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Background of the Issue


Aerial Photograph of Ground Zero
(click to enlarge image)
Aerial photograph of Ground Zero.
Source: Associated Press, "Attacks Reconstruction, Changing NYC Pictures," www.newshopper.sulekha.com, March 22, 2009
The debate over whether or not it is appropriate to build a Muslim community center (aka "Ground Zero Mosque,” aka Cordoba Initiative, aka Park51 project) near the World Trade Center site has grown from a local discussion to an issue of international prominence, prompting protests in the streets of New York and drawing responses from well-known American political leaders.

Proponents argue that the 16-story Muslim community center will be an asset to the neighborhood and local economy, and that its construction demonstrates America’s religious tolerance. Opponents argue that the ''Ground Zero Mosque'' is an insensitive and disrespectful political ploy by radical Islamists that will inflict emotional distress on families who suffered casualties on Sep. 11, 2001.

The Muslim community center debate traces back to the July 2009 purchase of an empty building (formerly a Burlington Coat Factory) at 45-47 Park Place, New York, NY, for $4.85 million in cash by real estate company Soho Properties. [31] The purchase was led by developer Sharif El-Gamal and backed by an eight-member investment group, which also took over the lease of neighboring 49-51 Park Place for an additional $700,000. [32][33] El-Gamal has refused to identify his fellow investors except for businessman Hisham Elzanaty, who claims to have provided most of the financing. Elzanaty has come under scrutiny for his 1999 donations to the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a popular Muslim charity that had its assets frozen by the US and EU governments for providing material support to Hamas. [34]
The current building at 45 Park Place, the location of the proposed ''Ground Zero Mosque''
(click to enlarge image)
The current building at 45 Park Place, the location of the proposed ''Ground Zero Mosque.''
Source: City Realty, "Landmarks Commission Holds Raucous Hearing on Proposed Mosque Near Ground Zero," www.cityrealty.com, July 13, 2010

On Dec. 8, 2009, the New York Times published an article titled "Muslim Prayers and Renewal Near Ground Zero,” which noted that an Islamic center was planned for the 45 Park Place location, where some Muslims had been holding Friday prayers since the building was purchased in July. [35] On Dec. 21, 2009, Daisy Khan, wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (slated to be the spiritual leader of the Muslim community center), was interviewed by guest host Laura Ingraham on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor about the project. During the interview, Khan explained that the center will deliver a message of tolerance and love, and Ingraham stated that she "can’t find many people that really have a problem with it." [36]

Formal plans for the project were introduced at a meeting of the Finance Committee of Local Manhattan Community Board No. 1 on May 5, 2010, and approved by a 12-0 vote. [38] Officially titled the Cordoba House, the plans called for demolishing the current buildings at 45-51 Park Place and replacing them with a $100 million facility that would include a mosque, a September 11th memorial, a library, a culinary school, a 500-seat auditorium, and recreation facilities such as a swimming pool, a gym, and a basketball court. [2] The location is approximately one-tenth of a mile from the northern side of the World Trade Center site. [37]

Artist rendering of what the ''Ground Zero Mosque'' will look like
(click to enlarge image)
Artist rendering of what the ''Ground Zero Mosque'' will look like.
Source: New York Architecture, "Park51- Mistrust and the Mosque," www.nyc-architecture.com, Sep. 2, 2010
On May 7, 2010, Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA) Executive Director Pamela Geller began posting anti-mosque blog entries on her website atlasshrugs.com, which caught the attention of New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser. [39][40] On May 13, 2010, Peyser published a full length column titled "Mosque Madness at Ground Zero,” which brought the debate into the mainstream media. [40]

On May 25, 2010, the Cordoba House was approved in a 29-1 vote, with 19 abstentions, by Lower Manhattan Community Board No. 1. [41] There were over 100 in attendance at the board meeting, and dozens spoke out in support of and in opposition to the mosque, including Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, victims' family members, and emergency personnel who were trapped in the rubble after the Twin Towers fell. [42]

The first large protest over the Muslim community center occurred on June 6, 2010. Organized by Geller, the event drew a crowd of over 1,000, according to New York Daily News estimates. [43] Geller stated that she chose June 6 as the rally date "...because it’s D-Day. In 1944, Americans acted against the evil of Nazism. Now it is time for Americans to stand up against the evil of Islamic jihad terrorism.” [44]

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin addressed the controversy via Twitter on July 18, 2010 by stating, "Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in the interests of healing.” [45] Then, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich weighed in on July 21, 2010, by issuing a newsletter attacking the Cordoba House, claiming that it will be a "megamosque” overlooking Ground Zero.
Protesters march in opposition to the proposed ''Ground Zero Mosque''
(click to enlarge image)
Protesters march in New York on Sep. 11, 2010 in opposition to the proposed ''Ground Zero Mosque.''
Source: Reuters, "Muslim Center Dispute Sparks New York Rallies," www.blogs.reuters.com, Aug. 23, 2010
Park51 passed a major legal hurdle on Aug. 3, 2010, when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission denied landmark status to the building at 45 Park Place in a 9-0 vote. Landmark designation would have derailed plans to destroy the current building and replace it with the Park51 complex. [46] New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg followed the ruling with a speech in defense of the project, in which he stated that "The World Trade Center Site will forever hold a special place in our City, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves – and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans – if we said 'no' to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.” [18]

On Aug. 11, 2010, CNN released a poll showing 68% of Americans opposed the plan to build a mosque two blocks from the site where the World Trade Center used to stand, while 29% supported the plan. [64] Two days later, President Barack Obama stated: "As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan… This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable." [47] On Aug. 14, Obama stated that he was not commenting on the wisdom of going forward with the project, only on its legality. [48]

Supporters of the ''Ground Zero Mosque'' rally in New York on Sep. 11, 2010
(click to enlarge image)
Supporters of the ''Ground Zero Mosque'' rally in New York on Sep. 11, 2010.
Source: Reuters, "Muslim Center Dispute Sparks New York Rallies," www.blogs.reuters.com, Aug. 23, 2010
Following President Obama’s comments, numerous high-profile politicians spoke out on the "Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. US House Minority leader John Boehner called Obama’s support for the mosque "troubling.” [49] On Aug. 16, 2010, US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stated that the mosque should be built at another location, and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty stated that the hallowed and sacred ground around the WTC site needs to be respected. [50][51] US Representative Ron Paul responded on Aug. 20, 2010, stating that the controversy is "all about hate and Islamaphobia.” [52]

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf addressed the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy in a Sep. 7, 2010, New York Times article in which he stated that plans for construction of Park51 were going forward despite the controversy surrounding the project because he believes the center will have a positive impact on Muslim-American relations. [29]

On Sep. 11, 2010, thousands of protesters converged on Lower Manhattan for dual rallies over the "Ground Zero Mosque," during which heated confrontations, some warranting police intervention, erupted between the rival demonstrations. [53]

In a Sep. 13, 2010, statement at the Council on Foreign Relations, Rauf stated that "everything is on the table” in the effort to solve the controversy, including delaying construction to allow time for more public dialogue. However, Rauf claimed that he doesn’t control the location of Park51, Sharif El-Gamal does, and El-Gamal has stated that he has no plans to change it. [28][54] The statement by Rauf was contradicted on Sep. 20, 2010, by Hisham Elzanaty, who stated that he "probably” controls the fate of the building. Much like El-Gamal, Elzanaty has vowed to not walk away from the project, indicating the location will not be changed. [55]

On Sep. 21, 2011, Park 51, the Islamic community center near the World Trade Center ground zero, opened to the public and held its first photography exhibit, "NY Children" by Danny Goldfield. The Muslim prayer center at the site opened in 2009 but, as of Sep. 2012, did not have an Imam in residency (a requirement to be a mosque). Fundraising for the 15-story building, planned to include an auditorium, educational programs, a pool, a restaurant, a culinary school, child care services, a sports facility, a wellness center, and artist studios, is still underway. As of Apr. 2013, the space holds the prayer center and a capoeira class, and further building or renovation has not taken place. [67][68]