JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: once again, a Ground Zero debate.
The controversy involves a proposed Islamic center slated to be built where a vacant clothing store now sits, just two blocks from the World Trade Center site.
The Cordoba Initiative, a group that says it aims to promote positive interaction between the Muslim world and the West, plans to build a 13-story community center, including a mosque, on Park Place in Lower Manhattan.
Opposition has come from several quarters, including some families of 9/11 victims.
JIM RICHES, former deputy chief, FDNY: They can have their mosque, but have it somewhere else. I don’t want it overlooking the site where my son was murdered that day by 19 Muslim terrorists.
JEFFREY BROWN: A prominent Jewish group, the Anti-Defamation League, also came out against the mosque, as have some politicians, including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who sent a message on Twitter asking peaceful Muslims to, as she wrote, “refudiate” the mosque.
But the project has also received strong support from many other civic groups and leaders, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), Mayor of New York: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, last week, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to allow the construction.
MAN: All in favor.
COMMISSION MEMBERS: Aye.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Ground Zero mosque debate is the most high-profile of several similar battles around the country. In Nashville, for example, a proposal for a large Islamic center has met with angry opposition.
WOMAN: They’re taking Christ out of everything. And, you know, with the mosque coming here, and right next door to a Baptist church, I’m afraid this is going to get worse.
JEFFREY BROWN: At the same time, at the Pentagon, another site of 9/11 attacks, the Department of Defense has regularly held Muslim worship services.
The next one will be this Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, the New York City fight isn’t over, with lawsuits possible. And, just today, the city’s transit agency approved a new ad proposing the mosque that will soon greet commuters on some New York City buses.
And New York’s Governor David Paterson offered state assistance to Cordoba if it does decide to move the site further from the World Trade Center.
Many voices have weighed in on this in recent days. We hear from four, including two who lost relatives in the 9/11 attacks. Charles Wolf is a commercial pilot who lives in Lower Manhattan. His wife was at work in an office in the towers. Neda Bolourchi is an Iranian-born American citizen who lives in California. Her mother was on one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center.
Also joining us is Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil liberties advocacy organization in the United States, and Michael Medved, a nationally syndicated radio talk show host whose show reaches some four million listeners weekly.
Charles Wolf, I will start with you. You have spoken out in favor of building the mosque as an example of American tolerance. Explain.
CHARLES WOLF, Lost Wife in September 11 Attacks: Exactly.
First of all, I should say I’m not a commercial pilot. I’m a private pilot, but that’s not my profession.
JEFFREY BROWN: Sorry.
CHARLES WOLF: I firmly believe in two things. Number one is, I will not paint all Muslims with a broad brush. These were extremist terrorists that did this. And I know many very, very good, upstanding citizen Muslims. And there are millions of them around the country.
So, I will not cast — I will not stain all of them with what they call guilt by affiliation.
Number two is that we were attacked on this — on September 11 because of all the tenets in the First Amendment, freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom — freedom of speech. And for us to then roll back the freedom of religion, to me, is just falling right into their hands.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Neda Bolourchi, you wrote in an op-ed piece that the — a mosque would transform the site — quote — “from a sacred ground for reflection to a battleground for religious and political ideologies.”
Please explain that.
NEDA BOLOURCHI, Lost Mother in September 11 Attacks: Thank you so much, first of all, for having me.
And, Mr. Wolf, I wanted to give my condolences to you. I obviously understand very much how you feel.
I just wanted to very briefly say that I am not against the religion itself, but I deeply feel that this particular site has turned into a sacred ground. And I do not want it to be used for political ideologies of people who think that this building might become a — a peace offering to others. And I — I don’t think it will.
There have been many mosques that have been built before September 11, and there will be afterwards. And none of those mosques created any more communication than this one will.
JEFFREY BROWN: Nihad Awad, you have decried what you see as a false blending of radical Islam and this proposed center. What do you see going on?
NIHAD AWAD, executive director, Council on American-Islamic Relations: Well, unfortunately, Jeff, this issue has been built on a lot of misinformation. There’s misinformation and misunderstanding.
I, too, you know, sympathize with the families and the victims of 9/11. But the ones who have organized active opposition to the Islamic center in New York are basing their activism on a false assumption that the attacks has to do anything with the Muslim community or with Islam.
The Muslim community roundly condemned the terrorists repeatedly. On our Web site, we have a 60-page compilation of statements from major clerics in the United States and around the world.
The second thing, it is not a mosque. It is not on Ground Zero. The Muslim community has owned that property before 9/11. But there is also an attempt to de-Americanize Muslim-Americans, that they are the others. And we reject that. We are Americans. And, in America, we’re all equal.
And the terrorists would like to put us against each other. And we hand them — if we do, with hand the terrorists a victory, if we submit to their…
JEFFREY BROWN: So, Michael Medved, you have discussed this on your program. Misinformation, false impressions, what do you see going on? Why does this resonate with your listeners?
MICHAEL MEDVED, Radio Talk Show Host: Oh, I think there are false impressions on both sides.
And just as Mr. Awad said — and he’s right — that the entire Muslim community shouldn’t be associated with terrorist ideology, by the same token, people who question the placement of this mosque shouldn’t all be treated as bigots and haters and people who want to demonize all of Islam.
There are dozens and dozens of mosques in New York City. I think this is what people have called a teachable moment. It is a moment for better communication. And I would urge the people behind the Cordoba Initiative to go ahead and accept some of the offers that have come forward to find a better, more appropriate place that isn’t polarizing, that isn’t controversial.
I happen to believe that one of the reasons that people react so passionately to this is because of the lack of building anything else at this site. I mean, it’s been a terrible, terrible gap for 10 years.
And for one of the first high-profile buildings to be an Islamic center seems to court the kind of polarization and the kind of disagreement that really is unnecessary. I, for one, would be glad to help the people behind the Cordoba Initiative find a place a few blocks north or anywhere else in Manhattan to build a more appropriate location for actual understanding and coming together that they say they want.
JEFFREY BROWN: But why do — staying with you, Mr. Medved, is it the particular place, the particular mosque, or is it the larger issue of Islam, the larger questions of extremism?
MICHAEL MEDVED: No, it’s the larger idea — and I think that a number of people have talked about the controversy before with the Carmelite nuns, who are wonderful people, having built a convent right adjacent to Auschwitz.
It was insensitive, not that they didn’t have a right to do it, but Pope John Paul the Great understood that, yes, if we want understanding and if we want the kind of discussion here, there shouldn’t be any claim of triumphalism.
And I think that one of difficulties here is the towers having been taken down — it’s true that Muslims died on September 11, but a very small percentage of the victims were Muslim. One hundred percent of the perpetrators were Muslim. It gives the entire site a different meaning if that site is literally built under the shadow or remains unbuilt under the shadow of now a looming, very substantial Islamic cultural center.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me bring Charles Wolf back.
What about these suggestions? Well, one suggestion is, move it further away.
CHARLES WOLF: Well, let’s clear up some things right here, because I live here. I live a mile north of Ground Zero. I have been down there.
This cultural center will be two blocks north of Ground Zero on a cross street. Things are very, very tight down there. Thirteen stories is not tall for Lower Manhattan. OK? So, it’s not looming over Ground Zero. The only way you would be able to see it from Ground Zero, if you were up in the Freedom Tower.
Secondly, the memorial will be finished in one year and one month from today. The memorial will. The museum will be finished a year after that. People can’t see it because there’s fences up around there. The Freedom Tower is going up.
So, the statements that there’s nothing else happening around here and the statement that this building is towering over Ground Zero is totally false. This building is going to have — my understanding — and I’m not an expert — is going to have a swimming pool, a 400-seat theater in here, auditorium, art centers.
People outside of New York City don’t know how valuable this is. We have already got a similar building built by the Jewish community uptown. It’s called the 92nd Street Y. So, I don’t see any problem here, except that which is manufactured by people who really don’t know what’s going on.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Neda Bolourchi, come back here. You’re outside of New York. Does that help — does that convince you at all?
NEDA BOLOURCHI: Not really. It’s actually even worse, because I don’t know if I’m speaking on behalf of all the family members that are away, but it’s even more difficult because, when you’re not close and you can’t voice your opinions — I have been given this amazing opportunity to speak to you today, but I know other family members who haven’t had the chance to speak up.
To me, again, it may seem irrational and emotional argument, and not a logical one. But I didn’t ask for this to happen. But it has. And now that it has, I really don’t think building a mosque, and as wonderful as this will be, that if it’s supposed to be a cultural center, great — it could be a cultural center somewhere that is not close to this particular place, because, for us families, it means something else than to a New York real estate developer or other people who want to use this site for their own statements.
To me, that’s…
JEFFREY BROWN: And do you — can I — I’m sorry.
NEDA BOLOURCHI: Sure.
JEFFREY BROWN: No, I’m sorry.
NEDA BOLOURCHI: For me, that’s my mother’s grave site. It’s plain, as simple as that. And I — I appreciate the fact that they are building a memorial and a museum.
And I don’t care how tall it is. It could be one story or 13 stories. I do not like it to be close, because so many people of different faiths also lost their lives. If that’s so, then we should build a temple and a church around it, too. And what about other people, Hindus and Baha’is, everybody else that was on that plane that died.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, hold on, hold on, hold on.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me get Nihad Awad back in.
NIHAD AWAD: Well, you know, again, as Neda said, it’s an emotional issue.
And I sympathize with all those who lost good, you know, family members. All Americans have suffered and we continue to suffer from this tragedy at the hands of these terrorists. But the issue in America is, emotions do not veto constitutional rights.
We are Americans because we are proud of our heritage. America is welcomed everywhere. And America has welcomed people from different backgrounds, different nationalities, different faith communities. And our country was founded on the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion.
But the problem is, when they equate my faith with these terrorists, I take an offense, because I’m Muslim and proud of my faith. And no one should play with my faith. No one should take me away from New York just because they feel that way. In America, we don’t do, you know, things the easy way. We do things the right way.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Medved, different emotional issues here. One that he just raised is equating his faith with the 9/11 attacks. That’s what he sees happening. What do you…
JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead.
MICHAEL MEDVED: No one is equating his personal faith with the 9/11 attacks. But you cannot deny the fact that the people who perpetrated those 9/11 attacks did those attacks in the name of Islam.
I mean, people have compared this to the Murrah Building and the fact that the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City has churches nearby. Timothy McVeigh didn’t kill people in the name of Christianity. The murderers of 9/11 did it in the name of Islam.
I think that William Kristol, my colleague, who was on my radio show yesterday, has made a very, very constructive suggestion, and a suggestion for President Obama. And President Obama is in a unique position here because of some of the credibility he’s achieved in the Muslim community.
And it’s an opportunity, not for presidential power, but for presidential leadership, to bring together both sides to this dispute and to try to work constructively, to have people on the same page, so that people like myself who question the location of this mosque, not its existence, not its building, not the building of the Cordoba house, but its location — the 92nd Street Y, which was cited before, had no controversy regarding the location of that building. It has not offended some of the people to whom any ground was particularly sacred.
I think the families should be taken very seriously. And I think the objections of New Yorkers and the people who care desperately about 9/11 being remembered and being remembered accurately need to be taken into account, and with a negotiated agreement, not taking away anyone’s right, but actually bring us together in a positive, constructive direction…
JEFFREY BROWN: All right.
MICHAEL MEDVED: … which ought to be possible.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we just have a short time left.
Mr. Wolf, do you see — that was one way forward put out there. Do you see any way to go forward? What would you like to see happen now?
CHARLES WOLF: Well, I — I do. I do. And I think that people, number one, ought to just Google the location on Google Maps or something like that and take a look at what it really is.
There is going to be a Greek Orthodox church built on the site of Ground Zero, because it was destroyed. Saint Paul’s Chapel, an Episcopal church, is across the street from Ground Zero. So, this is the way New York City is. There’s religious institutions all over the place.
And I still say that one of the things I was very proud of after 9/11 is, we didn’t do the same thing to the Muslims that we did to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.
But now, 10 years later, has the anger and has the hurt festered that much? There’s a lot — I know there’s a lot of my family — 9/11 family member friends who are against this. And they are very pained. And I understand that.
But I say that we have — we have to remember what this country was founded on. It was founded on religious freedom, not just for some, not just for all that were here, but for all religious freedom.
And if there is any problem with illegal activities, I have full confidence in our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to ferret that out wherever it might be in whatever religious institutions.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, we do have to leave it there.
I want to thank you all for presenting your views so candidly and forcefully with us.
Charles Wolf, Neda Bolourchi, Michael Medved, and Nihad Awad, thank you all very much.
NIHAD AWAD: Thank you for having us.
NEDA BOLOURCHI: Thank you.
CHARLES WOLF: Thank you.