From Outreach to Outrage: The Story Behind the Ground Zero Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque

They thought about creating a Muslim Y. They ended up with a national controversy about September 11th and freedom of religion. That's more or less the story behind the project to build a Muslim cultural center and mosque close to Ground Zero. So what happened? Anne Barnard wrote about that in Wednesday's New York Times, and joined WNYC's Amy Eddings to talk about it.

Behind this project is a couple known as bridge-builders. Tell us more about them.

Daisy Khan and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, started a couple of organizations that were essentially outreach organizations — at first among Muslims trying to find paths to living a life of both religiosity and modernity together, and then after 9/11 reaching out to the larger community. The imam led the Friday prayers at a mosque in Tribeca, about 12 blocks from Ground Zero near the Financial District.

So considering their reputation as bridge-builders, how come they weren't able to do so with this project?

Well, in some ways I think it was their view of themselves as bridge-builders that led them not to foresee the kind of reaction. I think that they expected that people would just know that they had spent a lot of time after 9/11 denouncing violence, reaching out to New Yorkers of all kinds and trying to build interfaith coalitions. So, of course, not everybody knows that about them, and not every piece of news coverage emphasized that about them. Some of their supporters feel that they should have been more proactive in anticipating that kind of reaction, especially given the climate around the country in which groups are increasingly, overtly opposing Muslim institutions.

Anne, this idea for this mosque and community center it happened long before 9//11, right?

Yes, they first thought about it in the late 1990s, and Ms. Khan and Joy Levitt, who is the head of the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side, both told me this wonderful story about how in approximately 2005 they had their first conversation in which Ms. Khan was asking how to use the JCC as a model for an institution that would be based in a religious group but would be open to everyone in the neighborhood and would have facilities for sports and events and education. And Ms. Levitt told her the big thing you have to worry about is strollers. And Ms. Khan said, 'strollers?' She didn't know what she was talking about. And she said, 'You're going to have a lot of practical issues to deal with. You're going to have a lot of practical issues to deal with. You're going to deal with all kinds of logistical things' and obviously neither woman had in mind that this would be seen as some kind of monument to terrorism — far from it.

The controversy continues. Governor Paterson suggested yesterday he'd offer to find state land if developers moved the mosque farther from the World Trade Center site. Today he says one of his aides spoke to the imam and he rejected the offer. "I hope that the imam would reconsider. If he doesn't want to talk to me, he can talk to someone else," Paterson said. "But the reality is that I hope that the type of cultural understanding that they are trying to promote when they build the center could be practiced right now." The mosque's imam hasn't responded yet to requests for comment, so we don't know his side of the story. Anne, what do you know about this offer and how realistic it is?

I don't know the details of the offer. I know that what some of the organizations who support the mosque would say I think is summed up by the reaction I got from a Jewish community-based inter-religious tolerance organization. The leader of it told me the problem with this discussion is that it's as if Muslims are not to say that there shouldn't be a Muslim institution in this particular location, it's as if to forget that Muslims were among the victims of 9/11 as well as among the perpetrators. So I think that's the reason that they are resistant to changing the location, although who knows, the imam I believe is traveling so maybe there can be more discussion about it, but my sense is that they feel they have as much of a right to the location as anyone, and that they would rather resolve the issues of hurt feelings and pain and trauma, which are real among some of the 9/11 families, by talking them through and coming to understand each other a little bit better. Who knows if that's realistic. Maybe that in itself is something that's too hard to reach. But I think that's what's behind that reaction.

Anne Barnard is a metro reporter for the New York Times. Thanks so much.