Planned NYC Islamic Center Draws Muslim Critics

A proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan has triggered a national debate about the limits of religious expression. President Obama has even weighed in on the issue, saying it would be a violation of American values to block the construction of the center. While many Muslims have publicly supported the project, others have suggested it would be counterproductive and insensitive to those who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Neda Bolourchi, an Iranian American who lost her mother on Sept. 11, explains her opposition to the center. And Zuhdi Jasser, President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, suggests other ways to build interfaith bridges.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today, we look south to find out how and why the strategically and economically important South American countries of Colombia and Venezuela have apparently mended a deep rift over the guerilla movement called the FARC. And we'll also talk about what that means to the U.S.

Also, we remember two musical artists of very different genres. The elegant jazz singer Abbey Lincoln and the funk bassist Robert Wilson of the Gap Band.

But first, we return to the subject over that proposed mosque and cultural center planned to be located two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks. It starts off a tense national debate. President Obama stirred things up with his comments at a Ramadan dinner last Friday.

President BARACK OBAMA: As a citizen and as president, I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: And that includes that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.

MARTIN: The so-called Cordoba House has won the support of New York politicians, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and was unanimously approved by the landmark's preservation commission.

But opposition against the mosque has turned fierce, as you've no doubt heard. Likely because of that, the president backtracked on his comments the next day saying he was not commenting specifically on the wisdom of where that community center should go.

And just yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid broke with the president to say he opposes construction of the mosque at that proposed site.

We wanted to search out some Muslim voices. So we've actually called upon two people who have expressed their views lately. They are both Muslim and they both oppose the location of the community center at that site. Neda Bolourchi's mother was a passenger on United Flight 175, which was used to attack the south tower of the World Trade Center. She joins us from NPR West in Southern California.

Also joining us from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona is Zuhdi Jasser. He's president of the American Islamic Forum on Democracy and they're both with us now. Welcome, thank you to you both.

Ms. NEDA BOLOURCHI: Thank you.

Dr. ZUHDI JASSER (President, American Islamic Forum on Democracy): Thank you.

MARTIN: Neda, if I could start with you. We learned of you when you wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post expressing concern about the location of this mosque. What are your concerns? And forgive me, if I would just start by saying I'm so very sorry for the loss of your mother.

Ms. BOLOURCHI: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I was contacted by Washington Post and I am so happy that I was given this chance to be able to voice my opinion.

My concern is the fact that I'm not against the religion itself and this gentleman in particular. I am just saying as family members, this will be a very harsh reminder for us of what happened that day. I wanted to have a beautiful, peaceful place where I go to reflect and to remember my mother because I don't have a place. There is nothing for me. There's no gravesite. There is nothing for me to go back to, like anybody else.

And that little piece of land, even though it wasn't sacred before, obviously, it has turned to a sacred ground for us family members.

MARTIN: You also said in your op-ed piece that you fear that this community center will become a symbol of victory of radicals around the world. Why do you believe that that might be so?

Ms. BOLOURCHI: Well, I don't know this, you know, the Cordoba founders personally and I don't know, but I believe that the way they are handling the situation seems to be not a person that is very compassionate and trying to reach out and that is not happening. I have never heard of this gentleman or the Cordoba Center in the past nine years that this happened. Nobody had ever contacted us family members saying that there was a proposal to build a building in that site. All of this has stirred up all these emotions.

MARTIN: Dr. Jasser, what about you? As I understand it, you've actually spoken out in support of the construction of mosques in other places, but now you're opposing the building of the Cordoba House in this location. Why is that?

Dr. JASSER: Well, I'll tell you first, actually, I want to thank Neda for her courage and her piece and my condolences to your mother. There's actually a mosque closer than this one is that nobody said anything about that was harmed much more than this one was. And the problem has to do with the mammoth size of this structure, the fact that its finances are not reflective of the local community there.

The fact that it actually, regardless of what their intentions are to preach nonviolence, it will be used by Islamists who have the lens of everything in the world through political Islam to shed a light that will, out of the ashes of the sorrow of families like Neda's, has come this Islamic prominence that I think if we had $100 million, I'll tell you, I'd like to see it spent on a hundred centers around the country counterterrorism, anti al-Qaida centers that show America that we want to lead the war of ideas and not just sort of think that this is a PR problem that we can anesthetize America to the real problem.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you about this, Dr. Jasser, is there are those who argue that not putting it there is a victory for the radical Islamicist because it suggests that they are so powerful that they are going to allow or force Americans to contradict their core values, one of which is the freedom of religion.

Dr. JASSER: I would say that on faith that's true. I think that we shouldn't, the government should interfere. I was disappointed that the president decided to bring the weight of the White House into this because I agree with Mayor Bloomberg when he said the government should not get involved. They really shouldn't get involved. Nobody's saying to make this illegal. But there's a difference between something you can do versus something you should do.

And if they shrink the size of the project so that it's not imposing and casting a shadow over a cemetery, I would change my opinion. If they committed themselves to local monies only, if they committed themselves to not have it this you know, I just think it's poor taste and insensitive. It should be something about being American. Interfaith purely, not an Islamic center, but an American center and dedicated simply to memorializing the families. And if it's a mosque, not as imposing in the imagery and the optics that it's going to have.

MARTIN: Neda, what about you? What about that argument?

Ms. BOLOURCHI: Absolutely. I feel the same way because, I mean, to me Islam doesn't reside in the building. And if we moved it a couple of blocks down the road, Islam will perish. I mean that's absurd. And he is talking about this issue as though that the people who are against building it are bigots and that us family members should not have a voice and somehow he's more American than the rest of us.

Well, I am a U.S. citizen too, so I have as much of a right to freedom of speech and religion as he does. But I'm in a unique situation that I'm also a family member and I have an emotional tie to that land and he doesn't. And so I don't think it is asking too much for him to take our feelings into consideration.

MARTIN: What about the argument of collective guilt? That this is something that, you know, Christians as a group were not tarred with, you know, the Oklahoma City bombing, even though it was committed by somebody like Timothy McVeigh who was proclaiming a, you know, a cultic version of Christianity with a white supremacist tinge.

I mean, what about the argument that this does not that this implies that all Muslims should be accountable for the actions of some Muslims. And that is not a burden that we place on any other religious group in this country?

Ms. BOLOURCHI: Well, I think that we have to take responsibility for what has happened. I am not saying that this particular gentleman or this particular center did anything wrong. But I can't help to think that as a clergyman, I don't know what his real intentions and his beliefs are. You see, there were other mosques before September 11th, and none of those clergymen were able to reach out to society and to say that, look, yes, I know this part of our religion is bad, but we are trying to counter it with our understanding and our love.

That didn't happen. That is why September 11th happened. And I don't think that the existence of a building next to a sacred ground for us family members will make any difference.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about that controversial Islamic center that's proposed to be built near the World Trade Center site. We've reached out to two Muslims who oppose building the center there. They are Neda Bolourchi. Her mother was a passenger on one of the flights used to attack the World Trade Center. Also joining us, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser. He's president of an advocacy group called the American Islamic Forum on Democracy.

Dr. Jasser, what about you? What about that argument of collective guilt that this imposes upon Muslims and obligation to assume a collective guilt that is not imposed upon anybody else, any other religious group in this country.

Dr. JASSER: Michel, I'll tell you that key point is so important because our organization is dedicated to combating political Islam because somehow that movement globally amplified by groups like the Muslim brotherhood believes that somehow Muslims should act as one group like a tribe and their political and social behaviors and beliefs.

And I'll tell you, what we're showing is that we are not a monolithic community and that, actually, when we get involved in the community and sociopolitical affairs, I don't wear my faith on my sleeve. It's part of who I am. It's part of my deep relationship with God. But the collectivization of the community that somehow we as Muslims should think the same in all political movements and somehow we're no longer going to be Democrats or Republicans or socialists or communists, whatever you want, that's what political Islam is all about.

And that's why I've really been against this and that this is not a religious statement. It's becoming it is a political statement by the virtue of its size. And I think the fact that we're demonstrating that we are not monolithic shows that, yes, I think that if the country started and there have been other mosques in the country like in Tennessee, in California, that there should be questions about their ideologies.

But nobody should question the right about the ability to build a mosque because that's a cornerstone of this country and that's if we change those principles, then we will lose the war of ideas. And I don't want to see that change.

MARTIN: And, Neda, a final word from you, what's been the reaction since you did start speaking up?

Ms. BOLOURCHI: Well, the reaction has been very good. I posted my article on Facebook and a lot of friends chimed in and with a lot of very kind and loving words and they supported me. And the ones that were never involved in this issue to begin with didn't care anyways. As I said in the op-ed, I want to open up this debate because, unfortunately, we don't have that in the Islamic community.

You are told that, you know, you have to believe one thing. And if we don't, we will use our, you know, lose our unity and that's not true. We can be a heterogeneous population with different ideas and still have believe in God.

MARTIN: Neda Bolourchi's mother was a passenger on United Flight 175, which was used to attack the south tower of the World Trade Center. She wrote about her views on the Islamic Center in The Washington Post in an op-ed. We'll have a link to it on our website so you can read it for yourself. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. She joined us from our studios in Culver City.

Zuhdi Jasser is the president of the American Islamic Forum on Democracy. He joined us from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BOLOURCHI: Absolutely. Thank you.

Dr. JASSER: Thank you.

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