New York City—The Corinthian columns and Italianate architecture of 45-47 Park Place in Lower Manhattan were the topic of the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission’s meeting here on Tuesday, but they were not the reason the meeting was packed. The address, currently occupied by a modest mid-19th century building, is slated to be the future home of what has come to be known as the “ground zero mosque.”
The commission voted unanimously not to give 45-47 Park Place landmark status and in doing so cleared one of the final obstacles to building a mosque and Islamic community center just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.
Plans for the US$100 million mosque and community center have unleashed a torrent of public Islamophobia throughout the United States as many Americans, including some with friends and family who died in the attacks of 11 September, 2001, call the community center, known as the Cordoba House, a provocation. Other Americans say that the country should honor its legal and cultural commitment to religious freedom.
Plans for the center, which will include a restaurant, auditorium, and swimming pool in addition to a mosque, are being put forward by the Cordoba Initiative, a New York-based non-profit group that describes itself as working to bring “back the atmosphere of interfaith tolerance and respect that we have longed for since Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in harmony and prosperity eight hundred years ago.”
That kind of tolerance seemed far away on Tuesday when Linda Rivera of Manhattan walked into the Landmark Preservation Commission meeting bearing a homemade sign that read, “Islam builds mosques at the sites of their conquests and victories.”
Rivera was not the only angry voice present. Calls of “shame on you” rang out from the audience. An early meeting of the commission was attended by dozens of angry opponents of the “ground zero mosque.”
This local issue has taken on a national profile with Republican leaders around the country voicing their disapproval of the project. Former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich issued a statement strongly condemning the Cordoba Initiative.
“America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization,” Gingrich’s statement said. “Sadly, too many of our elites are the willing apologists for those who would destroy them if they could.“
With midterm elections only three months away, some candidates seem to be using the Cordoba House to court votes from those who are offended by the project.
Rick Lazio, the Republican candidate for governor of New York, has not condemned the community center outright, but has made vocal calls to investigate the Cordoba Initiative and its leader, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf. Lazio attended the Tuesday meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and held an impromptu press conference after the vote.
“This isn’t about religion,” Lazio said. “We have over 100 mosques in New York City. The issue here is transparency.”
Lazio referred to Abdul Rauf’s “refusal to condemn Hamas” and said, “This isn’t the voice of a peacemaker.” The Republican candidate also repeatedly called on his opponent, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, to investigate the Cordoba Initiative’s finances.
But the “ground zero mosque” is reverberating in elections hundreds of miles away from New York. Ilario Pantano, a former US Marine and current Republican house candidate in North Carolina, is finding it politically expedient to make use of the mosque issue. Last week, Pantano authored an editorial for Military.com that his campaign heavily promoted.
”It is not about reconciliation or understanding,” Pantano wrote of the community center. “It is about marking a religious, ideological, and territorial conquest. This mosque is a Martyr-Marker honoring the terrorists who less than a decade ago killed thousands of us just two blocks away, and it must be stopped.”
Not all politicians have joined the Islamophobic fray. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has vocally supported the project from the beginning, spoke at a press conference on Tuesday after the Landmark Preservation Commission’s vote.
“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That's life. And it's part of living in such a diverse and dense city,” said Bloomberg. “But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance.”
But Bloomberg’s support may not be enough to calm the anti-Cordoba crowd. On Wednesday, the American Center for Law and Justice, a DC-based right-wing group, filed a lawsuit appealing the commission’s decision, again raising the issue of 45-47 Park Place’s Italianate architecture.
That might not be the only obstacle for the "ground zero mosque." Andy Sullivan, a construction worker from Brooklyn, stood outside of the Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting. “The construction workers won’t lift a finger to build that disgrace," he said.