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“I Fear for My Country”: Muslim Leader Daisy Khan on Opposition to Ground Zero Mosque and Others Nationwide

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Debate is intensifying over the planned construction of an Islamic center and mosque two blocks from New York’s Ground Zero. But it is not just a local issue. Across the country, Muslim groups are facing attacks over plans to build new mosques. We speak to Daisy Khan of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, one of the main organizations behind the mosque project, and the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf; and Stephan Salisbury, cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Last week the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission cleared the way for the construction of a proposed Muslim cultural center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the vote, calling it a victory for religious freedom.

But the acrimony over the location of the proposed thirteen-story, $100 million project known as “Park51,” and often referred to as the Cordoba House, is far from over. One day after the commission gave the go-ahead to the project, the American Center for Law and Justice, a right-wing group founded by the evangelist Pat Robertson, filed suit to block its construction.

On Tuesday, New York Governor David Paterson entered the debate and offered developers of the project state-owned land to relocate the center far away from the site of the former World Trade Center. The developers rejected the offer late Wednesday.

AMY GOODMAN: The Cordoba House has become a national controversy, with everyone from Sarah Palin to the Anti-Defamation League weighing in. Last month Sarah Palin devoted two Twitter updates to oppose the mosque, calling it an “unnecessary provocation.” Now, a leading social conservative, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, says no more mosques should be built anywhere in the country.

Here in New York, it’s also an electoral issue, with Republican candidate for governor, Rick Lazio, lambasting his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo, for supporting the project. Here’s a sampling of Rick Lazio, Newt Gingrich and Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League publicly defending their opposition to the construction of the Park51 project over the past week. It begins on Rick Lazio.

    RICK LAZIO: This site here is so close to Ground Zero that the building that they’re going to demolish, the historic building they’re going to demolish to build this mosque, was damaged by the landing gear of one of the planes that hit the Trade Center. We had over 3,000 Americans that were murdered in this location. It is sacred ground. And the fact that we have an insensitivity about moving forward and what that means for the families of those who lost loved ones in 9/11, the first responders, the people closest to the community, to me, it compounds the question, what are they hiding? Why doesn’t Andrew Cuomo step up as the Attorney General who has jurisdiction over this issue and do what people like me, Rudy Giuliani and the Anti-Defamation League have been calling on? Let’s have a clear accounting. Open the books. Let’s see who’s giving the money to construct this mosque. Is it foreign governments? Are they radical organizations? We deserve to know.

    NEWT GINGRICH: We’d be quite happy to have a mosque built near the World Trade Center, the morning that one church and one synagogue are opened in Mecca. But I don’t want — I don’t want anyone from the world of Islam to lecture me on sensitivity, as long as the Saudis lock up anybody who practices any religion other than Islam.

    ABRAHAM FOXMAN: I believe, on this issue, the voices, the feelings, the emotions of the families of the victims, of the responders, I think, take precedent, maybe over even the Mayor’s. If I had my way, I agreed with Tom Friedman’s column today in the New York Times

    . He said, if he had $100 million, he would build this mosque in Saudi Arabia or in Pakistan, where you cannot build a church or you cannot synagogue. That’s where you need to show tolerance and love and understanding.

AMY GOODMAN: Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League there.

Well, the Obama administration is refusing to weigh in on the controversy. Asked for the White House stance, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs declined to offer an opinion, calling it a “local” issue.

    PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: I think we have — I think you’ve heard this administration and the last administration talk about the fact that we are not at war with a religion, but with an idea that has corrupted a religion. But that having been said, I’m not, from here, going to get involved in local decision making like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, recent polls suggest while a majority of Americans oppose the construction of the mosque near Ground Zero, a majority of those who live in Manhattan actually support its construction. A CNN poll reports 68 percent of the country opposes the project, and according to a Marist poll, 53 percent of New York City residents oppose it, as well. But the same Marist poll also reports 69 percent of Manhattan residents support the construction of the mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero.

For more on this, we’re joined by Daisy Khan. She’s the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, one of the main organizations behind the mosque project, and she is the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Also with us, in Philadelphia, Stephan Salisbury, cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer His most recent book is called Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland. His latest article posted on TomDispatch.com is called “Mosque Mania: Anti-Muslim Fears and the Far Right.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Daisy Khan, let’s begin with you. Explain what it is that you are attempting to do and where the cultural center and mosque is located.

DAISY KHAN: Well, thank you, Amy, for having me on the show. This idea goes back to 1999, when Imam Feisal, who is, you know, an Islamic scholar, an imam who’s been an imam in Tribeca for twenty-seven years, looked at how religions evolve in America over — you know, over its course, and has spoken to rabbis and Catholics and determined that the evolution or trajectory of Americanizing a religion happens primarily with institution building and that once you go from a place of worship to an institute that serves the general public is when that faith becomes Americanized. And so, establishing something like a YMCA or the equivalent of a JCC or a 92nd Street Y, which would be the Muslim equivalent, would be necessary for the Muslim community to do in order to integrate itself and call itself an American religion. So this idea has been on the books for a while.

And in 2000 — prior to 2000, we actually tried to purchase another building called McBurney Y on 23rd Street, and we did not succeed. Somebody else came along with more money. And it’s only recently, because of the need for additional prayer space in Lower Manhattan, because of the influx of so many immigrants, and our congregational prayers happen on Friday, there has been an increase in people that have been coming for prayers, that there was a desire to look for another site. And it was primarily to be in the same neighborhood, because our current mosque was only twelve blocks from Ground Zero. And so, one of our congregants, Soho Properties, Sharif Gamal, took it upon himself to look for a site that might be suitable. And it is that search that resulted in finding this property, which was — you know, which had been vacant for nine years.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And were you surprised by the sudden reaction in the final moments of your getting approval, in the final weeks of your getting approval of the project, the enormous reaction, not just in New York City, but across the country, by some of these political leaders?

DAISY KHAN: Well, we went in front of the community board primarily to gauge the receptivity of the community board, whether they would welcome a center that would be larger than just a prayer space. And, of course, the first community board meeting was — there was a unanimous vote, you know, 15-to-zero, and everybody was in favor, because they saw the benefit that it would bring to the community. In fact, they suggested that perhaps maybe we should consider a 9/11 memorial. And we did. We said we’ll be happy to include that. And then, many of our politicians, our borough president, welcomed it. And, you know, we are already in the neighborhood. And we, you know, are New Yorkers. We are Americans. We may be Muslim, but this tragedy was our tragedy as much as anybody else’s. So we didn’t see ourselves as the other. We saw ourselves as being part and parcel of this. So we knew that there might be some people that we might have to bring along, but we did not expect a coordinated national opposition against this project.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are your plans right now? I mean, let’s be clear. Again, this is a mosque and cultural center two blocks away from Ground Zero. It’s the site of the old Burlington Coat Factory. It had been vacant for nine years. The Landmarks committee said this is fine for you to do. Do you plan simply to move forward?

DAISY KHAN: Currently, we are assessing everything. The first thing that we’ve done, just this past Tuesday, we met with a group of 9/11 families. Our organization, American Society for Muslim Advancement; my husband’s organization, Imam Feisal’s organization, Cordoba Initiative — in fact, that’s the organization that has taken this idea forward — you know, we have been in the bridge-building business for a long time, about a decade. And we have — our mandate has been to build bridges between Muslims and people of other religions and cultures. And we’ve just met with a 9/11 family group.

We want to have a dialogue. We have discovered that there really has not been a national dialogue since 9/11 and that what this project has done is sparked a lot of — a lot of, you know, discussion that should have been had after 9/11. We went to war. We never had a proper discussion. So when we met with the 9/11 families, you know, we were administering to their pain, but many of them came around. So I think that we need to have a bigger conversation about religion in America, about Islam in America, about 9/11 and its impact on America, and also its impact on history in general, because I think this is a historical moment. And we have to seize on it, and we have to be open about it. So our focus right now is going to be to talk to as many people as we can.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to bring in Stephan Salisbury, a cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer who has been covering this lack of conversation in America, and also that this is not an isolated incident, what has occurred here in New York in relationship to this cultural center. Could you talk about what some of you’ve been writing about?

STEPHAN SALISBURY: Thanks for having me.

Yeah, the New York controversy — of course, there are two other mosque projects in New York City that are also attracting serious opposition. One was — has been stalled in Staten Island, and another in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn is very controversial, very far away from Ground Zero. But around the country, outside of New York City, similar controversies are popping up all over the place. They’re from Georgia to Tennessee, Wisconsin, Illinois, California. And you see the same kinds of complaints that are — and fears, really, that are exemplified at the Cordoba House initiative in other areas, I think most prominently in Tennessee, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where there’s a very nasty fight over a mosque, which became the subject of attacks from Republican congressional primary candidates and a gubernatorial candidate, who were essentially saying that this mosque that was proposed in Murfreesboro was being proposed by radicals. It was the candidate for governor, said that — went so far as to say that Islam is not a religion, it’s a cult, it shouldn’t be afforded First Amendment rights, it’s an ideology. So these are the kinds of ideas that are framing debates around the country.

In California, which — there’s a small controversy in a town, rural town near San Diego, Temecula, where there’s opposition to a mosque that’s needed by an expanding or growing population of Muslim residents in that area, and one Baptist preacher, who’s a leader of the opposition, has cited it as a — mosques as hotbeds for radical activity, that there are cells embedded in them, there are cells embedded in mosques all over the country. So these are the kinds of ideas that are resonating at the grassroots level, not just a New York, but really coast to coast.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to Daisy Khan for a minute. A very interesting response from the state, from Governor Paterson. They apparently are saying they would give you free state land if you’d simply move away from where you want to build this. And this is Governor Paterson’s quote. He said, “Frankly, if the sponsors were looking for property anywhere at a distance that would be such that it would accommodate a better feeling among the people who are frustrated, I would look into trying to provide them with the state property they would need.” What is your response to that?

DAISY KHAN: Well, we were — you know, we had just begun our dialogue with the 9/11 families. And what we — and I’d like to go back to what the earlier discussion was before I answer this question — is that there is a very strong link that people have, those people who oppose this project, and they cannot delink the religion of Islam from the actions of the extremists. And so, an entire Muslim community is being labeled as if they belong to the extremist ideologies. And this is deeply troubling to us, because this is why I think that, you know, in small pockets of the country we see these kinds of resistances, because people just can’t delink the religion of Islam. So I think that even if we relocated, we still need to have a conversation, because I don’t think that, just by us relocating, that that mindset, that stereotyping, is going to go away.

AMY GOODMAN: I agree with that, but are you taking him up on his offer? Are you considering leaving?

DAISY KHAN: Well, we will meet with anybody to discuss any option. But right now, that is not our first option. First we want to talk to people, who matter, people who are in the neighborhood, people who have a stake in what we’re doing. And we keep all our options open. However, right now, we’re not prepared to immediately, you know, change our plans.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m wondering also, I mean, whether the opponents of this — of your center do not realize the impact that this must be having in the Muslim world, in terms of feeding into the perspective and the viewpoints of the extremists that the United States is hostile to Islam, in general, and whether this is not actually making matters worse, in terms of developing conflicts between the Muslim world and the United States.

DAISY KHAN: This project is also meant to be a counter to extremist ideologies, because it will be led by people who are from the mainstream Muslim community, and the center will be a platform to amplify their voices. And our voices get drowned out by the voices of the extremists. And I would say, if this project was defeated, then it would be really a win for the extremists, and it would be a loss for all of us who are trying to counter the extremists and, you know, who stand for peace, and peace where it matters the most. There’s too much at stake. And that is what happened when we spoke to the 9/11 families, and we explained to them there’s too much at stake. Many of them came around after we explained how this, you know, would have a significant impact on not only how, you know, America is perceived abroad, but really all it would be doing is strengthening the hand of the extremists, who are the very people that we’re all trying to stand against.

AMY GOODMAN: Daisy Khan, are you afraid for yourself, for your family, for Muslims here in New York?

DAISY KHAN: I’m afraid for my country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Stephan Salisbury, I’d like to ask you about the willingness of so many Republican politicians to jump on this bandwagon — Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and others — and their use of this issue and what you’re seeing around the country?

STEPHAN SALISBURY: Well, I think that it’s an election year, and many Republicans see themselves threatened, in some ways, by the kind of maturing grassroots activism that the tea party movement has evolved into. And within that movement, a lot of these controversies around the country involve tea party activists, including the mosque. The Cordoba House initiative in Manhattan was initially inflamed by some folks who were leaders within the tea party movement. And you see that — you see that in California. You see it in Tennessee, where opposition to a mosque in Murfreesboro is being actively promoted by the Wilson County tea party.

So, here in Philadelphia, there have been a number of tea party rallies, and I’ve talked to people who have turned out. They’ve been actually small. This is not a hotbed of tea party activism here in the city. But I’ve talked to many people at these rallies, and one theme that runs through them is a belief that Muslims cannot be American. You see that — and they cite these weird notions of Islamic law, that Muslims hold allegiance to Islamic law and that somehow this Islamic law is different from, you know, Jewish law or the canonical law. And in Oklahoma, for instance, the Oklahoma legislature has passed a measure that will place on the ballot for voters of Oklahoma to decide the question of whether or not Oklahoma should ban the application of Sharia law, Islamic law, in Oklahoma. This is kind of weird, in my view.

So, yeah, it’s a pressure from this very, very far-right grassroots movement, which is, I think, particularly threatening to certain elements of the Republican Party, that has led to people like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich to try to siphon off some of the political energy and to perhaps stoke their own political ambitions.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for joining us. It’s interesting. In New York, in the heated race for governor between Andrew Cuomo and Rick Lazio, a former congressman, it is the home page of the former Congressman Rick Lazio’s website. It is his major issue, is opposing this mosque. Stephan Salisbury with the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Daisy Khan, I want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.

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