Jonathan Chait

The Islamic Center Near Ground Zero, Take 2

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[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]

The New York Times has a long report today on what the paper calls the "new, quiet effort" to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero. The piece can be read from a number of angles, or with varying degrees of optimism. Yes, the project is moving forward. But:

[The project's developers] have also embraced what they call a slower, more deliberate and more realistic approach to the project, acknowledging it will take years of hard work to determine what kind of facilities Muslim and non-Muslim visitors want and need, to raise money, and to build public support. That means it could be five years before they even try to begin any physical transformation of the property, now a bare-bones building that once housed a Burlington Coat Factory store. And the Muslim center might never become the 15-story, $100 million edifice that the developers had once envisioned, and that some opponents had labeled a “megamosque.”

As nice as it is that Sharif El-Gamal, the main developer, is working toward his goal, the "sensitivity" that he is now forced to show to the project's opponents, and to the city more generally, are wince-making.

He has severed ties with the project’s original imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf. He has crisscrossed the country to attract donors, built relationships with neighborhood groups and Muslim organizations and recruited the aunt of a 9/11 victim to his advisory board--all things he says he should have done before going public last year.

The problem here is that El-Gamal is at least partially acquiescing to the absurd idea that the 9/11 families should have some say in whether an Islamic center is built near Ground Zero. And there is more:

He said the ultimate form of the center, called Park51, and its building would be determined after consultation with two main audiences, residents of Lower Manhattan and Muslims who live in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Mr. El-Gamal also said he would assess the community response to the events now held at Park51’s makeshift space, varying from art exhibits and yoga and Brazilian martial arts classes to Muslim holiday observances and a discussion for Muslim and non-Muslim children about bullying. “If the community only wants four or five floors, it’s going to be four or five floors,” Mr. El-Gamal said.

Again, there is nothing precisely wrong with this, but it does give the impression that El-Gamal has to tiptoe around everyone's sensitivities. And of course there are the center's longtime opponents:

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 this fall poses a new challenge for the center. Pamela Geller, a blogger who drove much of the opposition, has called for a protest on Sept. 11 near Park51; her Web site promotes a film, “The Ground Zero Mosque: Second Wave of the 911 Attacks.” The language employed by Ms. Geller and Robert Spencer, another blogger who writes about threats from Islam, is under new scrutiny after their views were cited by Anders Behring Breivik, who confessed to killing scores of people in Norway on July 22 because of his fears of a Muslim takeover; Ms. Geller and Mr. Spencer have denied any responsibility for Mr. Breivik’s actions.They are not the only opponents. In the campaign for a special election to fill an open House seat serving Brooklyn and Queens, the Republican nominee, Bob Turner, is accusing his Democratic opponent, David I. Weprin, of being insufficiently hostile to the Muslim center.

The completion of this center, if it ever occurs, will be a victory for tolerance and decency. In the interim, we can be assured of more ugliness from some of the development's opponents. 

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