New Yorkers fight three new mosques
Project planned near ground zero
By Hillary May
Updated: 7:50 p.m. on Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Holy wars are breaking out all over New York.
Three separate plans to build Muslim worship centers in New York City have proved more difficult and contentious than expected, igniting protests by local residents and anti-jihad activists and prompting charges of "Islamophobia" and bigotry.
The three projects raise different sets of issues, are set in three different boroughs and are still in the planning stages.
But together, they show that building a mosque in New York is not like building a pizza parlor — whether it's logistical concerns about neighborhood traffic and changing demographics, the sanctity of the World Trade Center site, or backyard politics.
New Yorkers have not been shy about their opposition, and a recent poll on the most contentious of the three projects — involving a Muslim center just two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack — shows residents stoutly opposed.
"This is about radical Islam wanting to colonize the world," said Joan Moriello, a community activist fighting one of the other projects. "They pretend to be tolerant, they pretend to be loving but they aren't. It's just starting to come bubbling up to the surface."
However, those kinds of reactions cause Muslim groups to cry "foul" and say objections about zoning and noise are mere covers for religious intolerance.
The Muslim American Society, a Washington-based nonprofit group, is determined to build mosques in Brooklyn and Staten Island. A separate organization called the Cordoba Initiative, which seeks to improve relations between Islam and the West, plans to build an Islamic center just a few minutes' walk from the site of the Sept. 11 attack.
"The Staten Island issue and the Brooklyn issue are kind of bifold," said Lana Safah, a spokeswoman for the Muslim American Society. "On the one side, you have a community that is concerned with logistical issues such as traffic and noise, and those are concerns we absolutely acknowledge. On the other hand, there is a lot of outside influences. There are things that are planting seeds of doubt."
The property of the proposed mosque on Staten Island was owned by St. Margaret Catholic Church until the Rev. Keith Fennessy decided to sell the vacant convent to the Muslim American Society in May. The group wants to use the property on Fridays for a community center and prayer hall.
The sale, however, is in the hands of the parish's board of trustees, which includes the pastor, two lay members of the congregation, the archdiocese’s vicar general and the archbishop.
The decision to sell the convent was met with overwhelming opposition, which led Father Fennessy to write a letter in June to Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan withdrawing the pastor's support of the sale.
The parish's board of trustees has not set a meeting date to discuss the future of the property.
While the community awaits the meeting, Staten Islanders have rallied against the proposed mosque, carrying signs of protest near the property.
"This is all very shocking," said Ms. Moriello, who pointed out that Staten Island already has five mosques. "I really don't know who was thinking this was a positive move. People have been so disenchanted."
The Muslim American Society has been widely accused of having ties to the jihadist Muslim Brotherhood.
Opponents of the Staten Island sale, and critics of the Muslim American Society more generally, have zeroed in on a videotape of the society's president, Mahdi Bray, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood at a 2000 rally outside the White House. Also, the 1993 founding of the Muslim American Society involved Muslim Brotherhood members, including Mohammed Mahdi Akef, now supreme guide for the Brotherhood in Egypt, and Ahmed Elkadi, then the leader of the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood.
Ibrahim Ramey, the human civil rights director for the Muslim American Society, defended his group as a peaceful organization in an open letter to the press.
"We know that we must overcome prejudice and fear, and even racism, just as other religious groups in this nation have confronted the same barriers," he wrote.
Ms. Safah said neighbors were angry and fearful because they know little about the organization.
"We acknowledge that people have fears, especially from an organization they have not heard of much," she said.
Protesters also have rallied against plans for a mosque in Sheepshead Bay, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.
The Muslim American Society also is funding this project, a four-story mosque and community center intended to serve 1,500 people. The site is surrounded by homes, prompting fears among residents that the mosque will cause noise, traffic and a parking shortage.
Although much of the opposition stems from quality-of-life concerns, some people are wary of the reported connections between the Muslim American Society and the Muslim Brotherhood.
"It's about the Muslim American Society," said Pamela Gellar, an author and anti-jihad and pro-Israel blogger.
"It was originally the Muslim Brotherhood and they changed the name to make it more acceptable. I can understand why [the neighborhood] would not want the Muslim Brotherhood building a huge edifice there."
The Muslim Brotherhood is an international entity founded in 1928 as a youth organization. Its primary goal is to make the Koran and associated Muslim traditions the "sole reference point" for family, society and the state. The group's headquarters are in Cairo, though the group is officially banned in Egypt.
According to its official website, the Muslim Brotherhood's objectives include efforts to "inform the masses, Muslim and non-Muslim of Islamic teachings." The organization says it opposes violence as a means of achieving political goals, though it has spawned violent offshoots and the Egyptian government accuses it of numerous killings.
Perhaps the group's most well-known member was Sayyid Qutb, whose book "Milestones" calls for using jihad to overthrow political structures in the Muslim world. His other works criticized Western society for moral and social decadence. Jihadists worldwide, including Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, cite Qutb as a formative influence.
Mr. Ramey called the backlash "religious bigotry" and "hatred."
"Is this really happening in America — a nation that boasts of its religious tolerance and pluralism?" he said in his letter. "Sadly, the answer is, yes."
The furor over the Brooklyn mosque led 150 Muslim families to hold a peaceful demonstration this summer calling for respect for their right to pray and teach Islamic values, which they say condemn terrorism and violence.
Building plans must be approved by the New York City Department of Buildings, which has not set a date for a hearing on final approval of the project.
But perhaps the most controversial plans lie near the heart of ground zero, the site of the Sept. 11 attack in Lower Manhattan.
The Cordoba Initiative plans to build a $100 million, 13-story mosque and Islamic cultural center just two blocks from the site. Despite protests from families affected by Sept. 11, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg supports the project, arguing that the mosque's construction is about religious freedom.
"If somebody wants to build a religious house of worship, they should do it and we shouldn't be in the business of picking which religions can and which religions can't," he said in an official statement in support of the plan. "I think it's fair to say if somebody was going to try to on that piece of property build a church or a synagogue, nobody would be yelling or screaming. And the fact of the matter is that Muslims have a right to do it, too."
Ms. Gellar said the issue is rooted in the location.
"It would be an insult, a stab in the eye, to build a megamosque," said Ms. Gellar. "It's a war memorial — it shouldn't be a mosque. Not that we shouldn't build mosques in New York, but a mosque at ground zero is offensive."
The Washington Times sent the Cordoba Initiative an e-mail request for an interview but received no answer.
Pollsters have also got into the furor.
The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute released a survey July 1 that showed that New York City voters opposed the ground zero plan 52 percent to 31 percent, with 17 percent undecided. According to 42 percent of voters, the mosque "is an insult to the memory and families of 9/11 victims."
Opposition polled higher than support in most demographic groups, including Democrats (45 percent to 37 percent), despite the findings that 56 percent of New Yorkers say they know a Muslim personally and more claim to have a favorable view of Islam than an unfavorable one (44 percent to 28 percent).
The poll of 1,183 New York City registered voters, conducted June 21-28, had an error margin of 2.9 percentage points.
It also found strong differences in the city's boroughs — 46 percent of Manhattanites support the project and 73 percent of Staten Islanders oppose it — suggesting that the mosque fights have become entangled.
"Liberal Manhattan accepts the mosque and trusts Islam. Staten Island, where there's controversy about another proposed mosque, is more skeptical," Maurice Carroll, the institute's director, said in his group's news release.
Though she was not speaking specifically about the Quinnipiac poll, Ms. Safah agreed with that theory.
"The unfortunate reality is that we're all being linked," she said. "We are all being backed into this corner with people saying, 'You're a Muslim — prove yourself.' It's unfortunate. It's impeding upon our rights as Americans to worship freely."
Plans for the Cordoba project must be approved by the New York City Landmark Commission, which will hold a public hearing Tuesday.
"The issue that is up for debate is whether the building has architectural, historic and cultural significance for New York," said Lisi de Bourbon, the communications director at the New York City Landmarks Commission. "It's strictly a matter of preserving the integrity of the building."
Ms. Safah said there would be no misunderstanding if people only took the time to get to know their Muslim neighbors.
"If these communities maintain an open mind, I think we'll more than get along fine and build great relationships," she said.
Ms. Moriello said that will not be enough.
"In the end, it's just us or them," she said. "The sense that 'we are all one and we are all working together' is just not a reality."
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