Nine years after the most deadly terror attack on United States soil, zip code 10048, New York City, is yet again finding itself at the heart of a religious conflict. Only this time, the conflagration at the site of the 9/11 attacks is an entirely peaceful one, even if it raises fundamental questions about religious tolerance in America.
The controversy, which has been simmering over several months, boiled over last week when a local community board in Manhattan approved plans to build a mosque two blocks away from where the World Trade Centre stood.
Following the grant of approval, those supporting religious tolerance as enshrined in the constitution’s First Amendment clashed publicly and passionately with those who decried the mosque plan as a symbol of disrespect to victims of 9/11 and a surrender to religious extremists.
The most recent development came this week as a right-wing group won approval to run on NYC buses an advertisement that showed a photograph of a hijacked airplane flying into one of the twin towers on 9/11. The advertisement also showed a high-rise building with an Islamic crescent and the label “WTC Mega Mosque” and the words “Why There?”
Though the initial application to run the advertisement was rejected by the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority this week, the MTA passed it after it was sued by the authors of the advertisement, the American Freedom Defence Initiative.
In a statement the MTA said, “While the MTA does not endorse the views expressed in this or other ads that appear on the transit system, the ad...was accepted after its review under MTA’s advertising guidelines and governing legal standards.”
Meanwhile critics of the mosque plan also raised questions about the State Department sponsoring a trip to the Middle East by the man behind Cordoba House, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. AFDI Director Pamela Geller said in her blog that the White House was “bankrolling” the Imam’s “Middle East Fundraising Tour” and it was clear that “Terror-tied Rauf is comfortably ensconced in the bosom of the Obama State Department”.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley however cast such allegations in doubt, saying to media that Imam Feisal was travelling to Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE to discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance.
Mr. Crowley added that the Imam’s work on tolerance and religious diversity “is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it’s like to be a practicing Muslim in the U.S..”
He further clarified that the State Department’s discussions with Imam Rauf about taking this trip “preceded the current debate in New York over the Centre”.
Even as the debate raged, The New York Times reported a spike in the number of incidents of right-wing opposition to mosque-building plans across the U.S.. In particular, the newspaper cited instances of such plans being blocked by Republican, Tea Party, and Christian-group politicians in Tennessee, California and Wisconsin respectively.