IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Imam blames politics for mosque dispute

Election-year politics are interfering with the plan to build an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Muslim cleric leading the project said in comments published on Monday.
Image: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in Abu Dhabi
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, executive director of the Park51 project — formerly known as Cordoba House — poses at a hotel in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.Leo Hoagland / The National via Reuters
/ Source: news services

Election-year politics are interfering with the plan to build an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Muslim cleric leading the project said in comments published on Monday.

"There is no doubt that the election season has had a major impact upon the nature of the discourse," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper. "The question becomes which discourse will dominate, not only in the short term but in the long term."

Jewish and Christian leaders have also come out in favor of the plans and in support of interfaith discourse, Abdul Rauf said. "However, there are also those very small, loud and vociferous voices who are beating the drum for the opposite kind of discourse."

The proposed center in lower Manhattan has generated fierce opposition from conservative politicians and people who see the project as an offence to the approximately 2,750 people killed when Islamist militant suicide hijackers from al-Qaida slammed planes into the Twin Towers.

Many conservative candidates and political figures have aligned themselves with the opposition to the $100 million Park51 project — until recently known as Cordoba House that includes a mosque and Islamic cultural center.

Some Republicans running for midterm elections around the United States have used the project as a campaign issue after national conservatives Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin announced their opposition. Kevin Calvey, a Republican running for Congress in Oklahoma, said the Muslim leaders associated with the mosque "are clearly terrorist sympathizers."

Controversy grew earlier this month when the State Department confirmed it was financing Kuwait-born Abdul Rauf, a Sufi Muslim scholar, to travel the Middle East for a U.S.-backed educational and cultural program, calling him a "distinguished cleric."

Enshrined in the Constitution
While Abdul Rauf has been relatively quiet on the project on the tour, during which he spoke about religious radicalism, he told the newspaper that he was confident the center would be built because freedom of religion was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

"America was created by people who fled Europe seeking religious freedom and religious liberty. So it is an essential part of the American worldview and creed, that religious liberty is a fundamental protected right," he told the Abu Dhabi newspaper.

This fact is something that many in the Muslim world do not sufficiently appreciate about the United States, Abdul Rauf told the paper.

"I'd like to see them understand that better, recognize that better. And recognize that in that is a value which lies at the very core of the Quranic value," Rauf told the paper.

Strong voices in support of the project have emerged from outside the Muslim community. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been steadfast in his support for Park51, while TV talk show host Jon Stewart nightly mocks the opposition.

But Democrats are feeling the pressure to respond to the debate.

The highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is facing a tough re-election in Nevada, has said the mosque should be built farther away from Ground Zero.

President Barack Obama has said Muslims had the right to practice their religion and build the Islamic center in lower Manhattan. Obama later said he wasn't endorsing the specifics of the plan.

Rauf compared the current struggles facing American Muslims to past religious-based prejudices and attacks against other groups, including Jews and Roman Catholic immigrants.

"And this is why it is important, the issue of radicalism is a threat to all of us," he was quoted as saying. "We have radicals in the Muslim world and we have radicals in the other faith traditions as well."

The chairwoman of the community board that voted for the project said she believes adding an interfaith dimension would help unite people, saying a nondenominational chapel built at the Pentagon as part of a Sept. 11 memorial did just that.

Julie Menin, of Manhattan Community Board 1, reiterated Monday that she supports the project going up in the proposed location two blocks north of the World Trade Center site and that it contain a mosque as developers plan. But she suggested another section of the community center be turned into an interfaith, nondenominational area for people of all religious backgrounds.

"What it could do is it could really get to the heart of the matter of making this project one that brings people together," she said.

Community Board 1 had voted overwhelmingly in May to support the Islamic center.

Meanwhile, the city confirmed Monday that the developers owe $227,570 in back taxes on the building where the Park51 center is slated to open. A spokesman for the developers didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The incorporation papers name Sharif El-Gamal, his brother Sammy El-Gamal and Nour Mousa as directors. Their real estate investment firm, SoHo Properties Inc., owns the proposed development site through a limited partnership.

Also listed as a director is Feisal Abdul Rauf.