New York mosque plan stirs up 9/11 memories

By Matthew Price
BBC News, New York

  • Published
Satellite view showing the World Trade Center site two blocks away from the proposed site of the Islamic cultural centre

It doesn't take long to walk from Ground Zero to the old, crumbling Burlington Coat Factory on Park Place. Two or three minutes at most.

From the outside it doesn't look like much. Paint peels from the walls. An old, iron fire escape zig-zags up the outside of the building.

At the front door a sharply dressed man, in a black suit, white shirt, black tie, ushers in the worshippers. Men to the right, women to the left.

For now, this former clothing shop is a makeshift mosque, a place of worship for lower Manhattan's rapidly growing Muslim population.

If plans to develop the site go ahead however, within five years it will be a landmark Islamic cultural centre, a celebration - in the minds of its backers - of the religion.

A place for Muslims and non-Muslims to gather, it will include a mosque.

'Powerful symbolism'

This is a deliberate attempt, Imam Feisal Rauf tells me, to present what he sees as the real face of Islam to a city where some - since the terror attacks of 11 September, 2001 - have come to distrust the religion.

"This space [Ground Zero] has very powerful symbolism in the perception of the world," he says.

"It is important for us to be stakeholders in what this symbolism means.

"What better place to show that we, as Muslims, condemn the acts of 9/11 than making this stand and making this statement here. When we say it here, we will be heard."

Had the centre been planned elsewhere in this multi-cultural city, it would possibly have gone largely unnoticed.

But situated just two blocks from Ground Zero, it has raised concern among some of the relatives of those killed in the 9/11 attacks.

'Not Islamaphobia'

Mike Burke's brother - a fireman - was one of the almost 3,000 who died as the World Trade Center's towers collapsed.

Image caption,
Mr Burke says families of 9/11 victims do not want a mosque by Ground Zero

Mr Burke wears badges commemorating the event on the lapels of his denim jacket.

It is not Islamaphobia, he insists - it's just that he and others do not want an Islamic institution nearby.

"I think the first concern for the families is that the religious beliefs of the terrorists who struck is going to have such a prominent place right around the corner from Ground Zero," he says.

"This is not an… anti-Muslim effort. It is understandably… emotional for them to be suddenly told that around the corner from where their loved ones were killed they're going to put a mosque."

The project's leaders say they have gone out of their way to bring people living nearby on board with the plans.

They own the building and under city law have the right to build what they want there. Nonetheless, they spoke to the local community board and asked for its approval - something they didn't have to do. They got its support.

Sharif El-Gamal, the chairman of Soho Properties, which owns the building says he wants "a place where I could show off my hospitality, my culture, my background".

What he and the others involved envisage is a world-class facility - an environmentally-friendly building constructed with cutting-edge technology. It would be a place to show off what they consider Islam has to offer.

Sensitive issue

For some this has become a useful chance to voice popular fears about Islam.

Image caption,
Charles Wolf says it would be wrong to prevent the building of a mosque

One group that says its aim is to defend freedom of speech against what it calls "Islamic supremacist intimidation" is arranging a rally at Ground Zero in protest at the plans.

Many wholeheartedly reject such a stance. Among them is Charles Wolf, an energetic man who has been heavily involved in the discussions over what should be built at Ground Zero in place of the Twin Towers.

He says many of the victims' families - like him - believe the Islamic centre should be built.

"The Muslims are not responsible for 9/11. There have been extremists in all religions," he says.

"Denying them the ability to build a mosque… would be like London denying the Roman Catholic Church the opportunity to build a church during the years of the IRA bombings."

All sides know this is a deeply sensitive issue. It's one that raises important questions about the place of Muslims in American society today.

Almost a decade on from the 9/11 attacks, this country is still grappling with their aftermath.