Attendees with strong opinions disrupted a packed meeting of the 40 member Lower Manhattan community board on Tuesday that had convened to consider the construction of a massive mosque near the World Trade Center site.
Members of the public argued with the board—both from their seats and during their allotted time for comment—for over three hours.
Julie Menin, chairperson for the committee, threatened to ask the police in attendance to remove the disrupters from the building, but allowed most speakers to take more than their two-minute allotment to speak.
A block away from the North tower of the World Trade Center, a Muslim group is seeking permission to build a community center and mosque.
The location, 45 Park Place, is noted on maps of the area as a site damaged by the falling landing gear from one of the hijacked planes on Sept. 11, 2001.
The proposed building, called the Cordoba House, would turn this location into a community center that contains an “auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores and restaurants,” according to the website. It is Muslim-funded and would include space for Muslim prayer.
Following a presentation to the board by Feisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, sentiments seemed evenly divided between opposition and support of the project.
Menin reminded the crowd several times that the building project is “as of right,” which means it does not require government review or permission. The board, which functions in an advisory capacity, does not have the authority to stop the project from proceeding. The board’s eventual vote was 29-to-1, with 10 abstentions, to accept the proposal.
The project is ambitious. The Cordoba Initiative website describes a 13 story new building. A group called 45 Park Place Partners LLC, located at the address of Soho Properties in New York City, bought the building on July 16 last year for $4.85 million, according to the deed. The renovations will require millions.
The source of funding is one source of controversy over the project. “Clearly there’s some very well-heeled backers here, and there needs to be full disclosure,” said Robert Spencer, author of New York Times bestsellers on Islam.
Rauf is also the CEO of American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA). He is an Islamic leader on record for defending the religion-based Sharia law. That makes the project both religious and political, according to Spencer.
“[Sharia] affects every aspect of their life it dominates,” said Debra Burlingame, co-founder of Keep America Safe. “There is no such thing as separation of church and state. It’s what I call political Islam. They don’t believe that man-made laws supersede Allah’s law, so Sharia law is above anything that governments can do.”
She added, “I consider [the project] a Sharia recruiting center.”
Burlingame is the sister of a pilot from one of the September 11 planes and has written extensively about remaining vigilant against terrorism since 2001. She believes the project is an attempt to “co-opt” the narrative of September 11. “For me, 9/11 was a declaration of war. That’s when Islam said we’re going to destroy the West,” she said. “For Imam Rauf, 9/11 is an opportunity to change the conversation from what we should be protecting ourselves from and fighting to defeat to what we should be embracing.”
The leadership of ASMA presented their plans for the project to the finance subcommittee of the Lower Manhattan Community Board last month. Daisy Khan, executive director of ASMA, called Islam “an American religion” in the presentation. “We need to take the 9/11 tragedy and turn it into something very positive,” she said.
“I don’t even understand that kind of talk,” said Pamela Geller, executive officer for Stop Islamization of America and blogger at Atlas Shrugged. “I think that the Islamic world should be as sensitive to non-Muslims as they want us to be to them.” Geller believes that the project is deliberately designed to be symbolic, calling it a mosque that will be a “rallying call” to extremists.
ASMA maintains that the word “mosque” is inaccurate. The building, to be called Cordoba House, is a “community center with a worship space inside.” However, any specifically Islamic worship space would be exclusive to Muslims.
“To call it a worship space or a worship center is highly misleading,” said Spencer. “They’re not going to have some kind of an ecumenical, all-purpose worship center that everybody can go into; they’re going to have a mosque. And a mosque is not a welcoming place for non-Muslims.”
The area surrounding Ground Zero includes City Hall, Newspaper Row, and the U.S. Courthouse. Construction workers double as traffic guides to the pedestrians leaving work in the Financial District. No. 7 WTC, the first of the destroyed World Trade Center buildings to be reconstructed after the attacks, stands less than a block from the proposed community center. Poems about the area by local writers David Lehman and C.K. Williams scroll across the installed art in the lobby and are visible from the outside. At the same time, sounds of large-scale construction work have become familiar around here.
Burlingame pointed out that most of the construction going on around the site is funded by the U.S. Congress as part of the 9/11 relief fund. “This is a generational fight to preserve our country and what it stands for, not the least of which is freedom of religion. We cannot exist in the America that we know today if the first amendment is chipped away by people who believe that one religion should dominate in such a diverse and pluralistic society,” she said.
According to Burlingame, Americans are “trustees” of the site and each decision about what is done with that space ought to be a matter of public concern. Geller is organizing a protest rally to be held at Ground Zero on June 6. She expects cross-country attendance.
Those who oppose the Cordoba Initiative’s proposal will next look to the Landmarks Preservation Commission or the zoning process to delay or stop the project.