Debate Over Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque Continues

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New York Gov. David Paterson says support is growing for his proposal of a land swap to move a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque away from its site two blocks from the World Trade Center. Speaking this morning on WOR Radio, the governor encouraged developers to take up his idea.

"It would be very fore-sighted in the midst of this, you know, clearly this national episode, if they took the lead here," the governor said. "And I've always believed that sacrifice ignites compassion."

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani also thinks the mosque and cultural center should be moved. Speaking on NBC's Today show, he said if it isn't, it will become a place of division, not one that promotes religious tolerance.

WNYC's Arun Venugopal answers questions about the ongoing controversy.

Arun, is the governor's idea of a land swap gaining any traction?

I think it's getting traction amongst people who generally oppose it anyway. You heard that phrasing the governor used, 'if they would take the lead here.' Basically, he's been trying for a couple of weeks and he's trying and trying --

In the public sphere -- he has not met with them.

Exactly, this is a very, I guess, strategic move I think on his part, to just float this balloon repeatedly. And the press is lapping it up, and you know, if you try to ask the developers, you don't hear anything back from them. Associates of the developers tell me there's no way this is going to happen. But basically, it's getting a lot of traction, as you say, with former Mayor Giuliani, other people, the Archbishop Timothy Dolan comes out -- I don't know what he has to do with this, but basically he's come out in support of this idea. So you have a lot of people who might be on the fence, or who are opposing it say, yes, move. And so it sort of I guess moves that ball along without getting any kind of reception from the people who are central to this, that's the mosque people themselves.

I understand the New York Civil Liberties Union has weighed in?

Their point is, if you're going to talk about a land swap, there had better not be any sweetheart deals here, because this is a clear issue of state-church divide, and they're saying you'd better sell this at market rate. The question is, can you make it actually attractive to them? I don't know.

And can Governor Paterson actually do this -- offer state land to get them to move without opening it up for bidding, very good question. You went down to the site of the mosque on Park Place, and it seems to have become something of an attraction?

This is really a pretty unremarkable building, it's rather ugly, the place, this Burlington Coat Factory. The windows are all boarded up. But now you have these three people out front who support the mosque, and they're holding signs saying "Support Freedom of Religion," "America Supports All Faiths." They're standing there, that draws attention from passersby, you have people shouting at them from their cars, walking by and kind of screaming at them, engaging in arguments with them. It's interesting, you have these kinds of heated debates, but you also have people who I saw who were fairly cordial, they agree to disagree. I saw people shaking hands at the end and walking on. Interesting place.

This kind of debate on the street is going to take on an entirely different dimension this Sunday, when dueling rallies are planned at the World Trade Center site.

You have this annual event that's been going on since 9/11 I guess, -- there's this thing called the Coalition to Honor Ground Zero, they have this annual motorcycle ride from across the country. They all come to Ground Zero. This time they're saying they want all the riders to do not just that, but to move on to this particular location, where this mosque and community center are going to be built. And a block or two away you're going to have this other group, a very new group, it's called the New York City Coalition to Stop Islamophobia. They started a Facebook group. There's a woman named Elaine Brower, she's a Staten Island resident, she was instrumental in supporting the proposed mosque in Staten Island there that hasn't materialized. She's the mother of a Marine, she really supports the rights for them, and I asked her why it's so hard for people to come out in support of this mosque, and this is what she had to say:

"When you look at their websites, they talk about raising arms against the government, raising arms against Muslims. So I think people sort of retreat into a corner."

Whose website is she talking about?

She's talking about the opposition in general. You have very strong statements being made by people who oppose the mosque, and she's saying that is kind of driving supporters of the mosque who are underground, they're not really willing to come out in support of the mosque.