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

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010; C01

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."

Fanning the flames

On Park Place, the faded brick buildings of the planned facility still bear the ghost ads of "Burlington Coat Factory" and "Coats and more . . . for less!" The stores vacated after Sept. 11, but in recent months, Muslims who no longer fit into the Masjid Manhattan, on nearby Warren Street, have used the building as a mosque. Inside the glass doors, a uniformed security guard lazily read the paper in the lobby. Pairs of shoes rested on shelves and on the floor, some suit jackets hung on a coat rack and local Muslims supplicated on a worn carpet.

Television vans and international reporters keep showing up. Earlier this week, Larry Mendte, a correspondent from local station WPIX, stood in front of the building and practiced his lines. "Three, two, one. And if he really wanted to heal wounds, why open a mosque on or even near September 11?" Mendte said, pausing to ask his cameraman, "How's the light?"

Raheel Sida, a 28-year-old from Queens who works in the financial industry, exited the mosque and expressed some chagrin at the circus around him.

"It's a local matter," he said. "People just need things to talk about."

The conflation of al-Qaeda attackers and a peaceful Sufi congregation led by a nationally known New York imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is frustrating, to say the least, to the center's organizers.

"The people behind this are New Yorkers," said Oz Sultan, a spokesman for Park51 and a fixture in the city's vibrant digital media community. "These are local yokels."

To the confusion of much of the city's political establishment, Gov. David Paterson has sought to relocate the center, even though it is illegal for him to offer any state land. He has claimed to have meetings set with Rauf and the developer, only to be corrected by his press office. Sultan said there was currently no meeting or offer from a real estate baron to "magically swoop in and trade space with us."

The city's tabloids clearly don't want the issue to go away; they know they have a good thing going. They have splashed their front pages with stories headlined "Hamas Big Backs Mosque" and "Mosque Wars." As a result, it is hard to find anyone in New York who hasn't been infected with the mosque debate fever.

"It's inappropriate," said Damon Thomas, 37, the doorman at the New York Dolls Gentleman's Club, a block from the proposed Islamic center. As nude women danced around poles, and men at the bar watched Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner talk on MSNBC, Thomas complained that his friends dismissed his opposition to the mosque because he works at a strip club. "Hey," he reasoned, "strippers didn't fly planes into the buildings."

Nadler's view

A unique confluence of personal credentials has given Jerry Nadler, a portly, intellectual legislator, unique authority on the mosque issue. He represents the district encompassing Ground Zero and is the chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. He represents the liberal Upper West Side but also a right-wing Jewish stronghold in Brooklyn. Unlike the rest of the Democrats in the New York congressional delegation, who have said as little as possible about the issue, Nadler has unabashedly supported the congregation's right to build the mosque.

"It's only a slap in the face if you think that the people in the congregation are responsible for al-Qaeda," Nadler said as he sat in his office, where outdated posters, some featuring the Twin Towers, hung on the wall.

A staunch defender of Israel, Nadler said that it is logical that he is fighting for the rights of a Muslim congregation that he said he might very well vehemently disagree with. "Jews, of all people, should know that we have to support religious liberty," he said. "Because if you can block a mosque, you can block a synagogue."

That is one of the reasons he found the political pressure to move the center, including that exerted by Paterson, inappropriate. But Nadler was most exercised about national Republicans who claim to speak on behalf of 9/11 survivors, despite refusing to support legislation to provide those same survivors with health care and economic compensation. He lamented their "cynicism," but also questioned their knowledge of the First Amendment.

"I tend to think that Sarah Palin probably doesn't [understand the Constitution]," Nadler said. "I think that Newt Gingrich is a very bright man; he probably understands it, at least intellectually. But he doesn't agree with it or care about it enough to avoid trashing the Constitution for political advantage."

The politics of religion

City Hall is especially sleepy this August. Construction has relocated noisy council members and sent the press corps out to a green-and-white wood shack that, for much of this month, has been a factory for mosque copy.

At 3:50 p.m. Tuesday, Mayor Bloomberg returned to his office from a trip to Washington. He was as dour and unanimated as usual, perfunctorily saying, "Hello, hello" as he walked through the hall.

The Islamic center debate brought out a different side of Bloomberg earlier this month, when he delivered an uncharacteristically emotional speech in support of the congregation's rights under the First Amendment, declaring there was "no neighborhood in this city that is off limits to God's love and mercy."

Wolfson, a veteran Democratic operative who wrote the speech with Bloomberg, emphasized that point: "He felt the country was founded on the principle, among other things, that government stays out of religion," Wolfson said, sitting in a conference room decorated with two orange and blue seats from the New York Mets' old Shea Stadium. "You don't tell people where to worship, how to worship, who to worship."

The explosion of angry rhetoric that unexpectedly reignited after Obama echoed Bloomberg's sentiments "speaks for itself," Wolfson said, noting, "Generally speaking, a good rule of thumb of American politics is that if you are tempted to make a Nazi analogy, don't."

As for the disconnect between the Ground Zero that the mosque opponents evoke and the actual site in Lower Manhattan, he said he understood their connection to the area, but added: "I don't know if people really understand what Ground Zero looks like now. It's a giant construction site, a place where tens of thousands of people will work."

Pride of place

Around the corner from 51 Park Place, King made clear he was coming at the issue from a different perspective than a lot of the out-of-town opponents.

"It's not anti-Islam," he said. "When people say it's a battle between cultures or it's about the violence in the Koran, I never buy any of that. You can find as much of that in the Old Testament and the New Testament; for me that is not the issue at all."

His phone rang. Gov. Paterson was on the other end.

"Thanks, David," King said after Paterson told him he had secured a meeting with Imam Rauf and the center's developer later in the week.

King stepped out of the coffee shop and walked out into the busy traffic, the commercial tumult and hammering noise of Park Place.

"It's New York hallowed ground," King said. "Maybe you have to be here to fully understand it."

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