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As GOP and Some Top Dems Unite in Opposing NY Islamic Community Center, a Roundtable Discussion with Mother of 9/11 Victim, Rabbi, Muslim Lawmaker and Islamic Scholar

StoryAugust 18, 2010
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We spend the hour on the controversy around the proposed construction of an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, which has turned into a national issue. Opposition to the center first started among fringe, right-wing blogs but has swept into the mainstream, with some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, coming out against it. Republicans have vowed to make the controversy a campaign issue in the fall. We host a roundtable with four guests: Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress; Rabbi Irwin Kula of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; Islamic scholar John Esposito of Georgetown University; and Talat Hamdani, whose son Salman died on 9/11 in the attacks on the World Trade Center. [includes rush transcript]

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

ANJALI KAMAT: Today we spend the hour on the controversy around the proposed construction of an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, an issue that has dominated the news over the past few days. Opposition to the center first started among fringe right-wing blogs, who labeled it the “Ground Zero mosque.” Over the past few weeks, the issue has been swept into the mainstream, with President Obama ultimately weighing in last week.

The proposed facility, called Park51, is actually two blocks from Ground Zero and is described by the Cordoba Initiative, which is spearheading it, as a community center which will house, quote, “a gym, […] pool, restaurant, [a] 500-person auditorium, [a] 9/11 memorial, [a] multi-faith chapel, office and [a] conference space, and [a] prayer space.”

The project is headed by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Muslim cleric who’s been labeled by right-wing critics as an extremist. In fact, Imam Feisal traveled overseas in 2006 with one of President Bush’s closest aides, Karen Hughes. He also helped the FBI with counterterrorism efforts after 9/11.

The proposed community center has nevertheless sparked national headlines, with Republicans vowing to make the controversy a campaign issue in the fall. President Obama addressed the issue on Friday during an iftar dinner celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in the White House State Dining Room.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country, and the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders, and Ground Zero is indeed hallowed ground. But let me be clear, as a citizen and as president, I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion, as everyone else in this country. And that includes — 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. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.

ANJALI KAMAT: Less than twenty-four hours later, President Obama was asked about the Islamic community center by a reporter and appeared to backtrack from his statement of the night before.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.

ANJALI KAMAT: Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this week became the most prominent Democrat to oppose the construction of the facility when he said it should be built in another location.

    SEN. HARRY REID: My statement, I think, is pretty simple. Constitution gives us freedom of religion. I think that it’s very obvious that the mosque should be built someplace else, and that’s what I said.

ANJALI KAMAT: In New York, Governor David Paterson’s office said yesterday that they will meet with the developers of the Cordoba House project. Last week, Paterson offered the developers state-owned land to relocate the center far away from Ground Zero. The developers rejected the offer. They also denied that any meeting has been scheduled with Paterson. Project developer Sharif El-Gamal was interviewed on local news station NY1 on Tuesday. He criticized lawmakers who are opposing the center.

    SHARIF EL-GAMAL: It’s a really sad day for America when our politicians choose to look at a constitutional right and use that as basis for their elections. This is not a debate. This is not a debate. This is us as Muslim Americans giving back to our community.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour on this issue. We’ll speak with the first Muslim elected to Congress, Minnesota Congress member Keith Ellison. Rabbi Irwin Kula is with us. He’s supporting the Cordoba House. Islamic scholar John Esposito will join us.

And we’re joined by Talat Hamdani. Her son Salman died on 9/11 in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Salman was twenty-three years old. He was a police cadet, an emergency medical technician. He had a degree in biochemistry and was headed to his job as a research assistant at Rockefeller University when the planes hit.

First we’re going to go back seven years. It was on the eve of September 11, 2003. It was there that I met Talat and her now late husband Mohammad Saleem Hamdani as they walked to Ground Zero honoring the dead and talking about their son.

    MOHAMMAD SALEEM HAMDANI: Actually, I was sleeping at that time, you know, and my sister-in-law, she called me, and she said, “Did you heard something?” I said, “No.” And she said that one tower already fall down. And the first word from my mouth was that, “Oh, my god! My son is there!”

    TALAT HAMDANI: We tried to contact him on his cell, Salman, but he wasn’t answering. And then I remembered, the day before, when he came home, he had forgotten his cell phone on the job. He worked at Rockefeller, which is 65 Street and York Avenue. So, being the type of person that he was, an EMT and a police cadet and — apart from being an EMT and police cadet, he was a very, you know, kind person, very generous, very helpful. He would — we knew he would go down to help over there, and if he saw such a disaster, he would respond to it. There was a call given out for all the EMTs to come forward for the rescue help. And finally, his brother, my husband’s brother, went to his office, and they told him he never reported to work. And we waited for him to call home that night. The first night, we were — I wasn’t worried. My husband was. I wasn’t worried. But then — so, the next — that’s how the day went by, you know, just waiting for him to call and — the call that never came.

    And the third day, we went down to the center that they had made for the families to come and write their — give their names of their loved ones. Armory, it was. Yes, it was the Armory. We went down there, and we registered his name, and we gave our swab samples for the DNA. And we made a flier, searching for him. We put down his name as Sal Hamdani. My brother did not put down his name, the first name, Mohammad, for certain reasons. And we searched for him. Nobody had seen him. We went down the following weeks. We went down to the Ground Zero itself, asking the firemen, showing them his picture. Maybe they saw him. But nobody saw him at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Talat and Saleem Hamdani talking about their son Salman, who died at Ground Zero on September, 11th, 2001. Talat Hamdani is with us now.

Thank you so much for being with us. I know that’s hard for you to see, because you’re both not only talking about your son, but after that, a year later, you lost your husband Saleem.

TALAT HAMDANI: Thank you for having me. Yes, it’s traumatic. Yes, definitely.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the story of your son is a remarkable one, because he was like many first responders who went down and died, but the story got more complicated. Talk about what happened when you went first looking all over for him, going to the hospitals, to the morgues. Then you went to Mecca to pray to pray for him.

TALAT HAMDANI: A month later, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And at that time, a New York Post headline appeared, that said, “Missing or Hiding? Mystery of the NYPD Cadet from Pakistan,” screamed the Post headline. The sensational article noted that someone fitting your son’s description had been seen near the Midtown Tunnel —-

TALAT HAMDANI: Midtown Tunnel.

AMY GOODMAN: —- a full month after 9/11. You were interrogated. His internet use, his politics, were investigated. What happened then, how you came back to this chaos, when you thought you simply had lost your son at Ground Zero?

TALAT HAMDANI: Well, after 9/11 happened, and like a month later, you know, after we came back from Mecca, there was this voice message on my machine from Congressman Ackerman’s office to contact him, and maybe he’ll help me find my son. He has some news about him. So we contacted his office, and we were interrogated by Congressman Ackerman about his faith and about us and everything. And he led us to believe that maybe he was detained by the INS, by the ICE. And I said, “He’s an American citizen.” But he said, “Well, he wasn’t born here.” So we were — you know, there was hope, even though being detained, but that hope of being alive. I’ll take it even today. So, I kept, you know, speaking up, because I had to clear his name. If I had not done so, he might have — he definitely would have gone down in history as another, you know, terrorist linked with those attacks. So then, on March 20th, we were notified at 11:30 p.m that his remains —-

AMY GOODMAN: This is about six months later.

TALAT HAMDANI: Six months later. And we had the funeral. You know, being a cadet, the NYPD honored him. He went under the American flag -—

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Police Department.

TALAT HAMDANI: Yes. He went under the American flag, which he said, “That is honor, Mama.” Three years ago, you know, we know someone who died who was a lieutenant, and he said, “Mama, that is honor, and that is how I want to go.” And that is how he went.

AMY GOODMAN: And you had the funeral at the mosque on East 96th Street.


AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Bloomberg spoke. The Police Commissioner Ray Kelly spoke. Congressman Ackerman spoke.

TALAT HAMDANI: Ackerman came, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And this was after newspapers were camped outside, and cameras, your house, looking for the so-called terrorist.

TALAT HAMDANI: Oh, it was horrible. It was like they descended like vultures upon my house.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush talked about him as a hero. Salman is named in the USA PATRIOT Act as a hero.

TALAT HAMDANI: Yes, he is.

AMY GOODMAN: So it all turned around. But your son remains dead, as over — as, what, close to 3,000 people died on September 11th.

TALAT HAMDANI: He was one of them, yes, definitely.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, today, come, what, almost nine years later —-

TALAT HAMDANI: Nine years.

AMY GOODMAN: —- and a community center, an Islamic community center and mosque, is proposed being built a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. Your thoughts?

TALAT HAMDANI: The objection to this Islamic cultural center, I think they are illegal, because the zoning has been approved. There’s nothing wrong with it. People, though they object — some 9/11 families do object to it. They call it insensitivity. But it’s not about sensitivity or insensitivity, about emotions; it’s about the legality of the situation. It is about our rights as Americans. We are protected under the Constitution. There is freedom of religion. You know, if it’s one faith today, it’s going to be another faith tomorrow. That is scary. And to scapegoat the Muslims for the acts of a foreign terrorist, that is — that is hatred. That is wrong, because if we go by that argument, that we were attacked by a foreign terrorist group, who did this in the name of, you know, my faith, Islam, and hence all the Muslims are terrorists, as has been happening since 9/11, I say we have carried the cross. No more. No more. So, if that argument is valid, then, by that token, Timothy McVeigh’s actions also makes all Christians terrorists. So, that is wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and come back to this discussion. Again, we’ll be spending the hour on the controversy of the Islamic cultural center, the proposal for it to be built near Ground Zero. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Talat Hamdani — her son died at the World Trade Center in the 9/11 attacks. He was among scores of Muslims who died among the close to 3,000 people who died. We’re also joined by Rabbi Irwin Kula, who’s president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. John Esposito is with us, professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University. And Congressman Keith Ellison, Democrat from Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress. I’m Amy Goodman, with Anjali Kamat. Anjali?

ANJALI KAMAT: Congressman Ellison, I want to go to you. What is — why are you supporting the Park51 project? And what is your reaction to the opposition to the project from Democrats, most prominently Harry Reid?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: I have three basic reasons why I think that this is a project that has merit and should move forward.

First of all, by supporting this project, we directly undermine and counteract the narrative of the transnational terrorists who claim that America is at war with Islam. America is not at war with Islam. And all we have to do to demonstrate that is to stand on our Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of worship for all Americans. So, the fact is, is that while Anwar Awlaki and other people like that are trying to argue that the United States is against Islam, America has a Constitution, and hopefully a majority of its population which still believes in religious freedom and tolerance. And so, that is the first reason.

Second reason is that it’s the constitutional right of all Americans to worship as they see fit. And if this project is turned back, it will embolden elements not only in New York, but all over the country, that are trying to stop mosques literally all over the country. Now, of course, this is not a mosque. But the fact is, is that Muslims from New York and in Sheepshead Bay, including that, and other places in Kentucky, places in Michigan, places in Wisconsin, there are these local elements who are fearful about what Muslims represent in this country and are trying to stop them from freedom of worship.

And then, of course, the third reason is the reason that is the very founding of this country. I mean, every school kid knows that when the Pilgrims came to the United States — well, what is now the United States — and landed on Plymouth Rock, it was because they were being persecuted from freedom of practice of their religion. And so, the very root elements of this country are in freedom of faith. And I’m worried that, as we see in Europe, you know, minarets being banned, we see hijabs being banned, that this is a pernicious development, and we should hold fast to our heritage of religious tolerance in the United States.

Now, what do I think about fellow Democrats? Unfortunately, I think that some of them are in some tight races. Their opponents have made this into a divisive wedge issue. And they blinked on the Constitution, because they’re afraid of their prospects in November. But I just want to tell any Democrat that, look, you standing on religious tolerance and freedom is going to be a winning election issue, because this resonates with Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you about President Obama. He made a strong statement on Friday night at a dinner —-

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Yes, he did.

AMY GOODMAN: —- breaking the fast, the Ramadan — were you there, Congressman Ellison?


AMY GOODMAN: At iftar. Were you there?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: No, I was on the opposite end of the country with Nancy Pelosi. I was not with the President. But I had been there every year except this one. But I had other obligations that night. But I was aware of the speech, and I was very proud of the President.

AMY GOODMAN: So I wanted to ask what you thought the next day, which surprised many, when this was his response to a follow-up question.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.

AMY GOODMAN: Many people saw this as President Obama backtracking. Congressman Ellison, your response?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Well, I don’t think those people are correct. I think no president, no congressman, should be urging or trying to advocate for the erection of a religious institution or the defeat of the building of that same institution. It’s our job to protect people’s rights. It’s not our job to tell people where to put a synagogue or where to put a Buddhist temple or where to put a church or a mosque. The President is correct. He should not be in the business of advocating the construction of a religious institution. What he should be doing is saying that everybody has a right to pursue their rights and that he is going to uphold and defend the Constitution, which means he’s going to guarantee their right to do it. And that includes not creating a hostile atmosphere so that people are afraid or inhibited or chilled from exercising their rights, as politicians like Peter King and many others have done. So I don’t think the President’s wrong.

ANJALI KAMAT: Rabbi Irwin Kula, you wanted to interject?

RABBI IRWIN KULA: Yeah. I understand what Keith is saying, and the President has to be careful, and the politics of this is — are so outlandish. But I actually think the distinction between the right to build and the wisdom to build is a very, very, very dangerous distinction. It actually is pernicious, in a way. And I would have liked the President to say something like this: “I reject the premises of the question, because I know where that question is coming from. That question is coming from already a premise that there are these terrorists and these American Muslims, and they’re equivalent. And therefore, you’re asking me about the wisdom of American Muslims, who have been in New York for a long time in a mosque that was twenty — that was within twelve blocks for the last twenty-seven years. And the very fact of the question of the wisdom is actually to presume suspicion. And so, I reject the question. There’s only two — there’s only one wisdom I care about: the wisdom of the Constitution, I care about, and the wisdom of distinguishing between our genuine enemies and American citizens.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rabbi Kula, let me ask you about the statement of the Anti-Defamation League. It pubished a statement opposing the Park51 project, saying, quote, “Ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment,” they said, “building an Islamic center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right.” The ADL national director Abraham Foxman later defended this position on CNN.

    ABRAHAM FOXMAN: Our position basically was an appeal to the imam and his supporters. If you want to heal, if you want to reconcile, is this the best place to do it? Should you do it in face — in the face of those who are saying to you, most of the victims, families of the victims, the responders, are saying, “Please don’t do it here. Please don’t do it in our cemetery.” 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.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League. Rabbi Kula, your response?

RABBI IRWIN KULA: I mean, I’m just deeply disappointed, and I was, you know, quoted as saying I think the ADL should be ashamed of itself. I think the sad thing here is that Abe Foxman, since 9/11, has been one of the most important advocates to ensure that there was not defamation and not prejudice for Muslims, and the shame here is that he actually knows Daisy and knows Imam Feisal for a long time. And so, what I think what we really have here is tremendous political pressure.

AMY GOODMAN: And Daisy is Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal —-

RABBI IRWIN KULA: And Daisy Khan, I’m sorry, yeah, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. And what we have here is tremendous political pressure. And I’m sure the stories are going to come out in the next months of the kinds of pressures that were put on somebody like Abe. And you can see the torturous kinds of statement that he had to make about the feelings, I mean, which -— anguish, and I think we need to say something, that the anguish of people does not automatically translate into public policy. And sometimes anguish and really, really personal suffering needs to be disconnected from public policy, because anguish doesn’t allow us to abandon rationality. Anguish doesn’t allow us to abandon kind of first principles about what our country stands for.

And I had two friends who died in the World Trade Center. I was very involved in this for a long time. And to be able to use the sensitivities of people to really — to really stoke fear, there’s something very cynical about that. And there isn’t such a thing as the sensitivities of 9/11 families. There are a lot of different 9/11 families, and there are not only 9/11 families who lost directly people, but there are 9/11 families who were forced out of their homes for years in the neighborhood. So, what do we mean by the ”the feelings of 9/11 families”? These are abstractions used to actually stoke fear in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Imam Rauf, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is headed, by the way, on a State Department mission for two weeks to the Middle East —-

RABBI IRWIN KULA: Right. Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: —- who worked for President Bush’s State Department, worked with one of his closest aides, Karen Hughes —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- when she was doing that public diplomacy to reach out to Muslims.

RABBI IRWIN KULA: Traveled with, half the world.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you know him?

RABBI IRWIN KULA: Well, kind of in the interfaith work that we’ve been doing over the last decade. I was one of the readers of his book, What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision of Muslims in America. We were in Australia recently, at the World Parliament of World Religions. You know, in the interfaith world, there aren’t that many people working at the cutting edge of interfaith. That is what’s so crazy about this story. Imam Feisal has been at the cutting edge of whatever we mean by “moderate Islam.” I mean, those words weren’t even used until very, very recently. This is a guy who, well before 9/11, he had two books that are very, very important — Islam: A Search for Meaning and Islam: A Sacred Law. These are things that people need to read. And it’s so easy to take one comment out of context. Any of us who have been in the media, any one of us who have been interviewed, you can take a statement and turn someone into a radical and turn someone into a terrorist. This guy has been at the highest echelons — State Department, FBI. He has spoken in the Aspen Institute. He’s spoken in Washington Cathedral. This is — I mean, it’s really crazy.

And that’s another part of the story that’s very scary. I mean, the community board, before anything, voted this 15-0. There was an amazing conversation. In fact, there was a request from — of Daisy Khan: Could you put a 9/11 memorial inside of the — of what is now Park51? And he said, “Of course. We’re planning on doing that.” And it was — this got stoked by a very small group of people, and then — what I would say is an irresponsible national leadership, whether it’s Gingrich and Palin, and then a certain element of the media. And what’s very scary is, what was a local issue that was — that was a non-issue. This is a group of people, led by Imam Feisal, that has been ten blocks from there for the last twenty-seven years. This is a complete non-issue. And so, what it really says is, what’s going on in America?

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what’s very interesting, as Nate Silver points out, well-known pollster, a plurality of Manhattanites are actually for this.


AMY GOODMAN: Even now.


AMY GOODMAN: When — with this swirl of negative publicity. You also have the issue of conservatives attacking, and yet you have — you know, who are very concerned about states’ rights. This went through this long process. Among them, the Landmarks Commission said they’re not going to make this a landmark, this building, that it could be rebuilt. Can you talk about what it means for conservatives to talk about Imam Feisal as a secret radical?

RABBI IRWIN KULA: Well, I think what happens for — in a hyper kind of twenty-four/seven media is, as soon as words like “radical,” as soon as words like “extremist” come out, they have a life of their own. And because we’re on a tinderbox right now in the country altogether, when you have 20 percent of Americans unemployed, you know, or even off — they’re not even looking for employment anymore — you have so many Americans in very, very serious pain, when you have so much change happening in a country, sociological and cultural change, and religious change, and when you have so much going on, there’s a kind of tinderbox, and there’s a lot of fear and a lot of anger. And it calls for incredibly mature leadership — by the way, political leadership and religious leadership. And it’s so easy to stoke those fears for political capital. And that’s what we have. So, you put out the word “terrorism” and “extremist,” and it’s attached to him forever. Forever.

ANJALI KAMAT: I want to bring in Professor John Esposito into the conversation. He’s the university professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University and is author of several books. Most recent is The Future of Islam. Professor Esposito, I want to play a clip for you. It’s the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero has generated a flood of absurd comparisons from the right, including Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich.

    NEWT GINGRICH: Those folks don’t have any interest in reaching out to the community. They’re trying to make a case about supremacy. That’s why they won’t go anywhere else. That’s why they won’t accept any other offer. And I think we ought to be honest about the fact that we have a right — and this happens all the time in America. You know, Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.

    RUSH LIMBAUGH: Let me ask you, what would happen, do you think, if the Ku Klux Klan wanted to establish a memorial at Gettysburg?

    CALLER: Well, you know, I don’t know. Nothing’s happening in Lower Manhattan.

    RUSH LIMBAUGH: What do you mean you don’t know? They wouldn’t get to first base. Nobody would put up with the Klan building a memorial anywhere, much less Gettysburg.

    CALLER: Well, you’re right there, but where is the — where is the public outrage? If we don’t have it for Lower Manhattan, do you think it’ll —

    RUSH LIMBAUGH: The public outrage is there! You’re just not seeing it march in the street.

ANJALI KAMAT: That was Rush Limbaugh talking to a caller. Professor Esposito, you’ve said that Islamophobia needs to be taken as seriously as anti-Semitism. Talk about these clips, what the right is saying and the hate it’s whipping up.

JOHN ESPOSITO: Well, I think it’s very clear what’s happening here. Note how Rush Limbaugh talks about the Ku Klux Klan. So he’s equating what? American Muslims and the vast majority of Muslims in the world with the Ku Klux Klan? What’s clear here is a notion of collective guilt and punishment. Let me begin with just a brief quote from an American Muslim who’s also a prominent professional on this issue: “It’s a matter of principle and not the personalities involved. They may be doing it for all the wrong reasons, but we’re being attacked simply and only for not knowing our place, not being sufficiently sorry for a crime we didn’t commit. It’s like we need to assume some collective guilt for 9/11 and act accordingly.”

And I think that when you see people — for example, Newt Gingrich. Here’s somebody who’s old enough, from the South, can remember the problems of racism and civil rights. He also is reportedly a Christian. In fact, some reports say he’s a Catholic. He’s got to remember how a theology of anti-Semitism led to a history of pogroms that ultimately led to the Final Solution. And much of that was based on collective guilt, let alone what we did to the Japanese. The fact that folks can say the things that they’re saying now and that media will often publish them — they would use words that media would never allow if one were talking about Jews or African Americans today, and most probably Italian Americans — what we’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg of a social cancer that’s been growing in America for the last decade.

AMY GOODMAN: Rabbi Kula?

RABBI IRWIN KULA: Yeah, I actually agree. I think, very important, when you hear terms like “those folks” — in other words, forget about the tropes using Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, because that is so clear. The more subtle, very dangerous language is when a very important politician — we’re not talking about Newt Gingrich. We’re not talking about some low-level congressperson. We’re talking about someone who has a global stage and is considered an intellectual heavyweight within the Republican Party.

AMY GOODMAN: Who will possibly be running for president on the Republican ticket.

RABBI IRWIN KULA: And a possible — when he uses words like “those folks” — well, wait a second. Imam Feisal and his community aren’t “those folks.” They had people who got killed in the World Trade Center, because actually “those folks” live in that neighborhood, which happens to be our neighborhood called Lower Manhattan, called New York, called the United States of America. And that is incredibly insidious, even more insidious than tropes of Nazi and Ku Klux Klan.

AMY GOODMAN: You lost family in the Holocaust.

RABBI IRWIN KULA: Yeah, my —- I lost a lot of family -—

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Amy? Amy, this is Keith. Can I dive in there?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Let me just hear Rabbi Kula talk about the Holocaust for one minute, and then we’re going to go to you, Congressman Elllison.

RABBI IRWIN KULA: Yeah, I just think my father came — my father came here in 1938 from Poland. He came here to escape the Holocaust. He came because of religious — for religious freedom. And here we are. You know, my father is eighty-one, and he’s watching this and can’t believe this, because if you — I mean, and this is where the professor was right. Just take out the word “Muslim” and put in the word “Jew,” and you see that this strain, which has always been a part of America — and especially when things get tense, and especially when people are under tremendous stress — and we are — it’s very easy, right, to blame somebody. And now, it turns out, you know, Muslims are getting blamed.

TALAT HAMDANI: Since 9/11. Since 9/11, we’re carrying the cross.

RABBI IRWIN KULA: Since 9/11, right. Since 9/11.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and come back. Congressman Ellison, we’ll go first to you. This is Democracy Now! We’re talking about the controversy swirling around the Islamic cultural center that is planned to be built in Lower Manhattan. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our subject for the hour, the controversy that is becoming — is increasingly raging, not only in this country, but around the world. Our guests are Talat Hamdani — she lost her son Salman on 9/11. He was one of the emergency responders. Rabbi Kula is with us. Rabbi Irwin Kula is president of the National Center for Learning and Leadership. John Esposito teaches Islamic studies at Georgetown University. And we’re joined by the first Muslim elected to Congress, Keith Ellison. He’s from Minnesota.

Congressman Ellison, you wanted to jump in here?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Yeah. I wanted to allude to the point that you just made about the world audience. I mean, the world is watching this controversy. Everybody is sort of wondering what’s going to happen. And, you know, I guess my question to your guests — and I’d like to hear your views, as well, if you can share them — what does the rest of the world think about this? What do people who want to have a recruiting script for — to make war on the US think about this controversy? What use do they make of it, when you hear these — some of these outrageous statements that American politicians and cultural leaders are making?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to —-

REP. KEITH ELLISON: You know, so, for example, Bryan Fischer -—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead. Bryan Fischer?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Bryan Fischer says there should be no more mosques made — built in America. You know, some of the outrageous things that Limbaugh and Gingrich have said, Palin. What does the rest of the world think about this?

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey questioned whether Islam is a religion at all and suggested the Constitution’s protection of freedom of religion should not apply to Muslims. Ramsey made the comments while campaigning for the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary race.

    LT. GOV. RON RAMSEY: Now, you know, I’m all about freedom of religion. I’ll obey the First Amendment as much as I obey the Second Amendment, as much as I’ll obey the Tenth Amendment, and on and on and on. But then you cross the line when they start trying to bring Sharia law here to the States, into the United States. We’re already in law, and we live under our Constitution, and they probably live under our Constitution. But it’s scary. Now, you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life or cult, whatever you want to call it. But certainly we do protect our religions, but at the same time, this is something that we are going to have to face.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey. He is running for the governorship of Tennessee. Your response —-


AMY GOODMAN: Congressman, let me go to Professor Esposito.

JOHN ESPOSITO: Let me just make a point here, following up on Keith’s comment. The way this plays out overseas is that, to our friends in the Muslim world, which are the vast majority of Muslims, people are stunned. And it feeds a concern about, as that has existed before, that there’s a double standard -— that is, that, on the one hand, we’re admired for our principles and our values, but on the other hand, there’s always been a sense that we say we stand for democracy, we say we stand for pluralism, of freedom of religion — all of these things, as the Gallup World Poll shows, vast majorities of Muslims admire. But significant numbers of Muslims around the world believe that there’s a double standard when it comes to how Muslims themselves are actually treated.

On the other hand, it plays into the extremists. The extremists wind up saying, in effect, “See? At the end of the day, to be a Muslim is to be persecuted. There is a clash of civilizations.” And I think that that’s what’s ironic. And it’s underscored by something that you and others said earlier. The problem here is not just that you have some rural rednecks who are making comments; it’s that you have people who hold responsible positions — I’m not even going to say that they are responsible people — but people who hold responsible positions in our society, whether it’s politicians, whether it’s so-called Christian ministers and others. And the fact that you could have, for example, the pastor of a church that only has eighty people, who calls for an event like burning Qur’ans, and that that could then become an international issue and get that kind of coverage, shows the depth of the problem that we face and the urgency about our need to face it.

ANJALI KAMAT: Professor Esposito, this Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon. Can you take us back, over the past decade, really, and talk about the sort of early waves of hate crimes that hit and the hate speech against Muslims?

JOHN ESPOSITO: Well, I think that when you look, for example, at particularly, you know, at post-9/11, you have a wave of hate crimes. But ironically, post-9/11, you have an America that, if you look at polling, responded a lot better than it did after the first couple of years. And I think part of that reason things got much more negative was that while President Bush made a very good distinction between terrorists and Islam, at times the Bush administration played the terrorism card so much that it fed into an American population feeling unduly under siege — not that we don’t have to be concerned about terrorism, but unduly under siege. Then what you see over the years are problems of attacks on mosques.

But more importantly, the fact that you have people like Representative King and others, you have politicians who, over the last decade, have played this card — Rick Lazio and others. You have Christian right ministers — John Hagee, Franklin Graham — these ministers saying that not that terrorists are evil, but Islam is evil. And remember that Hagee and Rod Parsley were two ministers whom McCain embraced. What people forget now when look at — as we lead up to the elections is that during the presidential elections, you could see the Islamophobia in the way in which people were trying to prove that Obama was somehow a Muslim, as if that should discredit him, and indeed Secretary Powell had to speak to that. And on the other hand, you had all the major Republican candidates playing the anti-Islam card. And that’s simply been picked up now by other political candidates now, primarily Republican, but also some Democrats.

So, Islamophobia runs very deep. But what we want to do is not acknowledge that it exists, so — or we even say, well, we shouldn’t use the term. And the reality of it is, it’s like any form of racism. We need to call a spade a spade and address it head-on. If we don’t, this will simply continue to spread.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the comments of two New York politicians. You just mentioned, Professor Esposito, New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio. He was a longtime congressman. He’s now running against Andrew Cuomo for the governorship of New York. He vehemently opposes the cultural center project. He and many other conservatives have repeatedly questioned the positions taken by one of the project’s founders, Imam Feisal Rauf.

    RICK LAZIO: You know, the person who is spearheading this effort, Imam Rauf, has said, on the very month that we suffered this terrible surprise attack, that America was an accessory to the crime of 9/11 and that Osama bin Laden was, in a real sense, made in the USA. This is not the voice of a bridge builder. I know they’re trying to portray this now as a situation where we’ve got peacemakers and bridge builders. But the person who’s driving this is affiliated with some of the most radical organizations that we know. He refuses to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization, and he’s affiliated very closely with the Perdana Global group that funded the flotilla that tried to run the blockade in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Rabbi Kula, you’re saying this isn’t true?

RABBI IRWIN KULA: I mean, some of this just isn’t true. I mean, I understand facts don’t matter. I get that. I really do understand that. I’m a multicultural — I’m a post-modern person who understands there’s multiple narratives. I get it. But that literally isn’t — read the last chapter of his most recent book, Imam Feisal’s last chapter. It’s about love. It’s about a rejection of terrorism. It’s a rejection of violence. And it turns out that a piece of the Muslim world is in crisis right now. We know that. And the question is, are we going to lump every single Muslim in the world together? And that’s what Rick Lazio is doing. And it’s very, very dangerous, because it’s splitting — it’s splitting American Muslims from Americans. That’s a very dangerous thing for the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Ellison, he is a fellow — he was a fellow congressman, Rick Lazio.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Well, to me, you know, there is this deep tradition of right-wing populism and scapegoating. He reminds me of “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. He reminds me of George Wallace, who swore he would never be out-raced again and said, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” as he stood in front of that schoolhouse door. I mean, there is a tradition of pandering politicians, appealing to the worst impulses in the population. I don’t know if Rick Lazio believes what he says or not. I do know that he sees an opportunity, and he is seizing that opportunity. It’s disgusting and disgraceful. And my question is, how bad do you want to be governor? Are you really willing to throw a whole set of Americans under the bus just so you can be governor?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to also be clear, Congressman Lazio was not fringe. He ran a very close race against Hillary Clinton for the Senate. They were neck and neck. And — Rabbi Kula?

RABBI IRWIN KULA: See, I think what we have to, in a sense, pull back for a second and say there are two strains, both in America, but there are two strains in all human beings. There’s a strain in human being that is afraid of the other. There’s a strain in the human being that, when we get scared and we get insecure, we either, you know, fight — we’re either afraid and fight, we either freeze, you know, or we either run away. And so, that fear is really real. And then there’s this other strain in us as human beings, that wants to reach out, that wants to connect, that recognizes that we are in this together. And those two strains, which are in every single person, are now being played out in the larger political and cultural landscape. And we have to be really — really, those of us who, for whatever reasons, are lucky enough to not be afraid — because it’s really — there’s a certain amount of it that’s just luck — how we were raised and who we got to meet —- that what we have to do is we have to mitigate the fear, not make the fear worse.


AMY GOODMAN: Let me just bring in Talat Hamdani. You leave here, and you’re going to go to a news conference outside the -—

TALAT HAMDANI: It’s a meeting to — right.

AMY GOODMAN: A meeting.

TALAT HAMDANI: A meeting to —- how to deal with this issue, and many different organizations who are supporting this cause, fighting for the rights of all Americans, which now are being violated, because, from my perspective, Muslims are as equal members, citizens, as any other faith in this country. They died on 9/11. They were the first responders. They also died after helping. Their children are on the frontlines. So when it comes to -—

AMY GOODMAN: When you say “on the frontlines,” where?

TALAT HAMDANI: In Afghanistan and Iraq. Muslims are fighting, too. So when it comes for us to pay our duties, we do it. But when it comes to us demanding our rights, we are not getting it. We are being told, you know, “You are a terrorist,” which is very wrong. What is mine is mine. I’m doing my duty, and I want my rights. And this stoking the fear that, you know, all these politicians are jumping in on the bandwagon and trying to make it exploit, the tragedy of all those 3,000 people killed for their own political expediency, it’s disgraceful.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Congressman Ellison, the reports from Gainesville, Florida. A Florida church with “Islam is of the devil” signs in its front lawn plans to host an “International Burn a Qur’an Day” on the ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. It reminds me —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- back when you were first elected, the whole controversy around your swearing in, wanting to do it on a Qur’an.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Well, you know, one of the things that I’d like to share with you is that when I met President Bush face to face, he shook my hand vigorously, and he said that he thought was a good thing and that he was happy that I was in the Congress. So, I mean, I think it’s true that, you know, a few years —-

AMY GOODMAN: He thought it was a good thing that you were -— you were swearing on — actually it was Abraham Lincoln’s Bible, is that right?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: No, no. It was Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean — I mean Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Yeah, and yeah, President Bush was supportive. And, you know, President Bush is well aware that, you know, I’m a liberal Democrat, and he’s a conservative, but that did not stop us from agreeing that America had a very important heritage of religious tolerance that we both needed to celebrate. But you know what? This is just one of those examples of what happens when politicians and cultural leaders sort of light the fuse. And it does end up in extremely tragic situations, and that’s why it’s so important that you’re doing this program. And I just want to say to the rabbi and to Ms. Talat, who — those of you who live in New York, that I am exceedingly proud of you, and I’m so glad that you’re doing what you’re doing, because, you know, we’ve got to offer that counter-narrative. Most New Yorkers, a plurality of New Yorkers, still believe in our First Amendment heritage. I’m so proud of Mayor Bloomberg.

ANJALI KAMAT: Congressman Ellison, we just have a few seconds left, and I just want to ask you, what political rights do Muslim Americans have now? What political price can they exact, with Democrats and Republicans using this as political capital?

REP. KEITH ELLISON: Well, what actual practical rights Muslims have in America today is in the balance. It’s being determined as we speak. The fact is, is that that — the question you asked me will be answered if this mosque goes forward. And if it doesn’t, I think it will also be answered. And so, the fact is, it’s time to get busy, to reach out in love, to reach out in brother and sisterhood, and to make sure that all Americans can claim the promises of the First Amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, and this is certainly a conversation that will continue, Congressman Keith Ellison, joining us from Minneapolis, first Muslim congressman to be elected to Congress; Professor Esposito from Georgetown University; Rabbi Irwin Kula, who is president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; and Talat Hamdani, who lost her son on 9/11.

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