By Aylin Yazan
New York. In the last months the discussion around Islam in the U.S. has become more heated as never before. The main reason for the new controversy is the now famous planned Islamic center, close to once World Trade Center in New York, which was hit in 2001 by the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 and is now known under the name of Ground Zero.
The construction of the Islamic center – called Park 51 – still has a long way to go but the project already became a symbol for the undefined borders of America’s freedom of religion. At the same time, even though not built yet, it also became a concrete place where some Americans feel they would have to go through the trauma of “9/11” again. In some minds, the limit of religious freedom, which is secured by law in the United States, has been crossed over because of the tragic attacks carried out by radical elements of one religion.
Park 51 should serve as a platform for interfaith dialogue. As the directors of the project explained, its aim is to promote peace, tolerance and understanding between the communities at a local level in New York City, but also nationally and globally.
But are the city and the country ready for such an initiative?
According to public polls, more than half of the Americans are opposed to the project. The opponents cannot face the construction of an Islamic center just two blocks away from Ground Zero.
“I am an American and I believe in our Constitution which secures the freedom of religion. That is what our country is built on. And I support the right the Muslims to build an Islamic center in the United States”, says a black American woman who had come to see the building out of curiosity. “However because the mosque will be very close to the place where 9/11 happened, I am also very emphatic towards the families and people who lost their loved ones. So I am really torn apart. Can they not find another spot to build it? I think they could”.
The answer is a typical reaction that is often given by New Yorkers. The sentence begin reminding the freedom of religion and end up with with an emphasized “but”.
The sensitivity of the inhabitants of the “Big Apple” can be quite understandable though. Most of them witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers, one of the most prominent symbols of the city, some lost relatives and friends. As the construction on Ground Zero goes on, New Yorkers still live with the sad memory of the terrorist attacks.
However in some cases, the opposition is not limited to that specific center and takes Islam as a general target. Protests against the Islamic Center often reveal to be gatherings denouncing Islam. Some Americans do indeed find it difficult to differentiate between the perpetrators of 9/11 and the rest of the Muslims.
“There were Muslims dancing in the streets of Brooklyn when September 11 happened and that makes me nervous”. An American Christian of Lebanese origin, who attends the protest against the Islamic Center, declares being disturbed about the project because of the possibility for radical Muslims to go to there. “Who are these people who want to come to the mosque? Are they going to be the people who danced on the streets? It really scares me.”
Like many other participants to the protest, she finds that such a project lacks of sensitivity. “I have friends who died on September 11. I just feel like it is a very hostile project. And it is insulting to build a mosque near Ground Zero where three thousand people have perished in the hands of radical Muslims. It is just too close, too close to home”.
But where is “home” and what distance can be far enough? Or to turn it the other way round like the Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg once asked: “How big should the ‘no-mosque area’ around the World Trade Center be?”
This question is used by Americans supporting the project. Matt Sky, who started a campaign to support Park 51, declared: “How many miles away from Ground Zero is the first amendment kicking again? How many miles away can freedom of religion start to work?”. Sky spends most of his time in front of the building with a sign saying: “Support freedom of religion”. For him, claiming that Muslims do not have the right to build a mosque close to Ground Zero is ridiculous and he names such reaction “bigotry in its worst form”.
Another issue for the defenders of Park 51 is the presence of thousands of Muslims in New York and the fact that Islam has become part of the city’s life. For them, Muslims can be found in all fields in the city: Teachers, taxi drivers, real estate brokers, economists, etc. And many of them do eventually or regularly pass by Ground Zero.
A New Yorker, who presents himself as a Jew and supports Park 51, points out: “There are halal food sellers everywhere and nobody seems to raise objections. There are long queues at lunch time there. Islam, the Arabs… the whole issue has its place in New York!”.
As time passes, the controversy gets bigger in the United States. Anti-mosque protests have started to take place in other States. An extremist church in Florida went for instance as far as to announce a “burn a Quran day”: The self-appointed pastor of a small religious community, Terry Jones, wants to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
As November’s midterm elections for Congress are getting close, the issue became a political matter and is exploited mainly by some Conservatives, as some usually supporting moderation because of the fear to lose populist votes.
In such an environment, America may currently be facing one of its most serious test towards Islam.
Editor’s Note: The persons quoted in the article were asked in the street during a protest close to Ground Zero, which took place on August 22nd 2010.