The proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York City sparked a nationwide debate this the summer concerning Islam and freedom of religion.
According to the New York Times, the proposed site in Lower Manhattan, also known as Park51, is located two blocks from the former World Trade Center site.
In the Times Topic on Park51, it is noted that the project’s first public presentation occurred May 5 (days after Faisal Shahzad’s failed Times Square car bomb attempt) in front of Lower Manhattan’s Community Board. On May 6, the “uproar began.”
After having gained approval from New York City’s zoning board, the project cleared its last legal hurdle on Aug. 3 in front of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, according to the New York Times.
A New York Times poll conducted late August found that 50 percent of New York City residents do not approve of the community center and 67 percent think the project should not be near Ground Zero.
The Knox campus houses arguments on both sides of the issue. Robert Seibert, ‘63, Knox political science professor, specializes in comparative politics and the Middle East.
“There isn’t any real factual basis for the furor that has emerged about this,” Seibert said after having noted that the center is two blocks away from Ground Zero. “[The furor] has revealed deep-seeded Islamophobic, xenophobic, bigoted kinds of groups and individuals in our society.”
Seibert commented on the tendency of “cherry-picking” in order to criticize a religion or selecting scriptural passages that may not be central to that religion and using them to slander it.
“There’s nothing quite as dangerous as an ignoramus reading of someone else’s religious text,” Seibert said.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, one of the two men spearheading the project, is a self-proclaimed peacemaker, according to the New York Times. He intends the community center to heal the wounds between America and Middle Eastern Muslims.
However, political science professor Sue Hulett questioned Rauf’s motives.
“This is not just an issue of free exercise of religion…the issue here is one of, I would argue, insensitivity on the part of the supporters putting a mosque center, an Islamic center, so close to Ground Zero,” Hulett said. “Perhaps it was even to stir up this debate in the U.S. that would then reach to the global audience.”
Hulett further explained that while, legally, the project was approved, Americans must consider whether the community center “ought” to be placed near Ground Zero.
“Please remember…New York said, ‘Yes, you can have a permit to build there.’ The conversation is whether it ought to be there, whether that’s the most sensitive and helpful way to heal relations between Muslims and Americans,” said Hulett. “Supposedly, the imam said that was one of his objectives. Is this the way to heal? To tear open a wound?”
Sophomore Hatim Mustaly, co-president of the Islamic Club, took a dual-edged stance on the proposed Islamic community center.
“I think it would not be right for them not to build the mosque,” Mustaly said. “As Muslims, we know that it’s a sensitive issue and we’ve been blamed for it. But why would you do something that is going to create more tension? We should make responsible decisions.”
Mustaly also acknowledged the merit of Imam Rauf’s motives.
“Bear with us [Muslims], try to understand us,” Mustaly said. “Park51 is not just a mosque; it has swimming pools, gyms. It’s a cultural center. As an American citizen, you will get something out of [the community center], too.”
Sophomore Rana Tahir, the other Islamic Club co-president, tries to promote understanding of Islam’s background and of the fact that few Muslims are sympathetic to Osama bin Laden.
“People are wondering why all of these educated Muslims who have been living abroad are going to Yemen and Afghanistan to be recruited,” Tahir said. “Frankly, they’re sick of the environment here. For some people, when you feel backed into a corner…feel like the only thing they can do is join the Taliban….They’re the ones policy is based on, and we have to suffer for that. My opinions are discounted because I’m a Muslim.”
In giving the issue a historical perspective, Tahir evoked a comparison between bin Laden and Joan of Arc.
“If you think about it, based on our calendar, Islam is in the year 1430. Think of the 1400s. Joan of Arc was going on her little crusade all over the world. She is now considered a Christian saint,” said Tahir. “The problem with bin Laden is that he is implanted in this time period where what he is does not coincide with the view of the rest of the world.”
In appealing to the Knox community, Seibert said, “This is not the first time that Islam has been in play and it’s probably not going to be the last time. We need to stand up against this kind of thing, and if we don’t, who knows where it’s going to go? Quran burnings, cross burnings, torah burnings. We don’t need to go there.”