Mosque debate stirs passion

Pedestrians walk past the 19th-century building on Park Place in Manhattan where Muslims plan to build a mosque and cultural center in New York.

Three arguments seem to characterize the dispute over plans to build an Islamic community center on Park Place in lower Manhattan, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site: the constitutional defense, the emotional appeal and the national security claim.

Proponents of the constitutional-defense argument include President Barack Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, some of the families of 9/11 victims and others who, citing the First Amendment, insist that everyone in America has a right to religious expression. Proponents say that while emotional appeals from critics of the plan might be understandable, they cannot trump the Constitution and the rights it protects.

Many opponents of the Sufi center argue that Islam provided fuel for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and any effort to establish a monument to Islam so close to ground zero is an insult to the bereaved families of victims (and to others). While the plan might be legal, it is nevertheless insensitive, even offensive, say those making the emotional appeal, including some Muslims.

Others say they are concerned that the mosque, and for that matter other mosques in the country, could be used by enemies of the U.S. to plot attacks or as a mechanism for channeling money to terrorist organizations.

Perhaps obscured by the debate:

--Feisal Abdul Rauf, the project organizer, is a Sufi imam with a long track record of bridge building. Sufism is the mystical form of Islam known for its philosophical approach and emphasis on love and enlightenment.

--Some, such as GOP N.Y. gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio and Rudy Giuliani, have criticized Rauf for his ties to sponsors of the flotilla that tried to break the Gaza blockade this summer, and for a comment Rauf made after the 9/11 attacks. "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened," he said at the time. When asked in June about Hamas, Rauf said, "I'm not a politician. The issue of terrorism is a very complex question. ... I am a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy." Lazio cited the comment as evidence of Rauf's sympathies for Hamas.

--The mosque is one component of a planned community center that is to include a 500-seat auditorium, performing arts center, exercise room, swimming pool, basketball court, child-care services, art exhibitions, retail space, culinary school and food court.

--Four blocks north of the World Trade Center site is Masjid Manhattan, another mosque. Three blocks away is a strip club called New York Dolls. These facilities have not prompted the ire of those concerned about the sanctity of Ground Zero, several commentators have noted.

Essential questions remain. Do Americans want to curb their constitutional right of religious freedom, as some have proposed? Will the organizers of what's now called Park51 abandon the project, perhaps to pursue their stated goal of fostering understanding and dialogue at another location, as some have suggested? What does the controversy say about the nature of political and religious discourse in America?

The Post and Courier this week presents varied views and information on the topic.