Last summer, a group of downtown Muslim Manhattanites made national headlines for seeking to build a 13-story Islamic cultural center in the same neighborhood where the World Trade Center disaster occurred, in a building that was damaged by the wreckage when the towers came down.
A year later, the project, called Park51, is moving forward slowly. Despite the conflict, New York City's Mayor Bloomberg decided there was nothing un-New York, uncouth, or unconstitutional about the proposition. Still, New Yorkers in the area continue to have mixed feelings.
"[The mosque] is a symbol of Islam and that can create a friction," said Jeffrey I. Marks, an attorney who holds headquarters in the area. "This is the reality."
Marks, recalling the friends he had lost in the towers on 9/11, wore a face of sorrow as he gave his hesitant blessing for the project, saying everyone has a right to practice their religion. "I am a Jewish man" he said, "and I feel everyone has the right [to practice their religion]."
From the start, Park51 has striven to express that it is a project of diversity, pluralism, and understanding. CEO of SoHo Properties — the Manhattan-based real estate company that bought the property — Sharif El-Gamal said the "interfaith component of Park51 is innate ... and an essential piece of what we aim to do. Every JCC in the country is an interfaith center because they serve the local community, not simply the local religious community. Park51 serves the Lower Manhattan community, which includes Muslims, Jews, Christians, and more."
The difference between building a YMCA or JCC in the area in the wake of the most infamous terrorist strike ever, is that no Jewish or Christian parties were affiliated with the offense. This is the great taboo to overcome.
A few doors down the street from Park51, is the Arts and Culture Synagogue. Delores Wine, who sits on the synagogue's board and works as events coordinator contends, "I think it is too close to the World Trade Center [site]. I also think it is too soon. I do not know when the right time would be." She spoke of the issue while relaxed and contemplative, sitting in a downstairs room of the synagogue.
"Emotions are still running incredibly high; people are hurt. I can go to the cemetery and put a stone on my mother's grave, but the families of 9/11 victims cannot. Their loved ones are scattered ashes." Wine concluded she would like to see the project halted.
The program, however, continues to move forward. Public Relations Representative of Park51 Sam Goldsmith sought to put an end to rumors that the project was in financial trouble. He insisted that money is not an issue impeding the Islamic cultural center's progress.
But the rumors persist. If the problem is indeed private funding, it could be a symptom of a universal illness in interfaith relations. New York City, the most diverse urban sprawl in the world, is a microcosm of interfaith relations, including both good-natured and ill-willed ones. On the one side, perhaps some separation between various religions and factions is necessary. On the other, people recognize the ever-growing fissure between religions and with the 9/11 generation growing up it may be time to reunite.
El-Gamal frames the interfaith component of Park51 as an inclusive one. "We welcome people of all faiths with open arms." he said. "I have said many times before that one of our goals is to reclaim the Muslim identity that was stolen by the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Part of that process is including other faiths in Muslim life so they can see our faith is — like other faiths — about peace and justice."
Photo Credit: Scott Krane