Mosque debate: New Yorkers take dim view of rabble-rousing outsiders

The controversy grows over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero as more politicians enter the fray.
By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010

NEW YORK -- On a recent afternoon on the streets around Ground Zero, commuters jumped over puddles to make their trains home, French tourists snapped photos, a homeless man jangled a can, an angry woman cried into her cellphone and Ali Mohammed served falafel over rice.

Mohammed's food cart stands equidistant between the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a planned Islamic center that has become the prime target of national conservatives who, after years of disparaging New York as a hotbed of liberal activity, are defending New York against a mosque that will rise two city blocks from Ground Zero.

Newt Gingrich has argued, among other things, that the Muslim congregation shouldn't build the center because "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington." Sarah Palin has weighed in, too, in opposing the "Ground Zero mosque." The pain she said, is "too raw, too real."

Mohammed, like many other New Yorkers, has reached his saturation point. "They got nothing to do with New York and they don't care about New York," said the 56-year-old from Brooklyn, igniting a Marlboro Light. "They are trying to create propaganda."

This is a point of consensus for New York's entire body politic, from the center's most vocal opponent to its most full-throated defender.

"Newt Gingrich is talking about Nazis and whatever, I mean, that means nothing," said Rep. Peter King, a Republican who has led the local opposition to Park51, a 13-story Islamic center that would include a prayer space with an imam, a 500-seat auditorium, a pool, senior center and meeting rooms. King, a plainspoken Long Islander, argues that the center would be insensitive to the families of Sept. 11 survivors, but noted that some of the most prominent national opponents to the project had taken their rhetoric too far, and until very recently, didn't seem interested in New York at all.

"First of all, this is real America," said King, sarcastically using Palin's phrase for the homeland. "The people who detached themselves from New York are all of a sudden embracing New York."

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the city's most outspoken supporter of the Muslim congregation's right to build the center, couldn't agree more.

"It's disgusting," he said of the remarks by Gingrich and other Republicans who rarely expressed support for the city. "It is an attempt to exploit for purely political motives a sensitive issue. And to exploit people they obviously don't really care about."

The heated national debate is unrecognizable from the reality in New York, both politically and spatially. For starters, there are the practical questions of whether the Islamic center's politically unconnected organizers have the savvy and know-how to navigate the city's real estate universe or to put together the $100 million they need for their ambitious project. But if they somehow do, the city's entire political establishment supports their right to build on private property.

And no one in New York has any misconceptions about what Lower Manhattan looks like. Red cranes may slowly be rebuilding Ground Zero, but they are surrounded by a vibrant cityscape: doughnut shops and strip clubs and churches and mosques and synagogues and off-track betting parlors and podiatry centers.

"New York is a very unusual place in its density," explained Howard Wolfson, deputy mayor of New York who, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, wrote the speech that has thus far best articulated the case for the mosque, and which President Obama later echoed at an Iftar dinner with Muslim leaders at the White House. "I do not think the average person knows that you would not be able to see Ground Zero from this building, nor would you be able to see this building from Ground Zero."

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