Since long before the Islamist terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, a storefront mosque has been sitting on West Broadway in TriBeCa, a dozen blocks from the World Trade Center. No one seems to have ever minded its being there.
Now, assuming he can raise the money and clear some remaining bureaucratic hurdles, the spiritual guide of that mosque intends to build a multistory Islamic community center, including a space for prayer, on Park Place, two blocks from what is routinely called ground zero.
Cries of protest have been loud and insistent from certain quarters. They include people who lost relatives on Sept. 11 and who describe the trade center site with words like “hallowed” and “sacred.” To put an Islamic center so close, they say, would amount to a defilement.
At least now, in terms of geography, we know where outrage begins. That point is somewhere between 12 blocks and 2. The exact spot remains a mystery, though. Would it be O.K. if the Islamic center, called Cordoba House, were to be put four blocks from ground zero? Or is that still too close? How about eight blocks away?
The intention here is not to be flippant. But the question of what constitutes proper respect for the dead of 9/11 has never been simple. For some, it seems to turn solely on religion, and that puts everyone on slippery constitutional terrain.
No one is known to have protested the fact that three blocks from ground zero, on Murray Street off West Broadway, there is a strip joint. It prefers to call itself a gentlemen’s club. A man stood on the street corner the other day handing out free passes to willing gentlemen.
On Church Street, around the corner from where Cordoba House would rise, there is a store that sells pornographic videos and an assortment of sex toys. A few doors east of the planned Islamic center, there is an Off-Track Betting office. Spilling onto the sidewalk in front of it the other day were men who would have been described in my old Bronx neighborhood as degenerate gamblers.
A strip joint, a porno store and a government-run bookie operation. No one has organized demonstrations to denounce those activities as defiling the memory of the men and women who died a few hundred yards away.
But an Islamic center strikes a nerve for some. At a bruising hearing that Manhattan Community Board 1 held Tuesday night before giving Cordoba House its blessing, one protester held a sign that said, “Where is sensitivity to 9/11 families?”
A corollary to that question, however, might be: Which families? They are hardly a monolith.
Some 9/11 relatives see anything Islamic near ground zero as a slap in the face. Others couldn’t care less. Still others share the opinion of Donna Marsh O’Connor, who is on the steering committee of a group called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. She said it was “the American way” to have a cultural center that its founder, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, asserts is dedicated to interfaith tolerance.
New York officialdom, while sensitive to the displeased families, has long made it clear that it is not about to hand them veto power over how the city builds and rebuilds. Officials from the mayor on down have endorsed Cordoba House, in large measure because of Imam Feisal, a Sufi who has cultivated relations with other religions and who has spoken out against the violence of Islamist fanatics. He has given no one a reason to doubt his sincerity.
OUTRAGE over the project seems at times to increase in direct proportion to distance from the site. A columnist for the tabloid Washington Examiner recently called it “the second attack on the World Trade Center.” Columnists and editorialists for New York’s tabloids who are rarely given to kumbaya moments have described such denunciations as “hysteria.”
One 9/11 relative observed ruefully this week that the Islamic center would attract noisy protests to a scarred area of the city that should be, he said, a zone of tranquillity. If that proves to be the case, it is up to the demonstrators to decide how loud they want to be in the shadow of the trade center.
But they have a right to protest. It is guaranteed in the First Amendment, the same one that ensures freedom of religion, with no asterisk that says “*except for Islam.” It is the same amendment that allows a strip joint and a porno shop to exist a couple of blocks from hallowed ground.