Last week, a community board in New York City's Manhattan borough held a symbolic vote on one of the more contentious issues the city has faced in recent years - that is, plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero, the site of the 9/11 Twin Tower terror attacks. Emotions on both sides of the controversy are running high, bringing out the worst and the best in New Yorkers.
You can tell what side of the issue New Yorkers are on by what they're calling it a mosque - a cultural center and in one extreme case, a "house of evil." They are talking about Cordoba House; it's a name which refers to the city in Spain which, in the Middle Ages, was a center of Islamic culture and learning. Cordoba House is a planned 13-story complex which will stand about two blocks away from the site of the September 11th attacks in lower Manhattan.
Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer is among many political and religious leaders who support Cordoba House. He was present at last week's meeting where members voted 29-to-1 in favor of the project.
"It's a non binding vote, so this was really about getting a barometer about what the lower Manhattan community wanted," said Stringer. "So what was clear was that the overwhelming majority of community board members thought that this proposal had merit. Build a cultural center. Make it interfaith. Have discussions about racial tolerance. Recognize that this is a community that took a hit after 9/11, and that we want to build it back.
He also defends himself against opponants who have attacked his decision to support the project. "There are haters. There are people from the Tea Party who attacked me and other individuals and tried to make this about bigotry and hatred," said Stringer. And the community, in giving a go-ahead, are saying, 'it's okay to explore this possibility.' And I think that is how we win the war on terrorism. We don't become like them. We're better than that."
Stringer refers to disparaging comments made by a leader of the right wing protest movement, Mark Williams, who has called Cordoba House 'a monument to 9/11 attacker.'
Al Santora is a retired New York City Deputy Fire Chief. His 23 year-old son Christopher, also a fire-fighter. He was one of the youngest to die in the September 11th attacks. The older Santora and his wife attended last week's community board meeting, where they expressed their opposition to the mosque. He says the families of 9/11 victims regard the Ground Zero area as in essence a cemetery, a sacred resting place for their sons and daughters.
He articulates the confusion that remains in the minds of some Americans, a difficulty separating al-Quada, the militant group responsible for September 11 from mainstream Islam, worrying that the mosque represents a form of religious or political conquest.
"The thing is so insensitive: To put a mosque within two blocks of Ground Zero is just ludicrous. Now, they try explain it away that it's going to be a 'cultural center,' that it will have a swimming pool and have all sorts recreations, however, they will have a prayer room or a mosque within the building," said Santora.
Santora says that those people making decisions about how the area around Ground Zero should be used have ignored the feelings of the 9-11 families. "What irks us [the family members] is that we have a stake in this. Our stake is a price that no one wants to pay. And they are not listening to us," he said.
A spokesperson for the Cordoba Initiative told VOA that the mosque will reflect the richness and diversity of New York City, and reflect core American values of freedom of expression and religious faith.
When completed, it will house a 500-seat auditorium for conferences, exhibition spaces, bookstores, restaurants - and the mosque. Planners say it will serve as a community center not just for Muslims, but for the residents, workers and city visitors of all faiths.