BY Aline Reynolds
Muslim-American Rudy Ramadan was a first responder during the 9/11 attacks. She helped create triage centers and makeshift pharmacies on site and was almost killed by the falling debris as she tried to save lives.
“Nothing else mattered—size, shape, creed, or race,” she recalls. “Everyone dropped what they were doing to help.”
Ramadan is representative of an American-Muslim population that was just as terrorized by 9/11 as other Americans. Some who find it insensitive to construct an Islamic prayer center so close to Ground Zero overlook this fact.
Hundreds of people, many of whom do not live in Lower Manhattan, have been protesting the construction of the Cordoba House, a Downtown community center that will include a prayer space whose groundbreaking is likely to occur in the next 18 months. Many of them are affiliated with Stop Islamization of America, a group that associates the Muslim faith with the perpetrators of 9/11.
The center, planned for construction at the site of the former Burlington Coat Factory building at 45 Park Place, will occupy 13 stories, totaling around 10,000 square feet. It will include a swimming pool, a restaurant, a library and a room for prayer. It will also include a 500-seat auditorium for theater, film and lectures.
But the Cordoba House’s planned prayer space has led to the entire project being called a “mosque” and has been the center of heated contention for two months.
“This is an insult, this is demeaning, this is humiliating that you would build a shrine to the very ideology that inspired the attacks of 9/11,” said Pamela Geller, executive director of Stop Islamization of America, at Community Board 1’s May 25 full-board meeting.
The protestors have recently infiltrated Downtown Manhattan. Upwards of 250 people flocked to the May 25 full-board meeting to voice their complaints about the “mosque.” On June 6, D-Day, around 300 people gathered at Zuccotti Park, a private plaza across from the World Trade Center, carrying signs that expressed their fury.
“Building a mosque near Ground Zero is like building a memorial to Hitler at Auschwitz,” one protestor’s sign read. A group of men with Vietnam veteran hats carried a banner that read, “All I need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.”
Another S.I.O.A. demonstration is slated for September 12, a day after the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
But it is becoming clear that most of the opponents of the project do not reside or even work in Lower Manhattan.
Downtown Muslim residents say their neighbors have not mistreated them just because they are Muslim, nor are they acquainted with any of the folks from the opposition.
“I don’t feel discriminated against—it’s a wonderful community that has welcomed us in,” said Lena Alhusseini, a Muslim immigrant from Jerusalem who has lived in Battery Park City for four years.
Muslim-Americans argue that there are blatant fallacies to S.I.O.A.’s claims. First, there is no plan to build a mosque: it’s a community center, said Rauf, just like the 92nd Street YMCA. Rauf is also the founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (a.k.a. the “ASMA” Society).
Second, suicide attacks against Western establishments are nowhere to be found in the Muslim religious doctrine. And only a small fraction of the approximately 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide are considered extremists.
“Our faith is very clear – you can’t take the law into your own hands,” said Rauf. “It’s the Islamic rule of law that these people are violating.” The world’s prominent Muslim leaders, he added, do not tolerate suicide.
“The very small percentage of extremists are not Muslim, as far as we’re concerned,” said Sharif El-Gamal, CEO of SoHo Properties, owner of the vacant building at 45 Park Place. “They’re terrorists—they exist in all religions, and they’re typically a minority that gives the majority a bad name.”
S.I.O.A. associates the core principles of the Muslim faith with the extremists that form terrorist networks like al-Qaeda. They say that the Koran preaches hate and violence and inspires jihadists to inflict terror on Westerners. “To pray next to that [Ground Zero] is repugnance to any decent American and to any Muslim of conscience…,” Geller said in a recent CNN interview. “We’re asking that they be sensitive, tolerant and responsive to this overwhelming dissent to this mosque.”
No one has made a fuss about the neighborhood’s actual mosques, the Cordoba Initiative points out.
“There is an actual mosque two blocks further, and another ten blocks away, which has existed with no debate for years,” according to the organization’s Facebook page.
Yet S.I.O.A. plans on taking legal action against the city and even Capitol Hill. “The Burlington building must be a war memorial, an historic landmark,” Geller wrote in a recent blog post. “We will sue to make that happen.”
But the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission does not rule on use of buildings. Were it to be landmarked as a war memorial, Cordoba House could still move into it, so long as they don’t alter its façade. The Commission looked at the building in the late 1980s and chose not to landmark the site.
The building is an as-of-right project, which means that it complies with all zoning regulations and does not require review or approval from the City Planning Commission or the district’s community board. Rauf nevertheless presented the Cordoba House plan to the Financial District Committee meeting in May.
The C.B. 1 committee voted unanimously in support of the Community Center, and the full-board voted 29 in favor, 1 opposed, and 10 abstentions. Ro Sheffe, chair of the Financial District Committee, reported that there was no opposition from local community members that attended the meeting.
Contrary to the opponents’ slogans, the Cordoba House community center seeks to provide a forum that fosters tolerance and intercultural solidarity.
“[Cordoba’s] mission is to create an interfaith dialogue,” said Rauf, “for everyone in the community.”
The Muslim youths that come to pray will be taught the moderate, altruistic principles of the Koran that preaches against evil.
“Our young people can come in and channel their energies in building something, rather than trying to be heroes for a wrong cause,” Rauf said.
A Downtown cultural center is very much a necessity, said Scheffe. In the Financial District alone, the population growth is expected to grow at a rate of 240 percent (27,829) by 2013, compared to the 2000 census figure (8,192), accounting for nearly 70 percent of the neighborhood’s overall population growth between 2000 and 2013. Community Board 1 prepared the report in 2008.
“[The center] is something that the community East of Broadway very much needs,” said Sheffe.
Additional prayer space is needed as well. Ameena Meer, a Muslim-American who lives in Tribeca, noted that the nearby mosques that she and her families attend are packed to the brim. Last Friday, she said, there were long lines out the door of the Islamic prayer center at 51 Park Place. The Masjid Al Farah mosque on West Broadway is just as crowded, she reported.
“Generally, people who have a degree of racism tend to be people that don’t live in the neighborhood and who I don’t know well,” said Meer.
When crossing Canal Street shortly after the 9/11 attacks, she was spat on by tourists.
“The policeman were right there—they just stood and watched,” she said. “It made me understand what it was like to be in America during the Civil Rights Movement.”
As the word spreads and misconceptions are put to rest, elected officials like Senator Daniel Squadron and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver hope to see the opposition to the Cordoba House diminish. Weeks before the June 6 protest, elected officials held a press conference in front of the proposed site to announce their support for Cordoba.
And perhaps the message is getting across. The most recent protest, which took place last Friday, had a turnout of fewer than ten people.
“The project’s mission, which is to enhance community relations, has become clearly understood,” said Rauf.
But, as far as some Muslim-Americans are concerned, the emotional damage is already done.