An influential Jewish organization on Friday announced its opposition to a proposed Islamic center and mosque two blocks north of ground zero in Lower Manhattan, intensifying a fierce national debate about the limits of religious freedom and the meaning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The decision by the group, the Anti-Defamation League, touched off angry reactions from a range of religious groups, which argued that the country would show its tolerance and values by welcoming the center near the site where radical Muslims killed about 2,750 people.
But the unexpected move by the ADL, a mainstream group that has denounced what it saw as bigoted attacks on plans for the Muslim center, could well be a turning point in the battle over the project.
In New York, where ground zero has slowly blended back into the fabric of the city, government officials appear poised to approve plans for the sprawling complex, which would have as many as 15 stories and would house a prayer space, a performing arts center, a pool and a restaurant.
But around the country opposition is mounting, fueled in part by Republican leaders and conservative pundits. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, has urged “peace-seeking Muslims” to reject the center, branding it an “unnecessary provocation.” A Republican political action committee has produced a television commercial assailing the proposal. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has decried it in speeches.
The complex’s rapid evolution from a local zoning dispute into a national referendum highlights the intense and unsettled emotions that still surround the World Trade Center site nine years after the attacks.
To many New Yorkers, especially in Manhattan, it is a construction zone, passed during the daily commute or glimpsed through office windows. To some outside of the city, though, it stands as a hallowed battlefield that must be shielded and memorialized.
Those who are fighting the project argue that building a house of Muslim worship so close to ground zero is at best an affront to the families of those who died there and at worst an act of aggression that would, they say, mark the place where radical Islam achieved a blow against the United States.
“The World Trade Center is the largest loss of American life on our soil since the Civil War,” Mr. Gingrich said. “And we have not rebuilt it, which drives people crazy. And in that setting, we are told, why don’t we have a 13-story mosque and community center?”
He added: “The average American just thinks this is a political statement. It’s not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.”
Several family members of victims at the World Trade Center have weighed in against the plan, saying it would desecrate what amounts to a graveyard. “When I look over there and see a mosque, it’s going to hurt,” C. Lee Hanson, whose son, Peter, was killed in the attacks, said at a recent public hearing. “Build it someplace else.”
Those who support it seem mystified and flustered by the heated opposition. They contend that the project, with an estimated cost of $100 million, is intended to span the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim, not widen it.
Oz Sultan, the programming director for the center, said the complex was based on Jewish community centers and Y.M.C.A.’s in Manhattan. It is to have a board composed of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders and is intended to create a national model of moderate Islam.
“We are looking to build bridges between faiths,” Mr. Sultan said in an interview.
City officials, particularly Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, have forcefully defended the project on the grounds of religious freedom, saying that government has no place dictating where a house of worship is located. The local community board has given overwhelming backing to the project, and the city’s landmarks commission is expected to do the same on Tuesday.
“What is great about America, and particularly New York, is we welcome everybody, and if we are so afraid of something like this, what does that say about us?” Mr. Bloomberg asked recently.
“Democracy is stronger than this,” he added. “And for us to just say no is just, I think — not appropriate is a nice way to phrase it.”
Still, the arguments against the Muslim center appear to be resonating. Polling shows that a majority of Americans oppose building it near ground zero.
It’s not surprising that the destructive force of two massive collapsing buildings — sinking like atomic mushroom clouds in reverse — would at that time have evoked comparisons with nuclear destruction. Even so, the fact that the name “ground zero” stuck shows how little effort was ever made to view the horror of that day with a sense of proportion.
On August 6, 1945, beneath the original ground zero where at 8.15 that summer morning the “Little Boy” nuclear weapon exploded, two-thirds of Hiroshima was instantly destroyed and a third of the inhabitants perished.
If survivors of America’s nuclear attack on Japan, from which over 200,000 people died, feel that it is inappropriate to associate that level of destruction with the way America suffered on 9/11, I can understand why. It is as if to say, nothing more devastating the 9/11 could be imagined — when of course it can, and to do so we need not look far back in history or to the deeds of some horrific foreign foe.
That the sanctity of the World Trade Centers site is said to be threatened by the construction of a mosque a few blocks away says more about the way the site remains a potent vehicle of American nationalism than it does about anyone’s insensitivity towards the memory of those who died there.
Want to know what gross insensitivity looks like? Then look at another construction site 5,000 miles further east, to Jerusalem where the inaptly named Museum of Tolerance is being built on top of an historic Muslim cemetery. A round-the-clock excavation has proceeded with haste under high security as skeletons are stuffed in boxes and carted off the site — apart from those that get trampled under foot. A senior archaeologist told Haaretz: “They wanted to create a done deed, after which people could yell all they wanted to, but there wouldn’t be any graves left anymore.”