The ‘Ground Zero Mosque,’ A Right-Wing Fever Dream That Never Was

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NEW YORK ― Building an Islamic heart in Lower Manhattan was at all times bold ― not as a result of the organizers anticipated it might be controversial, however as a result of they needed it to be a primary of its type. 

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Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his then-wife, Daisy Khan, needed to name it “Cordoba House,” a reference to a interval of relative tolerance and pluralism in medieval Spain beneath Muslim rule. 

The proposed heart would set up a landmark in bustling New York City the place Muslims from throughout the state and the nation might take part in all the things from artwork lessons to halal bazaars, sports activities and academic programming. The 15-story heart would come with a mosque, a swimming pool, a 500-seat performing arts heart and baby care services.

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“For us, it was a way to feature Islam in its full glory and its full diversity and its cultural production. The music, the art, the cuisine, and the history,” mentioned Khan, an award-winning speaker and girls’s activist. “It would become an iconic center in New York.”

But Khan and Abdul Rauf’s imaginative and prescient for the multifaceted heart would by no means come to be. Instead, a coalition of conservative antagonists managed to show a wholly imagined model of it into the centerpiece of an ideological conflict within the aftermath of Sept. 11.

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That started with the identify itself: Cordoba House turned the “Ground Zero Mosque,” regardless of the actual fact it wasn’t only a mosque and was not precisely positioned at Ground Zero, both.  

The “Ground Zero Mosque” took on a life by itself, inflaming a grieving metropolis after 9/11 and inciting Islamophobic teams from throughout the nation. Overnight, an area story a few group board assembly to debate the proposed Islamic heart turned a fiercely debated worldwide controversy. There was a 50% enhance in anti-Muslim hate crimes the 12 months after it was proposed. 

Hate mail about Cordoba House, a proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan.

Hate mail about Cordoba House, a proposed Islamic heart in Lower Manhattan.

The assaults got here from many sides: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani referred to as the plan a “desecration” and mentioned that “nobody would allow something like that at Pearl Harbor.” John Bolton, who later labored for the Trump administration, delivered a speech by video throughout one of many September 2010 protests in opposition to Cordoba House and questioned the “true efforts” of the mosque organizers. 

The Anti-Defamation League issued an announcement suggesting that it “would be better if an alternative location was found” for the middle, and questioned the “connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values.” Some kinfolk of 9/11 victims mentioned they discovered the proposal offensive as a result of the attackers shared the identical religion. 

Like many issues that occurred after 9/11, the combat over the middle now deserves a revisit. Earlier this month, the Anti-Defamation League issued an apology for its opposition.

“Today one can see how the Cordoba House could have helped to heal our country as we nursed the wounds from the horror of 9/11,” mentioned Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL’s CEO and nationwide director. “As we near the 20th anniversary of that tragic day, the need for healing remains.”  

Khan hopes that statements like ADL’s will assist reframe the discourse and encourage others who opposed the Islamic heart to rethink. 

“It should now embolden the moderates, the people of conscience, and the people that are standing up for true American values,” mentioned Khan.

But others say it’s too little, too late. 

The story of Cordoba House is, in some ways, the right encapsulation of the final 20 years. While Muslim Americans have made huge strides in politics, popular culture and activism, Islamophobia remains to be barely contained. 

An artistic rendering provided by SOMA Architects on Oct. 1, 2010, shows an exterior view of the proposed Islamic community c

An creative rendering supplied by SOMA Architects on Oct. 1, 2010, reveals an exterior view of the proposed Islamic group heart and mosque with white partitions and flooring made up of a honeycomb of abstract shapes. 

‘Making Islam Feel American To Americans’

There are Three million Muslims within the United States — approximately 1% of the inhabitants. Islam in America has no majority race, comprising descendants of slaves, immigrants from greater than 70 nations, and plenty of second and third-generation Americans.

More than 750,000 Muslims dwell in New York City alone, and the 5 boroughs are home to 285 mosques. Almost 50 of them are in Manhattan, in line with a 2018 tally from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and at the least two are positioned in Lower Manhattan. 

But on the flip of the century, areas and assets had been rising restricted in lots of mosques, they usually usually needed to run back-to-back congregational prayers to accommodate the big crowds for Friday worship. 

That was true at Abdul Rauf’s Lower Manhattan mosque, Masjid al-Farah, which impressed him and Khan to construct one thing greater. They made an unsuccessful bid on a former consulate and townhouse in 1997, adopted by one other on the McBurney YMCA in 1999. 

“The timing had nothing to do with post-9/11,” mentioned Khan. “We had the whole business plan by then. People don’t realize the reasons as to why we wanted to do this.”

Early plans for Cordoba House from 1997-1999. 

Early plans for Cordoba House from 1997-1999. 

It wasn’t till the pair met Sharif El-Gamal, an actual property developer and chairman of Soho Properties and a frequent worshipper at Masjid Al-Farah, that they obtained some traction. El-Gamal made it potential for them to purchase an previous Burlington Coat Factory in Lower Manhattan in July 2009 for $4.85 million.

Before 9/11, 45-47 Park had been a bustling block, however by then, it was empty and dilapidated. The web site’s homeowners had been attempting to promote the constructing for years however had been swimming upstream in opposition to the Great Recession.

The location was good for Adul Rauf’s congregation. They started utilizing the area weekly for the overflow from Masjid al-Farah throughout Friday prayers whereas the principals labored on plans to rework it into what they’d envisioned. 

They pictured one thing just like the YMCA or the Jewish Community Center the place El-Gamal took his personal two daughters, a spot that catered to not only one spiritual group, however to all New Yorkers ― a gateway to interfaith programming and a beacon of spiritual pluralism and tolerance. 

“Part of the problem we’ve had in the United States is that Islam has been seen as a foreign thing and not American,” mentioned Abdul Rauf. Cordoba House, he hoped, would “make Islam feel American to Americans.”

Binders of both hate mail and support letters in Daisy Khan's office.

Binders of each hate mail and assist letters in Daisy Khan’s workplace.

When The Death Threats Came Pouring In

In April 2010, the trio took their plans to Community Board No.1, an elected physique that represents Lower Manhattan and advises municipal leaders on points like town price range and land use.  

They hoped the April assembly would assist garner assist for the middle and introduce them to the group. Khan and Abdul Rauf introduced alongside a PowerPoint outlining their imaginative and prescient.

When they obtained to the mosque portion of the PowerPoint, Khan remembers listening to loud whispers and the press of a digicam. Her coronary heart sank. She knew it wasn’t a very good signal.

The subsequent day, Khan remembers the headlines plastered on each New York tabloid. The phrases “mega-mosque” and “Ground Zero mosque” spiraled to native and nationwide media shops. The disinformation was uncontrolled, she mentioned, and right-wing figures capitalized on it.

The group board scheduled a vote on a decision in regards to the plans for Cordoba House for May 25, 2010. Although the vote had no actual affect on the plans, the organizers had hoped it might bolster assist. 

More than 100 folks testified at that assembly, with center faculty college students, spiritual leaders and residents delivering impassioned speeches for and in opposition to the middle. Others held images of these killed within the assaults and indicators studying  “Show respect for 9/11. No mosque!” 

After nearly 4 hours of debate, the board voted overwhelmingly in assist ― 29-1, with 10 abstentions. 

“We could have said, ‘We’re not going to get involved in this issue.’ But I felt very strongly about it, as did some of my board members. It was incredibly important that we stand up for this project,“ said Julie Menin, the board chair at the time. “Leadership is about taking a stance, even when there’s controversy.”

Menin, whose mom was a Holocaust survivor, informed HuffPost that her workplace acquired lots of of threatening emails and letters, together with loss of life threats, which she forwarded to the mayor’s workplace and the police. She mentioned the controversy surrounding the mosque “brought out some of the worst hatred and intolerance” she had ever seen.  

The ferocity of the opposition spilled outdoors the board conferences and onto the streets. Notorious anti-Muslim activists like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer stoked the opposition to Cordoba House, penning columns in newspapers, showing on prime-time tv, and organizing protests on the proposed web site.

“There were a lot of far-right forces that came to the community board to express virulent opposition to the project,” mentioned Menin.

The heated scene at a community board meeting to debate the Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan on May 25, 2010. 

The heated scene at a group board assembly to debate the Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan on May 25, 2010. 

Geller, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center deemed the “anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figure” led the anti-Muslim hysteria and often slandered the venture whereas writing for right-wing media like Breitbart and showing on Fox News 

She joined forces with different right-wing, Islamophobic extremists like Spencer and Daniel Pipes to steer rallies in opposition to Cordoba House and coordinate a false marketing campaign suggesting the venture was tied to terrorists overseas. Their group, “Stop Islamization of America,” continues to brush shoulders with white supremacist teams throughout the nation and in Europe.

By then, the outrage over Cordoba House was in full swing. Reporters began exhibiting up at Khan’s workplace and her house in New York unannounced. News shops throughout the globe picked up on the right-wing framing of Cordoba House, deeming it the “Ground Zero Mosque,” “Victory Mosque” and “Mega-Mosque.” It turned the speaking level of the 2010 midterm elections and a subject of center faculty assignments. Online petitions in opposition to it took over the web. 

Abdul Rauf and Khan had been flooded with telephone calls, emails and letters. While many supported the middle, there was additionally a lot vitriol. 

Khan, the manager director of Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality, instantly began receiving baggage of mail at her work tackle. People despatched burnt photographs of the Quran and pornographic caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, in addition to of Abdul Rauf and Khan themselves. Someone additionally despatched an envelope of white powder ― which police later deemed innocent, however was terrifying on the time. Khan recruited gloved volunteers to assist her type by the mail.

At one level, somebody threw a brick by the window of the couple’s New Jersey home. Khan was home alone within the kitchen when she heard a crash within the living room. Worried for her security, she began to make use of the again door of her home and purchased new safety cameras. But she and Abdul Rauf didn’t again down from the plan.

“I said, ‘Suck it up. This is your life now. If you’re gonna die, you’re gonna die a martyr. And if you’re gonna live, Daisy, you’re gonna get much stronger and more resilient,’” Khan remembered telling herself.

Top left: Early plans for Cordoba House at the office of Daisy Khan. Top right: Initial design concepts from 1997. Bottom lef

Top left: Early plans for Cordoba House on the workplace of Daisy Khan. Top proper: Initial design ideas from 1997. Bottom left and proper: Hate mail from 2010 denouncing the venture.

Local police despatched an area automobile to watch their home. At the height of the marketing campaign in opposition to the middle, the NYPD discovered of a menace in opposition to Abdul Rauf’s life, and he was compelled to briefly cover in a secure home.

Even members of the Muslim group had been torn, with some organizations calling on the couple to desert the venture. 

“I was under a lot of pressure from my friends, sincere friends, who had different opinions about what we should do,” mentioned Abdul Rauf. “I was only sleeping four hours a day. It was a very stressful, difficult period.”

There had been allies too, together with a number of 9/11 households, civil rights organizations, and Jewish and Christian teams. There had been way more letters of assist, each mentioned, however the hate mail was at all times louder and extra harmful. 

“The right to build the mosque should have been a no-brainer in our democracy and the only reason it wasn’t was because of the anti-Muslim hysteria that was so powerful and that was fomented in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks,” mentioned Donna Lieberman, the manager director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “New Yorkers who had the right to practice their religion were being denied their fundamental rights.”

Former President Barack Obama weighed in, albeit tepidly ― noting that Muslim Americans had “the same right to practice their religion as anyone else” however declining to remark “on the wisdom” of the venture. 

Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg strongly endorsed the venture, as did then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), and then-NYC Public Advocate and future Mayor Bill de Blasio.

But the political backlash was additionally underway: Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) made his opposition to the middle the point of interest of his 2010 gubernatorial major marketing campaign and referred to as Abdul Rauf a “terrorist sympathizer.” Other distinguished GOP lawmakers additionally attacked Cordoba House, together with 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, his working mate Sarah Palin, and different distinguished Republicans like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Giuliani. Gingrich equated the Islamic heart to ”placing a Nazi signal subsequent to the Holocaust Museum.”

A building under construction at the former proposed site of Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan.

A constructing beneath development on the former proposed web site of Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan.

Holding On To What’s Left

Throughout 2010, Abdul Rauf nonetheless hoped they might quell considerations, reply questions and promote their unique imaginative and prescient. They renamed the venture “Park51,” a generic reference to the middle’s avenue tackle. But it was already too late.

In January 2011, Abdul Rauf, Khan and El-Gamal parted methods and dissolved their partnership. 

“I knew viscerally that the enemy was a very strong enemy, and that the enemy was stronger than us. All we could do is survive at that point,” mentioned Khan. “I needed to survive for whatever was going to come in the future, and I needed to keep my people safe and my family safe, and my community safe.” 

El-Gamal tried to take care of some hope that the property could possibly be used for good. In September 2011, he introduced the opening of a photograph exhibition alongside a a lot smaller prayer area.

El-Gamal’s Soho Properties acquired 49-51 Park Place in 2014, and he continued to make use of a part of the brand new area for prayers. But in 2015, the property closed down fully for demolition, and in 2017, Soho Properties introduced it was constructing a 43-story luxurious condominium high-rise tower on the block the place the price of a 1-bedroom unit would begin at $1.92 million. 

Khan hasn’t seen the brand new condos. Just the considered passing by overwhelms her with disappointment. 

Looking again, Khan mentioned she would do some issues in another way: She wouldn’t have showcased each a part of the venture immediately, would have concerned the 9/11 households earlier and shaped an interfaith board in the beginning. But deep down, she is aware of the manipulation and coordinated assaults most likely would have occurred anyway. 

Khan sees the identical Islamophobia that introduced down the dream of Cordoba House occurring in different venues: within the assaults on Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the primary two Muslim congresswomen, and in fights over different Muslim group facilities across the nation. Just final 12 months, a mosque in New Jersey filed a discrimination lawsuit in opposition to its native metropolis and zoning board claiming the township had discriminated in opposition to the Muslim congregants. 

“It just keeps morphing from one situation to another, but the template is the same,” she mentioned. 

Daisy Khan at her office in Morningside Heights. 

Daisy Khan at her workplace in Morningside Heights. 

Meanwhile, assaults on mosques have spiked nationwide since 2005, in line with the American Civil Liberties Union, with at the least 300 incidents reported between 2010 to May 2021. Across the nation, mosque opponents have used zoning ordinances, site visitors considerations and parking restrictions as a pretext to dam locations of worship for Muslim Americans.

States like New Jersey, California, Texas and Florida ― all of which have sizable Muslim populations ― have all seen heated resistance not simply to mosques but additionally to Islamic faculties, cemeteries and different facilities. In 2017, one New Jersey city paid $3.5 million to settle a federal lawsuit after it denied an utility to construct a mosque. In Tennessee, mosque opponents filed a lawsuit looking for to dam the development of a mosque in 2012 however had been finally turned away when the Supreme Court declined to listen to the movement. Similar settlements have been paid throughout the nation to resolve disputes over spiritual freedom.

Still, Abdul Rauf stays hopeful that the U.S. will at some point embrace Muslims prefer it has different spiritual communities. 

“When you lose hope, then you lose your taste for life,” he mentioned. “I am always optimistic about the future of the Muslim community in America.”

He hasn’t let go of the dream of Cordoba House. 

“Our work is not just about integrating Muslims, and the future Muslim community, into the broader American fabric as part of the American fabric,” he mentioned.  “Our mission as well is to add to America’s greatness.”

In her New York workplace, Khan retains binders upon binders of emails, letters and marked-up notes on a bookshelf. To her, they present the 2 Americas: one among violent intolerance, and one other of tolerance, pluralism and enlightenment.

What she feels as she pages by lots of of rigorously labeled pages is “part failure and part regret.” 

“Perhaps not personally, but for the sake of my community,” she mentioned. “When I see my community scattered all over, that’s the regret. We were the elders in the community. We were part of the generation that was supposed to make it happen.”


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