- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2010

An Islamic cultural center that the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement hope to build near ground zero has been trumpeted as an effort toward building bridges between Muslims and the families of Sept. 11 victims.

But that wasn’t in evidence Tuesday as a key vote by a New York City panel prompted cries of “shame on you” and charges of “disaster,” countered by protestations of “How big is the Muslim-free zone around ground zero?”

In its 9-0 vote before an emotional crowd Tuesday morning, the Landmarks Preservation Commission denied landmark status to the 150-year-old building currently occupying 45-47 Park St., a few blocks from the former World Trade Center.

According to the Associated Press, some members of the audience greeted the vote with applause, while others shouted “shame” as panel Chairman Robert B. Tierney called for the vote.

In rejecting the bid to declare an Italian Renaissance-style structure a historic building, and thus constrain major changes at the site and make the current plan impossible, the Cordoba Initiative can go ahead with plans for a proposed Muslim cultural center and mosque it will call the Cordoba House.

The project has become fuel for heated accusations from local and national politicians, from religious freedom and Muslim groups, and from anti-jihad activists.

After the vote, author Pamela Gellar, a popular anti-jihad and pro-Israel blogger, blamed New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a supporter of Cordoba House, for the unanimous vote in the face of so much public controversy.

“They’re all Bloomberg appointees,” she said. “Not one voted off the reservation; it’s like Mike’s toolbox.”

She said Mr. Bloomberg had pushed the mosque because he is focused more on “political correctness than patriotic correctness.”

But Ibrahim Hooper, national spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the effort to get the building declared a landmark a “smoke screen” for “Muslim bashers” — he specifically named Mrs. Gellar among them — who he says are using the cultural center and mosque to promote an anti-Muslim agenda.

“How far away would they have to build?” said Mr. Hooper, pointing out that New York City and Manhattan already have several mosques. “How big is the Muslim-free zone around ground zero?”

Mr. Hooper said his Washington-based Muslim civil rights and advocacy group supports the Cordoba Initiative and that the protesters inadvertently show how “these people would deny American Muslims their constitutional rights.”

He said a different vote Tuesday would have violated property rights and said religious and political conservatives fight for such rights for themselves but too often “cast off that belief when it comes to Islam and Muslims.”

The Cordoba Initiative hailed the vote as a victory for the organization.

“Our faith community is indebted to them, and to our local community board, for their commitment to the democratic and constitutional ideals we all hold dear and which the community center we hope to create on the site will honor,” said Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam who is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative.

Mr. Rauf called Cordoba House an opportunity for “healing, peace, collaboration, and interdependence” in his statement, but Mrs. Gellar said the effort to build what she called a “victory mosque” has caused enormous pain to families of Sept. 11 victims.

“It’s a grave insult, and the idea of this being outreach and healing and building bridges — frankly, it rings hollow,” she said. “It’s astounding, but it’s not surprising.”

One demonstrator during the New York vote held up a sign that said, “Islam builds mosques at the sites of their conquests and victories.” Another read, “Don’t glorify murders of 3,000. No 9/11 victory mosque.”

“I lost 3,000 American brothers and sisters, including courageous policemen and firemen, and this is a betrayal,” Linda Rivera, who held up the latter sign, told an Associated Press reporter through tears.

Critics noted that shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Rauf said that “United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened” and cited his refusal to refer to Palestinian group Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Mr. Bloomberg celebrated the vote with a news conference with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop.

“The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts,” he told reporters. “But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves, and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans, if we said no to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union also praised the vote as “promoting our nation’s core values.”

“The free exercise of religion is one of America’s most fundamental freedoms,” they said in a statement Tuesday. “For hundreds of years, our pluralism and tolerance have sustained and strengthened our nation. … We see the center as a monument to pluralism, symbolic of America’s commitment to religious freedom.”

The American Center for Law and Justice, which opposed the mosque project, said after the vote that “we’re planning to file an Article 78 petition in state court to challenge the city’s actions. We will allege that there’s been an abuse of discretion in the Commission’s decision.”

The proposal had prompted months of contentious debate in New York and across the nation, with the highest-profile criticisms from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Both Republican primary candidates for New York governor — Carl Paladino and Rick Lazio — have said they would try to stop the mosque project, and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani also has been critical.

Perhaps the most surprising criticism came last week from the usually liberal-leaning Anti-Defamation League. In a statement Friday, the Jewish civil rights group said that while the Muslim group had a legal right to build, the specific site is “counterproductive to the healing process.”

• Michal Elseth can be reached at melseth@washingtontimes.com.

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