NEW YORK //The imam behind the proposed Islamic centre near Ground Zero said yesterday that a decision on where it will be located would depend on what was "best for everybody". The imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, said that although he is very sensitive to the concerns of families of victims who perished in the World Trade Center two blocks away, moving the proposed centre would embolden extremists.
"We have the American audience and we have the Muslim audience. And this issue has riveted the attention of the whole Muslim world," he said in an interview with ABC News. "If we make the wrong move, it will only expand and strengthen the voice of the radicals and the extremists." Mr Rauf's comments came a day after duelling protests over the Islamic centre each drew about 2,000 people in lower Manhattan on the ninth anniversary of the attacks on September 11.
US Muslims, who number as many as seven million according to some estimates, have watched with dismay and fear in recent weeks as right-wing voices equated Islam with terrorism. Moderate forces called for compassion and religious freedom. Police said there were no arrests at the protests, but the Quran was desecrated in several incidents. One man tore pages from the book and set them alight; another man used pages to make vulgar gestures. A Tennessee pastor tried to burn at least two copies and called Islam a "false religion", Reuters reported.
In Michigan, a burnt Quran was left at the entrance of the Islamic Center of East Lansing and the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (Cair) called on the FBI to launch a hate-crime investigation. The incidents were partly fuelled by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who had threatened to burn copies of the Quran but seemingly was persuaded not to after he received calls from, among others, Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence. Mr Jones said he has received about 100 death threats. It was unknown how many might have come from Muslims.
The noisy and angry protests in New York took place after sombre ceremonies on Saturday morning, including a reading of the names of the almost 3,000 people killed nine years ago. Geert Wilders, the controversial Dutch parliamentarian who was denied entry to Britain early last year under anti-hate crime laws, spoke at the rally organised by opponents to the Islamic centre. He described the Quran as a "power of darkness" and said: "We must draw the line so that New York, rooted in Dutch tolerance, will never become a New Mecca."
Tommy Robinson, the pseudonym of the leader of the English Defence League, a far-right group, was refused entry at New York's JFK airport and flown back to the UK although other members attended the protest, according to the Guardian. Supporters of religious freedom tried to counter anti-Islamic rhetoric at their protest a few blocks away. Some people carrying plac ards that said: "Stop the racist war against Muslim people."
An interfaith "Liberty Walk" was due to take place yesterday in lower Manhattan to go past houses of worship. Invitations were extended to congregations, campuses, seminaries and others. Participants were urged to demonstrate in a "respectful manner" to combat "Islamophobia in the positive terms of religious freedom", the invitation said. Frank Fredericks, one of the organisers, said he expected between 1,000 and 2,000 people. "I'm a born-again Christian and my identity based on media reports would show me to be Islamophobic," said Mr Fredericks, who started the World Faith social action and dialogue group. "I want to show that there are many American Christians who definitely view American Muslims as equitable members of society and we need a better understanding of Islam."
Mr Rauf said yesterday that the election cycle is to blame for much of the recent controversy as politicians grandstanded before November's congressional elections. "This project was front-page news in The New York Times last December. The Islamic centre, originally called Cordoba House, was planned as a community centre with a swimming pool and prayer rooms for Muslims, Jews and Christians. "No one objected," said Mr Rauf, a Sufi cleric. "What has happened is that since May, five, six months later, for political reasons, certain politicians decided that this project would be very useful for their political ambitions."
Some Muslim Americans believe passions will subside after the elections. In the meantime, Cair has issued a booklet containing advice on how Muslims can respond to provocation and how to foster better relations with non-Muslims. It reminds US Muslims that book-burners are historically associated with religious persecution, including the Nazis who burned copies of the Jewish scripture, the Torah. "Do not engage in debates with protesters or allow worshippers to be provoked by the protesters," says the booklet. "Encourage your community not to engage with protesters or respond to provocations, and remind worshippers of the Prophet's teachings of patience and peaceful tolerance in the face of verbal abuse."