No Space for American Islam?

Yesterday, on a warm afternoon at Governor’s Island, the richest man in New York cried. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, usually stoic, showed rare emotion in a stirring defense of Park51, the proposed Islamic community center, formerly called Cordoba House, slated to rise in downtown Manhattan. Earlier in the day, a city agency gave the final approval for the project. Bloomberg finished with a full-throated endorsement:

Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure—and there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us today can attest.

These controversies revolve around religious freedom; the right for the center to be built. Last week, the Anti-Defamation League, a prominent Jewish organization devoted to counteracting bigotry, released a surprising statement against the center. It joined a host of conservatives who have politicized the project, heaving it into a national “debate” splashed across A1 of the Times.

While the debate has focused on the center’s location, the opposition is driven by a deeper, reflexive antagonism. They stand against what proponents of the center are setting out to create: a space for American Islam.

Park51 is a proposal, unprecedented in its scope, for an Islamic center turned outward. Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), was involved in its inception through the Cordoba Initiative. She describes it as a hub for Islam’s next step into the national religious fabric. (Khan sits on the Advisory Council of Religion Dispatches.) “For the Muslim religion to truly evolve, to be truly seen as an American religion,” she said, “it has to evolve from a pure place of worship to one that serves the wider public.” It is modeled after the public spaces of the other Abrahamic faiths: the YMCA and the Jewish Community Center.

Opponents did score a minor coup by managing to frame the center as a “mosque.”

Beckoned by local supporters, the Cordoba staff brought their idea for the center to the local Community Board in May for a closed meeting. Board members, Khan told me, were elated at the proposal, and later approved its passage easily. “Then the next morning,” she said, “we saw the press headline: ‘13-story Mosque.’” She added, “We were a little shocked.”

After receiving a groundswell of interfaith support in the city, the Cordoba Initiative was ill prepared for the onslaught of opposition. Appeals to reason have not worked. “We repeatedly say we are neither a mosque nor within Ground Zero,” Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the Cordoba Initiative, told Reuters, “but they just shout back ‘Ground Zero mosque,’ ‘Ground Zero mosque.’”

In December, the New York Times ran a small story on the prayer space downtown and its plans to transition into a larger Muslim center. Alarm spread quickly with many conservatives, as Zachary Roth reported in May, “driven to apoplexy” by the proposal. Beginning in the blogosphere, enmity quickly trickled upward, eventually reaching public figures and candidates eager to exploit a divisive wedge issue.

It catapulted onto the national stage when Sarah Palin weighed in, lambasting the proposal on her Twitter feed. New York’s Republican candidates for governor, Rick Lazio and Carl Paladino, are competing for who is most egregiously against the center. Far behind in the polls, Lazio recently challenged his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo, to a debate focused solely on what he once dubbed the “trophy Mosque.”

Shortly after Palin’s statements, Newt Gingrich, considered by many an exemplar of intellectual conservatism, came out against the center. He expounded on his statements in a later speech, warning of “radical Islamists… in their stealth form.” Adam Serwer dissected his remarks:

The key concept here is the “stealth Islamist,” which is as vague and unshakeable a label as “communist” in the 1950s. A terrorist can be proved a terrorist by his actions, but by Gingrich’s definition, a “stealth Islamist” could be any observant Muslim who engages in religiously-based political advocacy, no matter how benign.

Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican, has called for a probe into the center’s funding. It’s a tactic that many opponents have used, with varying degrees of intensity.

In mid-July, the city’s Landmark Preservation Committee held a public hearing to consider the building that Park51 would replace. Opponents hoped to grant it landmark status to deter the center’s construction. They rose to speak against the center, citing the lingering pain of 9/11. But several also raised a series of charges aimed at Imam Feisal and the Cordoba Initiative. They cast the Imam, with rampant speculation, as a shadowy leader with insidious motives and relationships. One man held a sign addressed to Bloomberg: “Don’t you know the Mosque has radical ties?”

A woman at the hearing railed against a Cordoba Initiative project called the “Sharia Index.” During her statements, an advisor to Imam Feisal explained the project to me. Modeled after the UN Index, it was intended as a comprehensive measurement of quality of life standards in Muslim countries. It was, he noted, devoted to “reforming the Muslim world.” The woman’s claims, he asserted, were driven by a baser impulse. “This is Islamophobia,” he said.

Despite accusations, those shaping Park51 clearly distance themselves from fanaticism. Sharif el-Gamal, a congregant of Imam Feisal, is developing the property through his private company, Soho Properties. “Radical and hateful agendas,” he told Beliefnet, “will have no place in our community center or in the mosque.” Khan concurred. The center “will be a counter-monument to extremist ideologies,” she said.

Ultimately, the construction of Park51 is a local issue. It is left to the Community Board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission. A poll taken last month showed a slim majority (52%) of New Yorkers opposed the project. But results varied widely by borough, with more respondents in Manhattan voicing approval.

While Park51 is a local project, intended to serve the surrounding population, it has a national scope. “It will be,” Khan said of the center, “an American expression of Islam.” She envisions its structure, with its interfaith leadership and engagement, as replicable across the country. Yet as Hussein Rashid smartly pointed out, casting a unified portrait of Islam in the United States is a thorny task.

But Khan recognized these complexities, insisting that American Islam should not be treated as a monolith. In her vision, the center will be less a final product, than a process—an ongoing effort to hold the “difficult conversations” that shape American faith.

Thrust into the center of a heated debate, supporters of Park51 are coping by placing their efforts in historical context. Every major religion has moved through virulent birth pangs before settling into mainstream acceptance. Khan shared a story about a Catholic priest who spoke on behalf of the center. When St. Patrick’s Church was first built on Fifth Avenue, he reminded the audience, it came with a surrounding fence. Locals had threatened to burn the parish down. It is now a national landmark.

At the public hearing in July, speakers against the center repeated the same axiom: Go build a mosque anywhere you please—just not there. But the recent, incessant opposition to Muslim houses of worship proves this is simply not about its location. A group in rural California is working fervently to halt construction of a new mosque in their changing community. In Staten Island, a short ferry ride from Ground Zero, a Catholic church prepared to sell its unused convent space to a group planning a new mosque. Protests erupted, and the church’s board voted to retract the offer. “We just want to leave our neighborhood the way it is,” one resident told a local news correspondent, “Christian, Catholic.”

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Mark Bergen once studied religion as a Lilly Scholar at the Claremont School of Theology. He now coordinates publicity and outreach for Killing the Buddha. He lives in Brooklyn.