N.Y. Political Leaders’ Rift Grows on Islam Center
By MICHAEL BARBARO
Published: August 24, 2010
Even as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg firmly rejected calls for the relocation of a planned Muslim community center and mosque near ground zero, signs of growing division emerged on Tuesday within the political establishment in Manhattan, as the powerful speaker of the State Assembly expressed forceful opposition to the plan.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's Remarks (pdf)
When an Arab Enclave Thrived Downtown (August 25, 2010) Breaking his silence on the issue, the speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat whose district includes ground zero, said the organizers’ honorable goal of healing post-Sept. 11 wounds and building bridges among faiths had instead provoked bitter fighting and raw emotions that could not be ignored.
“I think the sponsors,” Mr. Silver said at City Hall, “should take into very serious consideration the kind of turmoil that’s been created and look to compromise.”
Such a compromise, he added, would mean finding “a suitable place that doesn’t create the kind of controversy” engendered by the Park51 plan.
The opposition from Mr. Silver, a religious Jew who commands considerable influence in the city’s Democratic political world, is largely symbolic, because the city has already given its approval. But it fueled creeping doubts about the viability of the center, which faces a raft of obstacles, like paltry fund-raising, on top of the public outcry.
Mr. Silver’s remarks came on the same day that Mr. Bloomberg, the center’s most visible supporter, delivered a carefully prepared answer to the emerging voices calling for a compromise.
Speaking at a traditional dinner at Gracie Mansion as part of Ramadan, the mayor sought to tamp down the opposition and regain control over a national debate that has escalated by the day, starting as a local zoning dispute and becoming a referendum on the limits of religious tolerance in an age of terrorism.
Mr. Bloomberg, flanked by the center’s developer and the wife of its imam, said he understood the impulse to find a different location, in the hope of ending the controversy.
“But it won’t,” the mayor said. “The question will then become, ‘How big should the ‘no-mosque zone’ around the World Trade Center be?’ ”
He added: “There is already a mosque four blocks away. Should it, too, be moved? This is a test of our commitment to American values. We must have the courage of our convictions. We must do what is right, not what is easy.”
It was Mr. Bloomberg’s second major speech in three weeks supporting the plan, and its soaring tone and forceful arguments suggested that he had firmly embraced his role as a national defender of the plan for the center, even as high-profile voices have called for a re-examination of the wisdom of the current site.
Mr. Bloomberg rejected those calls, arguing that to move the center would slight American Muslims and damage the country’s standing.
“We would send a signal around the world,” he said, “that Muslim Americans may be equal in the eyes of the law, but separate in the eyes of their countrymen. And we would hand a valuable propaganda tool to terrorist recruiters, who spread the fallacy that America is at war with Islam.”
As the controversy has snowballed, the families of some Sept. 11 victims have lashed out at Mr. Bloomberg for supporting the project, saying he has lacked sensitivity to their pain.
The mayor seemed to directly address that criticism on Tuesday night. “There will always be a hole in our hearts for the men and women who perished that day,” he said, at one point acknowledging a woman in the room named Talat Hamdani, a Muslim whose son, Salman, was killed on Sept. 11.
But as he has in the past, with a mixture of compassion and impatience, Mr. Bloomberg encouraged the families of those who died to move on emotionally. New Yorkers, he said, had collectively rejected calls to make the entire World Trade Center grounds a memorial.
“We wanted the site,” he said, “to be an inspiring reminder to the world that this city will never forget our dead and never stop living.”
But even as Mr. Bloomberg sought to end the debate, prominent New York leaders urged the center’s organizers to consider an alternative site. Earlier in the day, two of those who have suggested such a compromise, Gov. David A. Paterson and Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, met to discuss the controversy.
At City Hall, Mr. Silver said, “I, along with the governor, believe very firmly that our Constitution guarantees us the right to freedom of religion and that includes the, obviously, the right to build houses of worship.”
But in a nod to Sept. 11 families, Mr. Silver added, “The sponsors ought to consider those circumstances and ought to say, ‘Let’s see if we can find something suitable that is sensitive to the issues that are being raised by some of the dissidents and see if we can place this in a different place.’ ”
As Mr. Bloomberg spoke, about 100 guests, dined on a traditional Middle Eastern menu of tomato and cucumber salad, hummus and pita, and fried feta.
At times, the mayor seemed emotional, especially as he recited words spoken by the center’s imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, at the funeral of a slain Jewish reporter, Daniel Pearl, in which Mr. Abdul Rauf identified with Jews and Christians. As he recited a Hebrew prayer, Mr. Bloomberg’s voice began to crack.
In a brief interview, Sharif el-Gamal, the Muslim center’s developer, seemed to capture the gratitude of those in the room toward Mr. Bloomberg. “He touches my heart,” Mr. Gamal said, “every time I hear him talk about our rights as Americans and his brave and unwavering statements.”
Colin Moynihan contributed reporting.