The New York City mosque: Hussam Ayloush of CAIR argues for building it

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Hussam Ayloush
Exec. Dir., Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
Monday, August 16, 2010; 2:00 PM

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles, was online Monday, Aug. 16, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the issue of whether an Islamic community center should be built in Lower Manhattan in New York City, approximately two blocks from the World Trade Center.

In an e-mail interview with Ayloush he said, "CAIR views the issue as a First Amendment -- religious freedom -- issue. President Obama said it very well: "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances." We could not agree more."

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washingtonpost.com: We have extended invitations to various conservative voices in the controversy for another chat on the issue. We presently are awaiting word. Please consult the Live Discussions schedule.

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Hussam Ayloush: Hi everyone. My name is Hussam Ayloush. I am the Executive Director of the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). I am very honored to join you on this online chat to discuss the issue of the building of the Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan.
CAIR views the issue as a First Amendment - religious freedom - matter.

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Southern Maryland: How would you answer the people who claim that the Islamic Center's planners are being "insensitive" to the 9/11 families? One would think that reasonable people would grasp that the monsters behind the terrorist attack didn't represent an entire religion and weren't acting on its behalf. I might understand the argument about insensitivity if the center was part of 9/11 attack or had endorsed it. Plus, most of the people making that argument did NOT lose loved ones and are simply claiming to speak for those who did.

Hussam Ayloush: You are absolutely right. The 9-11 attacks were the result of an ideology of violent extremism and not Islam. Islam rejects such murderous action and every major Muslim scholar and institution has unequivocally condemned the act and those who try to justify if under Islamic teachings. Denying the building of any mosque on such false premise would be an unjust indictment of the religion of Islam and its peaceful followers in America.

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Owners: Who actually owns the land the mosque would be built on?

Hussam Ayloush: I am almost certain that it is owned by the group that is trying to build the center and the mosque. What is for certain is that all such buildings (places of worship) will have to be built on private land. That allows us Americans to enjoy freedom from any government interference, positive or negative, in the practice of our respective religions. We all have the right to practice freely.

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San Diego, Calif.: I can't believe we are having this discussion in America, and that it is being politicized for midterm elections. Sensitivity doesn't include religious bigotry. The people who crashed into the WTC were bigots and fanatics, and they exist in every religion. This property isn't on the site, and if the world's last hope of reconciliation (i.e., the United States) can't exemplify tolerance, we are doomed. This isn't a New York only issue, just as the September 11th events weren't.

Hussam Ayloush: I and many Americans share your frustration and amazement. However, I am hopeful that this same discussion might stimulate a long overdue internal discussion among us Americans. It is our chance as Americans to come together to reject bigotry and the politics of paranoia and those who promote them for their self-serving reasons. It matters a lot which America will prevail 10 years after the horrific attacks of 9-11. The whole world is watching this debate and rooting for the America that they have always admired: The America of freedoms and tolerance.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't understand why, when the organizers insist that this building is intended for increasing cultural understanding, the organizers insist on building it at this particular location. A location that clearly a majority of the U.S. population seems to feel is inconsistent with the stated purpose of the building.

Also, will there be a daily "call to prayers" that would be heard at the 9/ll site?

Hussam Ayloush: The organizers and all of us American Muslims are very sensitive to the genuine feeling of many fellow Americans about this project and its location. We know that there is a lot of confusion about Islam and how the terrorists have falsely claimed actions in its name. We know that we have to do more to explain our religion to our neighbors and friends. However, not building a Muslim center near Ground Zero on the basis of not opening the 9-11 wounds would mean that Islam and Muslims were responsible for the terrorist attacks. And that is absolutely wrong. The President said it correctly: "Al Qaeda's cause is not Islam - it is a gross distortion of Islam"

As for the daily call to prayer, I am sure that the prayer call will be done inside the prayer hall, as it is done in almost all mosques in America.

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Rockville, Md.: I think the reaction of most people to the planned Islamic Center is shameful. The United States was built on the principle of religious liberty and the free exercise thereof. I feel like many who have spoken out against the mosque have completely lost sight of what this means. The mosque is no more an affront to the memory of 9/11 than building any other building: terrorists perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, not members of the Islamic Center.

Hussam Ayloush: Fully agreed.

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Miami, Fla.: I have been reading that the Eid al Fitr festival may fall on or around September 11.

What are your views on how Muslims should celebrate this festival?

Hussam Ayloush: Muslims should take advantage of this unfortunate coincidence of Eid being on or close to Sep. 11 to reach out to fellow Americans to explain what Islam stands for. We should invite our neighbors to visit our mosques and share our meals. We must learn more about one another. We should be part of the efforts to promote interfaith relations and activities. I suggest that we move from regular talks to working together on common concerns in our communities, such as helping the poor, the sick, the homeless, and protecting our youths and families from gang violence, drugs, declining education...

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Washington, D.C.: Do you feel President Obama is backtracking regarding this issue? First he says Muslims have the right to build their center but now he doesn't want to comment on the wisdom of this project. Do you think it would more convincing for the president to comment on the wisdom of this project, rather than the constitutional right? I firmly believe a significant portion of those against this project are purely anti-Muslim in nature.

Hussam Ayloush: President Obama made America proud on Friday. He chose to stand for what is moral and right and not necessarily popular at this moment. He chose the Constitution over political expediency.

The president was correct to speak up for religious freedom and equal rights, including the right to build mosques. I don't believe he is backtracking. A president or any public official does not necessarily need to endorse specific community centers or houses of worship - that would probably not be appropriate for the president to do for any specific project

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Chicago, Ill.: You say that Islam was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. But the attackers said that they did it because Islam says that it is permitted to kill non-believers or apostates. Many Islamic believers think it is okay to kill apostates or people who "insult" the religion. Look at the targeting of Danish cartoonists. So in that sense Islam can be viewed as culpable, just as the Catholic Church was culpable in the Spanish Inquisition. How would you refute that charge?

Hussam Ayloush: All religions are subject to the manipulation of its scriptures and teachings by extremists or those who wish to serve their own interests. If we are to ban mosques because a minority of fanatics (rejected by the rest of the mainstream) have abused that religion, then we would probably not allow any religious place in America.

Shall we ban "White" churches considering that many KKK members falsely hid behind Christianity as they murdered and terrorized Blacks in America? How about Buddhist temples in America considering that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. How about Lutheran churches; after all we were at war with Germany in WWII?

Of course, that should never happen. No religion should be held responsible for the action of a small minority of extremists.

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La Mirada, Calif.: How do you think all the opposition towards the mosque near ground zero is effecting average mosques around the country and do you think the situation is affecting average American Muslim citizens in their day-to-day dealings with others?

Hussam Ayloush: The targeting of mosques and Muslim communities is becoming a concern for Muslims around the country.
From coast to coast, mosques are being protested by various bigoted and right-wing groups. From New York, to Connecticut, to Wisconsin, to California and other places.
While American Muslims fully realize that such hate-mongering does not represent us all Americans; nevertheless, it has create a sense of uneasiness and anxiety among many. No one should be made to feel as a second class citizen in their own country.
The good news is that the response from many Christian, Jewish and other religious leaders has been phenomenal in its positiveness. All around the country, interfaith groups have organized vigils and counter protests to show support to Muslims and speak for unity and harmony.

May be that is the silver lining in this whole sad situation.

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Chicago, Ill.: Thank you for speaking out as you are doing. Do you think this backlash against a wonderful project represents a genuine waning of tolerance and inclusiveness in America, or is this shameful exploitation of people's fears of those who are coded as 'other' in service of other ends (such as midterm elections)?

Hussam Ayloush: Thank you.
We are facing several factors that are playing into this manufactured situation.

- Election heat and the need to energize voters by some failed leaders. Using Muslims and Islam as a punching bag seems to help gain certain types of voters for some candidates.
- Islamophobia/Anti-Muslim bigotry and misinformation fueled by right-wing and hateful pundits and organizations. It is unfortunately a thriving business.
- Genuine confusion and lack of understanding of Islam in the shadow of major tragedies and deaths caused by 9-11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
- A struggling economy and the search for someone to blame. Some in our country like to blame immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, ... etc.

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Columbia, Md.: Recently the Reform Jewish Movement, of which I am a member, sent out a message welcoming the planned construction of the Cordoba House Mosque. Along with Mayor Bloomberg, I remember a time and stories that I heard from my parents that Jewish people were excluded from buying homes in neighborhoods or joining social clubs. I understand that this is a sensitive issue; however, in our religion we were taught "to welcome the stranger" and that transcends throughout the Bible. Are you getting support from other groups of the Jewish faith obviously not counting the ADL?

Hussam Ayloush: With the exception of the shameful stance taken by ADL and the Wiesenthal Center (both have betrayed their claimed mission), the Jewish community has honorably and strongly stood in support of the right of Muslims to freely worship. Of course, this is not surprising from a community that has for long defended and struggled for civil rights for all in America. It is not surprising, but it was certainly reassuring.

This has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the Muslim community and I pray that it will lead to a continuation and strengthening of our cooperation as two of America's small religious minority to protect our Constitution, promote mutual understanding, and expose the few bigots in each of our communities.

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Chicago, Ill.: Under the U.S. constitution they have a right to build the mosque; however, I wonder if the freedoms that are being used to justify the building are shared. If the situation were reversed how many Islamic countries would allow a Christian or Jewish religious facility to be built near a "holy" place? The problem is that has come across as "yes, we probably wouldn't allow you to build but you must allow us to build as that what your law says."

Hussam Ayloush: I share your concerns. We would like to see our American religious freedom practiced all over the world. However, the rights of American Muslims and all other Americans should never be conditioned on the basis of how other countries treat their religions minorities.

Our Constitution stands on its own merit. If anything, we hope that the upholding of our religious freedoms and harmony can set us as a world's role model for other countries to follow.

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Miami, Fla.: Why hasn't anyone pointed out that the Pentagon has a "mosque" where prayers have been held since 9/11?

Hussam Ayloush: There are prayers held in the Pentagon, in Congress, at army bases, and in various government buildings and facilities. Those prayers are held by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others who serve in those facilities. The separation of Church and State was to protect each from the interference of the other, but not to restrict or forbid any practice of religion.

By the way, there has always been mosques and thousands of Muslims who reside near Ground Zero.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Dear Mr. Ayloush, Former Republican leader Newt Gingrich has called those who support the building of the mosque two blocks from the former WTC "Nazis." The ahistorical and misplaced use of this term is shocking, particularly from someone who is trained in history. Alas, there seems to be some resonance in the American electorate. Do you think that the GOP's efforts to exploit this issue to their electoral advantage will affect the voting behavior of Muslims in America? Could it affect or change outcomes in places with large Muslim populations? Thanks for your thoughts.

Hussam Ayloush: Sadly, the silence of the majority within the Republican Party is causing the party to be labeled as extremist. Such anti-Muslim rhetoric might be politically beneficial on the short term; however, on the long run, it is undermining our country's social harmony, damaging our world standing, and undercutting the credibility of the Party. Over the years, the overwhelming majority of Muslims have shifted away from the Republican Party, although many shared its fiscal and family "values" or perspective. No one want to belong to an organization that continues to make life miserable for him/her and his family.

I hope that common sense will prevail and that the republican Party will put the interests of the American people above its own short term partisan political scoring.

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Washington, D.C.: No one is saying "ban all mosques" in the U.S. What they are saying is that it is showing a gross insensitivity to the victims of 9/11 to build at this particular location. The organizers don't seem to be hearing this?

Hussam Ayloush: The organizers are hearing and feeling the genuine concerns of many New Yorkers (in the midst of a lot of bigotry from others). The solution is not to let fear, misinformation and paranoia prevail. The real solution is for an honest discussion and dialogue.
I strong recommend that the organizers and NY interfaith leaders help set forums and town hall meetings so all of us can speak with one another rather that at each other. I am very confident that all genuine concerns will be addressed and explained.

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New York, N.Y.: Your comments have been pretty fair minded so far, but please retract your statement that this is a "manufactured situation."

It may seem that way from your view in Los Angeles, but here in New York it is very real. Right or wrong, many of us have very strong feelings on this mosque and did so long before it became a national story. Maybe its a manufactured outrage outside the five boroughs, but here it's very real.

Hussam Ayloush: My friend, the "manufactured" part is not the one coming from genuine people. Most of us Americans, and not only Muslims in NY, are equally victimized by a profit-making industry of hatred that keeps fueling this mistrust, misinformation, and paranoia of Islam. Many innocent and well-meaning Americans are reacting to what they are being told by some media pundits and so-called experts on terrorism and Islam.

Please check out this story:

How the "ground zero mosque" fear mongering began (Salon, Aug. 16)

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Syracuse, N.Y.: Thank you for this discussion. I have been following this controversy and have noticed that many people object to the Islamic Center because they feel that as a liberal country, we should not be embracing tenants of Islam such as Sharia law. Can you please explain exactly what Sharia law is, and how Sharia law functions within a non-Muslim country?

Hussam Ayloush: Shariah laws are not an issue in the building of any mosque.

For the sake of answering the question, Sharia is simply the body of laws, as well as the system of law making, that is based on the Islamic teachings with the goal of serving the well being of all people and societies. Its main purpose is to establish justice and equality. Sharia is practiced daily by American Muslims in the form of avoiding usury/loan interest, shunning alcohol and pork by-product, dealing kindly with parents, seniors, and children, giving charity to the needy, sick and homeless, ...

Like all Americans, American Muslims uphold and will continue to defend our US Constitution to the fullest extent. It is what brings us together as a nation.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Will this mosque have a plan in place to identify and root out extremists who could potentially meet there to plan another attack?

Hussam Ayloush: The organizers of the mosque, like all major Muslim leaders and organizations, have continuously spoken and challenge the ideology of extremism and will continue to do so whether a mosque is built there or not. This is not only a civic duty, but also an Islamic duty under our religious teachings.

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Alexandria, Va.: Sir: I think the Islamic center is not just a good idea but a GREAT idea, if it could be created as a symbol of tolerance and peace and undertake outreach projects with churches and synagogues to promote respect for life and human dignity. It could even become a worldwide center for the promotion of these values. I know that Islam at its finest stands for human dignity. We need more people of all faiths taking a stand for human beings of all faiths.

I am completely at a loss as to why my view isn't the predominant one. To my view, Lower Manhattan is the perfect place for such a center, for obvious reasons.

On the dark side: I do see a potential serious security risk, as the proposed center could become a target both for anti-Muslim and Muslim violent radicals.

All this makes me so sad. The world seems mad and is only growing madder.

As-Salâmu`Alayka

Hussam Ayloush: I have faith that most others will see as you do. Let's wait for this unfortunate storm to calm down.

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San Francisco, Calif.: I feel this comes down to perception. Perception of what your brand of Islam is or more specifically the brand of Islam the center would espouse. Simply saying it is moderate may not be sufficient. It would have to counter the al-Qaeda/Taliban brand of islam.

Would you share your thoughts on this.

Hussam Ayloush: You are very correct. A major part of this debate has been about perceptions, misperception and ill-intent misinformation.

As the good people of America, we are being squeezed between two extremist narratives that wish for our country and the world to be divided along religious lines. The Al-Qaeda-like extremists and the anti-Muslim bigots are the two sides of the same coin. The coin of hatred and intolerance.

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Herndon, Va,.: What kind of international backlash do you think all this hatefulness aimed at mosques being built in America will ultimately have? The 51 Park cultural center is not the only Muslim community having extreme problems with building or expanding their mosques.

Hussam Ayloush: The image and credibility of America will be the first casualty if any religious community loses its right to build a place of worship.

Polls have repeatedly shown that most Muslims around the world, even those who completely disagree with our foreign policies, have strong admiration for America's values and freedoms. Many have expressed hopes to see such freedoms enjoyed in their own respective countries. I would love for us to lead by example.

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Houston, Tex.: How close is "too close?" This building is several blocks away. Indeed, you cannot see Ground Zero from it.

Hussam Ayloush: Good question.
What about the mosques that are already within a few blocks from Ground Zero?
We indeed have a lot of healing to do among ourselves in America. Restricting religious rights is not a way to do it.

Dialogue, understanding, mutual respect, and fairness is a good way to begin the healing.

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Miama, Fla.: There seems to be a misconception that Islam is a relative newcomer to America.

Islam has been here for more than 300 years; in the form of Muslim African slaves.

As many as 20% of African slaves were thought to be Muslim.

Hussam Ayloush: Correct.
But of course, even new religions have the same rights as the very first ones to exist in the US.

I know that you agree with that.

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Cary, N.C.: I'm heartbroken to see, read, and hear comments against the building of a mosque near the site of the World Trade Centers. So many wars have been fought between and amongst people of faith, yet it still surprises me that people believe any certain religion itself is contemptible.

People of many different faiths have committed violence on a large scale, yet I would hope that we can see that fringe practitioners do not represent the heart and soul of any faith.

I support the building of any place of worship as a fitting monument to the enduring love, acceptance, and communal celebration of our American ideals.

Hussam Ayloush: Many other Americans share your kind feelings and views. Many have not had the chance to think deeper about it.

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Purcellville, Va.: Many opponents to the cultural center are citing Saudi Arabia's intolerance of Christian churches there as reason for not allowing the center here. But what about the United States being the greatest country in the world BECAUSE it's not afraid to be open and forgiving?

Hussam Ayloush: You are right.

The fact that no churches are built in Saudi Arabia or no mosques are built in the Vatican are matters that are worthy of discussing and addressing. However, it is irrelevant for this very domestic and constitutional matter. Muslims in America are not foreign aliens or visitors.

President Obama said it very well: "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances." I could not agree more.

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Chicago (different person): If I could offer a little constructive criticism:

Muslim advocates, yourself included, always stress that Islam is peaceful, that what the terrorists are doing is NOT Islamic, that anyone who holds a negative opinion about Islam is misinformed, etc. With all due respect, I think that position goes too far. There are, frankly, millions of Muslims out there who disagree about Islam's peaceful nature, who have no problem murdering Westerners, who think the Jews are evil and should be killed, and so forth. Their view of Islam is just as valid as yours. I think you guys need to be more up front about acknowledging that dark side to your religion, and not simply dismissing it as the same bad apple element that's present in any religion or system. I'm not aware of any Buddhists, for example, running around with explosive vests and blowing themselves up in marketplaces or on buses. Thanks.

Hussam Ayloush: Thank you for this important question.

Extremism and fanaticism are a human phenomenon, and not an Islamic one. Every religion or political ideology has had to deal with such occurrence.

The majority of the over 1.6 billion Muslims reject the ideology of the extremists and are doing their best to isolate them and expose them. As the President correctly pointed:
"Al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion, and that list includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11."

Unfortunately, some Americans (I don't mean you) choose to indict all American Muslims and the religion of Islam itself for the acts of a few fanatics. This is bigotry, its guilt by association and it is un-American.

As for the issue of violent suicide attackers, I suggest reading the book "Dying to Win" by Professor Robert Pape. Very enlightening.

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Hussam Ayloush: Thank you everyone for your considerate and intelligent questions. I really appreciate the time you took to be part of this chat.
If you have more questions, please contact me at hayloush@cair.com
or visit www.cair.com to learn more about CAIR and its work.

Best regards and best wishes for a stronger and more united America.

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