Debate about proposed Muslim cultural center near Ground Zero not going away

Time magazine this week has encapsulated what seems to be behind the raging debate over the proposed mosque/cultural center called Park51 in New York City.

As Time and other media organizations have reported over the past week, there are similarly heated debates about mosques in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Temecula, California.  A certain segment of the U.S. populace simply doesn't like Islam and doesn't want a mosque built anywhere near them, and some of that prejudice has been getting expressed in the debate about the particular structure proposed in Lower Manhattan.

There have been conflicting reports about the Imam at the center of Park51, Feisal Abdul Rauf, and whether he is a moderate Muslim that our leaders say is needed to defend Islam against the radicals who befoul it, or whether he is anti-Western in his viewpoint (critics have called him out for saying on 60 Minutes weeks after the 9/11 attacks that U.S. foreign policy in some ways was responsible for Osama bin Laden). Somewhere lost in that equation is whether if you're American and Muslim, does that mean you can't have legitimate critical feelings about our foreign policy, as other Americans can express, without fear of being labeled "a terrorist supporter" or "Anti-Semitic?"

On ABC's This Week, host Christiane Amanpour asked the Imam's wife, Daisy Khan, if she would be amenable as per the suggestion of New York Governor David Patterson to find another site away from its current proposed location?

AMANPOUR: Do you have a plan to specifically meet with the governor who has offered state land for this, and do you think that you will decide to move it?

KHAN: We first want to meet with all the stakeholders who matter, who are the New Yorkers. The community board has overwhelmingly supported this, so have all the politicians — Scott Stringer, Mayor Bloomberg. And we have to be cognizant that we also have a constitutional right. We have the Muslim community around the nation that we have to be concerned about, and we have to worry about the extremists as well, because they are seizing this moment. And so we have to be very careful and deliberate in when we make any major decision like this.

AMANPOUR: I'll pursue that in a second, but so is moving on the table still?

KHAN: We right now — it's not until we consult with all our stakeholder.

Some critics have raised questions about who might be funding the proposed $100 million mosque/cultural center.  Khan responded that she doesn't know yet.

KHAN: Well, this is where my counselor on my right is helping us, because our funding is going to be pretty much follow the same way that JCC got its fund-raising. First, we have to develop a board. Then the board is going to have a financial committee, fund-raising committee that will be in charge of the fund-raising. And we have promised that we will work with the Charities Bureau, that we will adhere to the highest and the strictest guidelines set forth by the Treasury Department, because there is so much angst about this.

There are those betting that Park51 will never be built at its current location. Politico reported last week that in fact the organizers currently only have $18,255 in the bank for the project — "not enough even for a down payment on the half of the site the group has yet to purchase."

Speaking up for the Imam yesterday on Meet the Press was Jeffrey Goldberg, the Middle East correspondent for Atlantic magazine, who disputed claims by New York GOP gubernatorial hopeful Rick Lazio about Imam Rauf.

MR. JEFFREY GOLDBERG:  Look, this imam, in 2003, spoke at a memorial service for Daniel Pearl, the Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed by al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and, and he got up there and said, "I am a Jew." He got up in a synagogue and said, "I am a Jew.  I identify with Judaism." And he was, was, was declaring in front of an audience, which is very dangerous, by the way, for a Muslim cleric to do, he is, he is saying that, "I stand against al-Qaeda and what they've done." He's done this repeatedly.  I know him from different, different venues, different dialogue groups.  The man, in, in my personal experience, is, in fact, a bridge builder.

Lazio looks in all polls like he'll be slaughtered by Andrew Cuomo in the race for NY governor in a couple of months (is he the best the NY GOP can offer?  The man's biggest claim to fame was losing to Hillary Clinton for Senate a decade ago). He was asked if this Republican jihad against the mosque/cultural center could easily hurt the U.S. with Muslims overseas in the war on terror.  Lazio didn't seem to get the question.

MR. GREGORY:  Well, and let me challenge you, Rick Lazio, on this, Congressman Lazio.  You know, General Petraeus, who we spoke to in Afghanistan last week, tells his soldiers, American soldiers fighting for America, to live our values.  That's what they're going when they're in harm's way.  Are we living our values in this debate?

REP. LAZIO:  I think we're saying absolutely that the people of the, of the Islam faith or the Muslim faith, absolutely we want people here.  We want to make sure they have places to worship, we want to have—we want to make sure people understand they are great Americans, that they are patriots, there are Muslims that lost their lives in 9/11.  It is not about religion.  It is about this location and this imam.  Why don't people question it?  Why aren't they offended when someone will not characterize Hamas as a terrorist organization? And, in fact, one of the leaders of Hamas came out recently, this last week, to support this, this Ground Zero mosque.  Doesn't that raise some—I mean, I have just questions.  I'm saying let's get behind this, let's understand where this money is coming from.  It is—are they from foreign governments?  Are they from radical originations?  We don't know, and why can't we find out?  It seems to me that, again, if Andrew Cuomo had done his job as attorney general, we wouldn't be having this contentious debate right now.

As some of the most heated rhetorical bombs have come from GOP stalwarts like Newt Gingrich, who compared Muslims to Nazis, some in the commentariat over the past week have suggested that this would be an appropriate time for George W. Bush to emerge from relative isolation in Dallas to comment on the situation.  He memorably called Islam a "religion of peace" shortly after the 9/11 attacks, after all.  But a spokesman said last week that he will not delve into this thicket.

However, Karen Hughes is.  One of W.'s closest advisers in the White House, the fellow Texan served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2005 to 2007, where one of her main jobs was trying to bolster the U.S. "brand" overseas, including Muslim nations.

In an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post, Hughes took the stance of Governor Patterson, Howard Dean and others, who espouse that there's no reason for Imam Rauf to walk away from building two New York City long blocks from Ground Zero, but it probably would be best for all concerned,though she admits to do would be an act of "uncommon courtesy."

I recognize that I am asking the imam and his congregation to show a respect that has not always been accorded to them. But what a powerful example that decision would be. Many people worry that this debate threatens to deepen resentments and divisions in America; by choosing a different course, Rauf could provide a path toward the peaceful relationships that he and his fellow Muslims strive to achieve. And this gesture of goodwill could lead us to a more thoughtful conversation to address some of the ugliness this controversy has engendered.

In Florida, Democrats Jeff Greene and Alex Sink have notably spoken against having Park51 built at its currently location, and they and GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott have bashed Barack Obama for saying that the mosque/cultural center should be built at its proposed location.

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