A Muslim couple say they want to “change the narrative” of the September 11 terrorist attacks by building a mosque to tower over 45 Park Avenue, just 600 feet from where the World Trade Center once stood.
But opponents of the project say the location is not an appropriate site and question the motives of the couple as well as those who would donate money for the $100 million project to construct the Islamic cultural center.
“We decided we wanted to look at the legacy of 9/11 and do something positive,” Daisy Kahn, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Kahn said the group, founded with her husband Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, represents moderate Muslims who want “to reverse the trend of extremism and the kind of ideology that the extremists are spreading.”
But Deb Burlingame, whose brother was killed in the Pentagon attack, is urging fellow September 11 family members and survivors to oppose the mosque when the plan comes up for a final vote May 25 before the Lower Manhattan Community Board.
“Rauf has stated that the U.S. was complicit in the attacks because of its foreign policy, which victimized Muslims,” said Burlingame, co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America.
“He maintains that terrorism will not end until the U.S. brokers a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel and the U.S. stops humiliating Muslims,” Burlingame said in a May 14 letter to the group.
Rauf told “60 Minutes” during a Sept. 30, 2001 interview that the U.S. shared some blame for the attacks.
"I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened, but United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened," Rauf said.
"Because we have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense Osama bin Laden is made in the U.S.A," Rauf said.
The American Society for Muslim Advancement is spearheading the effort along with the Cordoba Initiative, which Rauf also chairs.
The building is the old Burlington Coat Factory that was damaged during the September 11 attack. It was purchased by Soho properties CEO Sharif Al-Gamal for nearly $5 million and would be completely demolished to make way for the new Islamic center.
Called Cordoba House, the Islamic center will stand 15 stories high and include the mosque, performing arts center, meeting rooms, a swimming pool and gym.
Although approval from the local planning board is only a formality, it appears likely to pass with some favoritism.
The Tribeca Trib reported Friday that the board has reworked the resolution in light of increased opposition, and stripped it of all references to the building as a mosque.
Board member Bill Love told the paper the changes were made because in the past, the panel supported a nearby Jewish center that has evolved over the years into a multi-cultural use facility.
“It would just be a blatant double standard if this thing gets tabled or defeated,” Love said.
One glitch still remains.
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is considering whether to designate the property as a landmark, which would prevent it from being demolished as proposed.
Rauf and Khan have not stated who will fund the $100 million construction, or how they will pay to sustain the center financially in future years.
They are expected to reveal the final design and other details for the Islamic center next year on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
“They have been extremely dodgy on where the funds will come from.” said Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy in Phoenix.
Past financial supporters of the group include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Deak Family Foundation, and the William & Mary Greve Foundation, according to the New York Post.
Funding has also come from the Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Foundation, the government of Qatar and the World Economic Forum, the Post said.
According to the Cordoba Initiative’s tax returns, they have received less than $100,000 in contributions since it was founded in 2004.
Neither the Cordoba Initiative nor the Muslim Society has received federal grants or contracts.
The money most likely will come from overseas interests in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Jasser said.
“As an American, I’m concerned about any foreign money coming into this project,” said Jasser
New mosques have been constructed throughout the U.S. since the September 11 terrorist attacks without controversy.
But choosing the site adjacent to Ground Zero is “insanity and arrogance,” Jasser said. “That’s Ground Zero, that’s where we had a war declared on us.”
Jasser and Burlingame also criticize Rauf’s support for Islamic sharia law.
On the Cordoba Initiative’s 2008 tax return, they state as a major accomplishment, “preparations for a 2009 scholarly study of how ‘sharia’ (Islamic jurisprudence) supports core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
Burlingame criticized Rauf for taking money from the Malaysian government, which embraces sharia law with established sharia courts.
“He embraces sharia law and says that it is a benign set of pious rules which are completely compatible with the U.S. Constitution,” Burlingame said.
Writing in the Huffington Post last year, Rauf said that “by embracing Islam in the (Middle East) peacemaking process, Obama has laid down a challenge to Muslims.”
“Live up to the tenets of our religion, embrace Sharia law as conceived by the Prophet, and see what happens,” Rauf wrote.
“He writes that sharia is nothing to worry about,” Jasser said. “I say he needs to get real, he’s either in denial or trying to deceive the West.”
Khan said in an interview with the Tribeca Trib that she understands if some are hesitant to embrace the idea of an Islamic institution so close to the site of the attacks, which were carried out by Muslim extremists.
“Most of the resistance we’ve encountered has been from people who don’t know the Muslim community,” Khan said. “Its just fear of the unknown, and it’s our job to approach and reach out to those people, and try to show them what our community and what our message is really all about.”
Opposition to the project is “not about Islamaphobia,” said Jasser, who believes the proposed site is “completely insensitive” and should not be built on what he called “hallowed ground for Americans.”
“It’s as if they have no concept of where America is in this conflict,” Jasser said.