Fear and loathing in Manhattan

Opponents of the so-called Ground Zero mosque are giving the perpetrators of the 11 September attack

Vanessa Lang Langer was pregnant and working as an office manager on the 93rd floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the building at 9.03am on 11 September 2001. "She was wearing a black skirt that she had bought at Banana Republic and a black blouse," her mother, Donna Marsh O'Connor, says, her voice breaking. Vanessa's body was found "whole and intact" by rescue workers a fortnight later, "still holding the foetus that would never be born".

Nine years on, O'Connor is one of the most vocal supporters of the proposed Park51 Islamic community centre in lower Manhattan, near the World Trade Center site - denounced by its opponents as the "Ground Zero mosque". Her decision to speak out has undermined those politicians and pundits who have claimed that the families of the victims of the 11 September attacks are united in their hurt and anger over the centre's "sensitive" location and are collectively opposed to the development. What is most important to O'Connor, however, is not the memory of the attacks, but the preservation of American ideals.

“I'm an American. That's what I thought being an American meant - the right to religious freedom," she tells me. "Those terrorists were criminals with a criminal agenda and so I'm not going to hold Muslims as a whole accountable for their actions. How could I? I wouldn't want to be held responsible for Israel's hideous treatment of the Palestinians because I was born a Jew. And I wouldn't shun my German friends because of the Holocaust."

O'Connor believes that old-fashioned bigotry and racism against a minority are behind much of the opposition to the construction of Park51. "We cannot sit idly while we create a new generation of Muslim Americans who are not valued here," she says. "What we do now affects how Muslim Americans function in our society and going forward for generations."

It is difficult to dispute that the opposition has been characterised by a mixture of hysteria, misinformation and ignorance. "The monument would consist of a mosque for the ­worship of the terrorists' monkey-god and a 'cultural centre' to propagandise for the ex­termination of all things not approved by their cult," wrote Mark Williams, a spokesman for the right-wing Tea Party movement, on his blog. The former Republican vice-presidential candidate and darling of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, tweeted that moderate Muslims should "refudiate" the proposed "mosque" because it "stabs hearts". The talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, considered to be the country's most influential conservative broadcaster, compared the Park51 project to building a Hindu shrine at Pearl Harbor - before correcting himself to make it clear that he meant a Shinto shrine. Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives and, like Palin, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012, compared the Muslim backers of Park51 to Nazis.

Listening to such incendiary and Islamophobic rhetoric from across the Atlantic over the past few months, I could not help but think back to my own visit to Ground Zero in 2002, in the run-up to the first anniversary of the attacks. Flags and wreaths lined the streets around the 16-acre hole in the ground. One particular image stands out in my mind: a navy-blue T-shirt, emblazoned with the logo of the New York City Fire Department, on which a mourner had written: "We will never forget the brave firefighters who were killed by terrorists on September 11". Someone had crossed out the word "terrorists" and replaced it with "Muslims".

What Bin Laden wants

Two crucial points have been lost in the furore over the so-called Ground Zero mosque: it is not located at Ground Zero, nor is it a mosque.

In July 2009, Sharif el-Gamal, chief executive of Soho Properties, a real-estate company in downtown Manhattan, purchased - for $4.85m - a five-storey building on Park Place, two blocks to the north of the former World Trade Center site. The building had been home to the Burlington Coat Factory department store, but fell into disuse after being damaged by debris on 11 September 2001.

El-Gamal intended to convert the property into a high-end condominium complex, but instead was convinced by his close friend and mentor Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to build a 13-storey Islamic cultural and community centre, with a prayer space for the growing Muslim population of lower Manhattan.

Rauf, born in 1948 in Kuwait, moved to New York in the 1960s and has been an imam at the al-Farah Mosque in Manhattan, 12 blocks from Ground Zero, since 1983. He now stands accused of being a "radical" and "extremist", and of having links to Hamas. These are curious claims to make about a Sufi Muslim imam, who has advised the FBI since 2001 and toured the Middle East promoting the positive experiences of Muslims in America on behalf of the Bush and the Obama administrations. He is the author of a book entitled What's Right With Islam Is What's Right With America.

“I know Feisal Abdul Rauf," wrote Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic on 3 August. "He represents what Bin Laden fears most: a Muslim who believes that it is possible to remain true to the values of Islam and, at the same time, to be a loyal citizen of a western, non-Muslim country. Bin Laden wants a clash of civilisations; the opponents of the mosque project are giving him what he wants."

Rauf tells me he is not affected by the vitriol directed at him. "Now, more than ever, America needs to remember, and strive to achieve, the ideals on which it was founded," he says. "I look forward to continuing to be a part of that effort." The imam spent much of the summer on one of his bridge-building trips to the Middle East on behalf of the US state department, while he was being smeared back home. Did he have difficulty "selling" America to the Arabs? On the contrary, he says: "The Muslims I met on my travels were galvanised and fascinated by observing the free and open debate about such a sensitive issue. I enjoyed being able to explain to them that this debate exhibited the best attributes of both Islam and America - freedom of expression and the right to believe and worship as you wish."

Neither Rauf nor el-Gamal anticipated the level of backlash that their project has received. "What's happened has been unbelievable," el-Gamal tells me. "I have never seen anything like this before in my life." The son of a Muslim Egyptian-American father and a Catholic Polish-American mother, el-Gamal was born and brought up in Brooklyn and now lives and works in Manhattan. "[Park51] is an opportunity to give something back to New York," he says, reminding me that it is model­led on the Jewish-run cultural centre in Manhattan, 92nd Street Y. The ambitious, $100m project will house a 500-seat performing arts centre, culinary institute, gym, swimming pool, basketball court, restaurant and library, along with prayer spaces for Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. I have yet to come across a mosque like this anywhere in the world.

But still opposition to the project continues. Have the developers considered moving the location of the centre? "It's never crossed our minds," el-Gamal says. "In fact, in May and June, when the hate and bigotry against my religion was at its peak, I realised, 'Wow, we have to do this.'"

Rauf agrees. Park51, he says, "strives to encourage harmony, dialogue and respect among all people, regardless of race, faith, gender or cultural background, by cultivating good-neighbourly relations among all New Yorkers. It is important to promote Muslim-American identities, engaging New York's many and diverse Muslim communities. If future generations are to live in a safe and peaceful world, we must break the cycle of misunderstanding and mistrust that encourages extremism here and around the world."

According to the New York Times, "the firebrand-in-chief" opposing the Islamic centre is the blogger Pamela Geller, co-founder of Stop Islamisation of America. On 6 May, after a un­animous vote by a New York City community board approving the centre, Geller wrote a post on her Atlas Shrugs blog entitled: "Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction". Within days, she was appearing in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post tabloid and on his Fox News cable channel. The "Ground Zero mosque" narrative - or "mega-mosque", as Geller put it - went mainstream.

“It will be perceived in the Islamic world as a triumphal mosque celebrating the jihad victory of 9/11," she tells me. "This is so even if Imam Rauf's claims that it will be dedicated to interfaith harmony were true. There are thousands of triumphal mosques in the Islamic world, built over the sites of destroyed churches, synagogues and Hindu temples, or converted from churches, synagogues and Hindu temples."

Imam Rauf, Geller says, is a "stealth radical". "He is a proponent of sharia and calls for restrictions on freedom of speech in his book," she says. "I oppose sharia because it denies that freedom, along with the freedom of conscience and equality of rights for women." Geller claims she has "no problem with Islam as a religion", but she does seem to be obsessed with the "Islamic" heritage of Barack Obama, even suggesting that he is the illegitimate son of Malcolm X. "I do not believe Barack Obama is a secret Muslim," she tells me when challenged, "but I do believe that his socialist internationalism and familial ties to the Islamic world have led him to make concessions to the Islamic agenda that are harmful to the interests of the United States of America."

Geller is not easy to ignore. "People say don't give her too much credit, she's a fringe character," says Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "But she is a fringe character who every day is on CNN, Fox, in the Washington Post and the New York Times." He adds: "She is the driving force behind the ­Islamic centre campaign . . . I see her rise and the rise of these anti-Islam hate groups going hand in hand."

Polls show that a majority of Americans want el-Gamal and Rauf to move their Islamic centre. Less reported, however, is that most Manhattan residents back the project, as does a range of local politicians, including the Republican mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. In a speech on 3 August, Bloomberg wept as he reminded the crowd that Muslims were among those murdered in the 11 September attacks: "We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else."

The mayor's words had particular resonance for Talat Hamdani, who moved from Pakistan to New York with her 13-month-old son, Salman, in 1979. "He was my eldest, my first-born," she tells me. On 11 September 2001, 23-year-old Salman Hamdani, a trained paramedic and a member of the New York Police Department's cadet programme, was commuting from his home in Queens to his job as a research assistant at the Rockefeller University in Manhattan when he saw the twin towers in flames and headed downtown to help in the rescue effort. He never returned home.

“To discriminate against all of us Muslim Americans because a foreign terrorist group, al-Qaeda, attacked America, and to hold all the Muslims accountable for that attack, is just not right," Talat Hamdani says. "All of the people who were killed on 9/11, including my son Salman, were killed not because of their race, faith or ethnicity, but because they were Americans. And so the best way to honour their sacrifice is to uphold our own values of democracy, liberty and freedom and the freedom to practise our faith under the First Amendment [of the US constitution]."

Her voice shaking with rage, she says: "For them to ask me or the organisers behind Park51 to give up our rights because of foreign terrorists . . . we are not going to do that."

I ask her what she would say to the families of victims and Republican politicians such as Gingrich who have urged Imam Rauf to move his centre.
“Their feelings are legitimate, but we lost our children, too, and we deserve the same respect towards our feelings," she says. "As for Newt Gingrich, he did not lose a child on 9/11, nor does he live in New York. The politicians exploiting the tragedy are like vultures feeding on the bodies of all the people who died."

Opponents of the Park51 project have yet to answer an important question: if it is to be moved, as they demand, where should it be moved to? How many blocks away from Ground Zero would it become acceptable to build a mosque or Islamic centre? "Are we going to create an Islam-free zone in parts of America?" asks el-Gamal. He reminds me that there are already mosques dotted across Manhattan, including Masjid Manhattan, which is located four blocks from Ground Zero and was founded in 1970 - three years before the opening of the World Trade Center. Should this, too, be moved out of "respect"?

For Geller, Ground Zero and its environs, including the site of Park51, are "sacred ground"; others, including President Obama, have used the phrase "hallowed ground". Yet the New York Daily News has identified "17 pizza shops, 18 bank branches, 11 bars, ten shoe stores and 17 separate salons where a girl can get her lady parts groomed" within three blocks of the World Trade Center site. There is also a strip club called the Pussycat Lounge and a shop called Thunder Lingerie. "If it were 'sacred ground', I would rather have an Islamic cultural centre there than more businesses, especially strip clubs and nude bars," O'Connor says, adding: "Sacred ground exists in the hearts and minds of people who lost loved ones there."

Rallying point

But is the debate over Park51 truly motivated by sensitivities about the 11 September attacks and Ground Zero? Or is it a manifestation of a wider fear of "the Other", of a Muslim-American "bogeyman"? Geller denies the accusation: "I don't object to mosques as such . . . this is about 9/11."

Across the US, however, opposition to Muslims and to mosques is growing - even though Muslim Americans (who number between five and six million) make up less than 2 per cent of the population. In recent months, there have been angry protests outside planned mosques in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Temecula, California. None of these cities is anywhere near Ground Zero.

Polls suggest that fewer Americans have a positive view of Islam today than in the wake of 11 September 2001. According to a Washington Post poll published on 9 September, just 37 per cent of the US public has a favourable opinion of Islam. More than a quarter of respondents - 26 per cent - said they had "at least some feelings of prejudice against Muslims". In a poll for Time magazine in August, nearly a third of those surveyed said adherents of Islam should be barred from running for president, and one in four mistakenly identified Obama as a Muslim. The accompanying feature was entitled: "Does America have a Muslim problem?"

“This is the worst it has ever been," says Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core and a member of Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships. "My mother, who has been living in America for the past 35 years, called me a few weeks ago and said: 'I think your kids' names sound too Muslim and I'm worried about their safety in school.' Here is a woman," Patel says, "who has lived in the US through the Iranian Revolution, the attack on the US marine barracks in Beirut, both Gulf wars and 9/11. She doesn't wear a headscarf and has never been afraid of being Muslim before - but now she feels the hate in the air."

Dalia Mogahed, director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies, believes that this hate "isn't just a few loud voices. It has spread into the mainstream." Mogahed was born in Egypt and moved to the US at the age of four; like ­Patel, she has advised Obama on Islamic affairs. "My own reaction is one of shock," she tells me. "This is not what I expect from America. This is not the country my parents immigrated to, nor the country I grew up in."

Mogahed says the rhetoric now is worse than it was after the attacks in 2001. "Back then, President Bush made a very concerted approach to calm people down, especially on the right, saying we weren't at war with Islam. When you look at the polls, you find that ­public perceptions of Islam actually improved after 9/11."

So why are things so much worse for Muslim Americans now, nine years on? "Islam has become a target; a convenient method for ­rallying people on the right and ­getting attention," Mogahed says. "A lot of these Republican politicians who have come out against the centre are considering a run for president in 2012. This is the beginning of that campaign."

Patel, who describes the "Ground Zero mosque" row as the deliberate detonation of a "fear bomb", says that supporters of the Park51 project are engaged in a struggle for the soul of America. "Is Ground Zero sacred? Every inch of the United States is sacred ground because this country is based on a fundamental principle that any group of any faith or ethnicity can establish their own institutions."

Most Muslim Americans I spoke to were ­surprisingly optimistic about their community's long-term future despite the "Ground Zero mosque" controversy. "This is the summer that Muslims became truly American in the cultural and civic sense," Patel says. "You didn't hear Muslims trotting out an Islamic narrative in ­response to the right-wing provocations, you heard an American narrative. Muslim Americans pointed out that Jews and Mormons were targeted in the past and now it's their turn. They put themselves in the broader arc of American history rather than 'Muslimising' the incident and complaining that Muslims are ­oppressed by the west all over the world. Just as other American minorities overcame intolerance, fear and hatred, Muslims will, too."

Talat Hamdani agrees. "This is how we will get accepted," she says. "It's our initiation ceremony into America." Even Sharif el-Gamal, the Park51 developer, takes a similar line: "This is an opportunity for me as an American, forget my religion, to do the right thing."

Opponents of the centre have worked hard to co-opt various Muslims into denouncing or distancing themselves from Park51. The Lebanese-born, New York-raised, current Miss USA, Rima Fakih, one of the most high-profile Muslim Americans, has said the centre should be moved: "We should be more concerned with the tragedy than religion."

Patel disagrees. "We should welcome a national conversation. Because I have such deep faith that America will ultimately get this right." For him, "a bigotry unveiled is better than a bigotry concealed", and he points to the lessons learned from the civil rights movement in the 1960s when black activists stood up to white racists. "I look at this and the first thing I think is of Rosa Parks when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus . . . I don't think it's an unfair comparison at all."

To invoke the civil rights struggle is a bold, if provocative, strategy - but one that could help to win the hearts and minds of the non-Muslim majority.
“This is not a Muslim issue; this is an American issue," Patel says. "Is America going to live up to its promise? This is one of the struggles of my generation - not just of my generation of Muslim Americans, but of my generation of Americans, period."

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman.

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.