New York: clashes over Islamic centre near Ground Zero

Opponents say an Islamic and interfaith centre aimed at promoting tolerance will be a “monument to t

In New York on Tuesday night, a landmarks preservation panel heard heated arguments over the construction of a Islamic community centre near the former site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Opponents say constructing the centre close to Ground Zero is insensitive to those who lost family members on 9/11.

The centre will feature Islamic, interfaith and secular programmes and will house a gym, a swimming pool and a performing arts centre. It is being sponsored in part by the Cordoba Initiative, which seeks to improve relations between western and Muslim cultures.

One opponent at the meeting called the building a "monument to terrorism". Of course, not everyone in the US agrees with that individual, but it is clear that such an improvement in relations is sorely needed. Not only is the project very far from fulfilling this description, but opposing the building could even be seen as un-American.

First of all, the centre would be built two blocks away from Ground Zero, not on the site. Second, the centre is not a mosque, but a building meant to serve a broader community and promote tolerance, which would also happen include prayer space for Islamic members. I like my monuments to terrorism to have swimming pools for certain, or else I won't go to visit them.

A recent survey about the French burqa ban showed that, while Europeans tend to support the ban, Americans disagree with the idea, with only 28 per cent backing it. This might well be because Americans tend to place a very high value on personal freedom and the right to religious expression.

I would hope that, regardless of location, the planning commission will see that free enterprise and the American tradition of separating church and state trump the concerns of an intolerant few.

Agreeing with the construction will send the message that Americans do not believe all Muslims are terrorists. Calling the centre a "monument to terrorism" solely on the basis that it will include Muslim prayer rooms among its other facilities might, at the very least, give off this impression.

The New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio called for a delay in the process so that the funding could be investigated.

Wait. We're talking about America, right? Is the US government going to spend taxpayers' dollars looking into every religious centre committing the crime of calling for better relations?

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.