Sarah Palin's language-bending tweet asking New Yorkers to “refudiate” a proposal to build a Muslim centre near Ground Zero has highlighted the truth that Americans still remain confused and divided in their reactions to Islam. Only two months ago, a Community Board representing Lower Manhattan residents voted in favour of the proposed building whose purpose would be to serve as a meeting point for people of all faiths. This endorsement is not binding but is regarded as a reliable indicator of public opinion. While the proposed 13-storeyed building, planned to come up two blocks from where the Twin Towers stood and named Cordoba House, will have a prayer hall, it is not conceived as a mosque. It will also house a basketball court and a swimming pool. The building that now stands at the site was damaged during the 9/11 attacks. It was bought by a Muslim businessman who is one of the main financiers for the project. Significantly, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has voiced support for building the centre — rightly describing it as being one with the city's tradition of tolerance, its liberal values, and the democratic freedom to practise any religion.
Opposition to the project remains strong and vocal, fuelled by a mix of prejudice, paranoia, and misinformation. There is opposition from the families of the victims of 9/11, who believe that building a ‘mosque' near Ground Zero would be an affront to the memory of those killed on that day. There is also the view that the centre would be a security hazard. Even the proposed name, Cordoba House, has provoked opposition on the grounds that it recalls the heyday of Islam in Europe. It is deplorable that Islam and Muslims are sought to be held responsible for the acts of a few who preach hate and practise terrorism in the name of saving the religion. There were Muslims among those killed in the 9/11 attacks. The hostility to the proposed centre, to which the 2008 vice-presidential candidate's tweet has added political overtones, reveals that considerable sections of American public opinion continue to believe that Muslims must collectively be punished for the attacks. Despite the celebrated U.S. constitutional guarantees on the freedom to worship, there have been instances of communities blocking the construction of religious buildings, usually non-Christian ones, for ‘civic' reasons. The final go-ahead for the building project has to come from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which could turn it down on the ground that the existing building is a historical landmark. It would be a great pity if the most liberal-minded of American cities joins the list of places that suffer from Islamophobia.