I am not particularly knowledgeable about Islam, don't live in New York, and my blog for the most part focuses on national politics and significant public policy issues. People therefore have reason to wonder why I would want to dedicate any time or effort in discussing an Islamic building project in this city.
It's a fair question. Well, the project has recently become a national political and public policy issue for many different reasons. President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg have commented on it, and so have a number of other major political leaders. It's widely considered to be a very controversial project in the national media. Troubling information has come out about the project's main backer, 61 year old Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Furthermore, there is increasing concern about the project's funding. We're still fighting two costly wars and contending with terrorist threats across the globe against Islamic extremists, similar to the ones who attacked us on September 11, 2001. Terrorist group Hamas' official, Mahmoud al-Zahhar, has publicly come out in favor of the project.
As a reminder, Rauf and some unidentified Muslim supporters would like to build a $100 million 15 story Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from where the World Trade Center was destroyed about nine years ago, the area that became known as "Ground Zero". My understanding is that the property involved has already been purchased for $5 million. Mayor Bloomberg and local planning officials support the project as a freedom of religion and constitutional issue consistent with our basic values as Americans. President Obama expressed general support for similar reasons at a recent celebration of Ramadan meal. However, he seemingly backtracked a little bit the next day when he said in response to some media questions that he had not commented on the wisdom of building the project near Ground Zero.
Republican U. S. Senator David Vitter from Louisiana and Independent, formerly Democratic, U. S. Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut have come out against the project for moral and national security reasons.
What do I think and why? This is not a "no-brainer", but I think at best this project represents an insensitive and unnecessary provocation toward those who were directly affected by the 9/11 attacks and those who vehemently oppose the project as an insult to those who died or were injured on 9/11 or in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At worst it's an inappropriate project that should be stopped, depending on what more is found out about Rauf's motives for this specific location, his real beliefs about the rights of Islamic terrorists, and the expected sources of the funding for the project.
It's not a freedom of religion issue. Assuming the best case scenario, it's a social sensitivity issue, respecting the strong feelings of the majority of New Yorkers and residents of neighboring states opposing the project who lost 2,976 family members or close friends in the attacks.
As far as I know, the public doesn't know very much at this point about Rauf's real motives for choosing this particular location for his project, though he has apparently claimed it would be building a monument to tolerance. His supporters consider Rauf a visionary for peace and progressive Islam, someone who has worked for decades to build bridges between the U. S. and like-minded Muslims around the world. We've learned that he has represented the State Department in the Muslim world and has been given contracts to teach FBI agents about Islam. What troubles me is his apparent unwillingness, as evidenced by past statements, to unequivocally condemn suicide bombings, agree that recruiting children for suicide bombings is child abuse, and to consider Hamas as a terrorist organization.
One would have thought the State Department could have found a better Muslim to have represented us, if these Rauf statements are confirmed to be correct.
The planned funding of the project also gives me some concern. $100 million is a lot of money and it's not likely an American financial institution would provide a loan or, as I understand it, that it could be raised solely by donations from American Muslims. Most likely the bulk of it would be raised by donations from wealthy Muslim individuals, governments or non-profit organizations in the Middle East. Perhaps the most likely major source would be Wahhabi organizations in Saudi Arabia, the conservative Sunni sect which has been known to be active in funding mosques around the world, as well as terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.
All this said, the officials in New York City and New York state should make the final decision, whether the project should be built or not. If Rauf and his sponsors comply with all the applicable construction and development regulations and ordinances, they should probably be allowed to proceed. However, I think the officials should inquire beforehand about Rauf's motives for this particular location and the source of the funding to determine if this should impact the decision. I also think Rauf should seriously consider a different, less sensitive location, more distant from Ground Zero, in an effort to get broader local support for the project.
While it shouldn't at all be factored into New York's decision, the radical Muslim extremists we are fighting in the Middle East, who maintain the U. S. is at war with Islam, will most likely consider it a "victory" for them whether the project is built or not.