming the huddled masses, in the backdrop. “Our doors are open to everyone—everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules,” the Mayor declared. “Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbours grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values—and play into our enemies’ hands—if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists—and we should not stand for that.”

Bloomberg’s speech was greeted with much cheer from the liberal circles and the right wing continued to attack the project. Everyone waited for one man to weigh in: President Barack Obama. The US Senate is going for midterm elections in November and with the Republicans increasing the attacks on the proposed Islamic centre, it was felt that Obama was staying away to avoid giving the Republicans more fodder to attack him and potentially lose voters in the conservative states in middle-America where the opposition to the “Ground Zero mosque” was higher. Obama finally spoke on the question at a White House Iftaar in a passionate defence of freedom of religion. “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. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable,” he said.  Obama backtracked the next day, telling reporters that he did not comment on the “wisdom” of building the Islamic centre near Ground Zero, only on the legal rights. The damage was done: it lost him the respect of the liberals who saw his stand as principled and gave the Republicans a sense of victory, emboldening them to  make the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ a major campaign issue.. The battle rages on. The New York Times came out forcefully in an editorial: “Too many Republican leaders are determined to whip up as much false controversy and anguish as they can, right through November. Mr. Obama and all people of conscience need to push back hard. Defending all Americans’ right to worship—and their right to build places to worship—is fundamental to who we are.”  And the backers of the Islamic centre only agree. They intend to build on Park Place, yet there are miles to go before construction starts.