To N.Y. Muslims, Islamic center near Ground Zero would be more than a mosque

By Krissah Thompson and Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; A03

This is what the controversial Islamic community center and mosque being planned in Lower Manhattan means to Ehab Zahriyeh: not having to play basketball in church leagues.

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For Fatima Monkush, it would be a place to swim -- sans cap and layers of clothing -- with other Muslim women.

While the national debate about the center has elicited passionate statements for and against it from Democrats and Republicans, what Muslims have been left with is a great deal of disappointment. And for the young American-born New Yorkers who hope to use the site as a fitness center, meeting space and prayer hall, among other functions, the sense of rejection is personal.

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"The debate is maybe the most unfortunate thing we've seen in a long time, to see Americans behave in such a manner," said Zahriyeh, 24, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. His parents are Palestinian Americans who immigrated to the city more than three decades ago.

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He said the center has arisen from nothing more than the needs of his burgeoning community. "It's only natural that something like this should happen," he said. "Our community has grown over the last few decades."

For many Muslims outside New York, the center has become a symbol and the debate about it an affront, reflective of a lack of acceptance that they feel is growing in parts of the United States.

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"We are at a cusp," said Haris Tarin, director of the Washington office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "The thing that has personally affected me the most is that the individuals who call this an act of insensitivity forget that Muslim Americans were victims on 9/11 also. Our country was attacked. Our neighbors were attacked. . . . Our faith was hijacked on that day."

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, described the debate as a nadir in "Islamophobic rhetoric."

"We're seeing it nationwide," he said. "You literally cannot turn on a radio today without hearing a right-wing radio talk show host slamming Islam in the most corrosive of terms."

Open to all

The project's organizers have said that the center, called Park51, is modeled on Manhattan's 92nd Street Y, a community center open to all New Yorkers. Park51 is also intended to be open to the entire community, though there will be some restrictions based on Muslim traditions.

It would house meeting rooms, a fitness center, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a restaurant and culinary school, a library, a 500-seat auditorium, a Sept. 11 memorial, a reflection space, and a mosque that could attract as many as 2,000 worshipers on Fridays. There is no place like it in the city, which is home to 600,000 to 700,000 Muslims, according to Columbia University researchers.

There are an estimated 2.5 million Muslims in the United States, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

"Everybody's just excited for the space," said Monkush, 27, who grew up in Hartford and moved to New York recently to pursue a career in fashion. Her American mother and Bengali father worried about her safety when she told them that she planned to go to the Park51 site to pray during Ramadan last week, but she saw no protesters.

"It's very depressing to see your fellow Americans turning on you," she said.

The space has been used for prayer since last year, and Zahriyeh has prayed there half a dozen times. The building used to house a Burlington Coat Factory, but the store closed after Sept. 11, 2001, when it was damaged by the landing gear of one of the planes used in the attacks on the World Trade Center, two blocks away.

The proximity of the proposed community center to the site of the terrorist attacks may be fueling the debate, but Muslims who support Park51 say they are not impinging on Ground Zero. There are at least two other mosques in the neighborhood: Masjid al-Farah, where one of Park51's organizers, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, served as prayer leader until 2009, sits 12 blocks from Ground Zero, and Masjid Manhattan, which was founded in 1970, is four blocks away.

"There's nothing on that block," Monkush said. "The place is so deserted, honestly, you can't even see anything from there -- Ground Zero, you can't see it."

Kareem Elaktaa, 23, a friend of Zahriyeh's who has also prayed at Park51, wondered how far away it would need to be to not hit a nerve. "You know you are in the vicinity of where the World Trade Center formerly was, [but] you can't see the Ground Zero area," he said. "I don't see that as a valid argument."

At this point, they think that even if the center is moved to a different site, the controversy will continue.

Building support

Park51's developer, Sharif el-Gamal, was not available for an interview, but a spokesman for the project said it would occupy 97,000 square feet, with an indeterminate number of stories. No architect has been selected, and the planners are intending to hold a "world-class design competition."

Rauf, el-Gamal and Rauf's wife, Daisy Khan, have recently begun to hold meetings at the site with other community groups to try to solidify support. Megan Putney, program director for the Muslim Consultative Network, which advises Muslim groups, has attended some of those meetings and wants to see the project go forward.

"People have been asking, 'Where are the Muslims who are showing the outward detest for 9/11?' " Putney said. "We are here. We abhor what happened on September 11th."

Zahriyeh, a video journalist, said that in his prayers at Park51, he has been "claiming the space" as his own.

"Muslims in New York City really want this now more than before," he said. "It's not a comfortable feeling knowing that a few Americans are rallying thousands, possibly millions, to be fearful of a community center, to be fearful of people who just want to fit into this nation."

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