New York Muslim leaders defend Islam

Arrayed on the steps of City Hall, New York Muslim leaders Wednesday condemned the ugly rhetorical attacks aimed at Islam and its followers amid a national furor over a planned Islamic center two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 attacks.

During a news conference, the Muslim leaders labeled the verbal attacks un-American, and a New York congressman described the vitriol as beneath New Yorkers.

“This nation was founded on the values of religious freedom and tolerance and fairness and justice and pluralism,” said Imam Al-Amin Abdul Latif, president New York’s Islamic leadership council, which includes 55 major mosques and groups. “We’re going backwards.”

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, a 20-term Harlem Democrat who is facing a primary challenge this month, said opposition to the center should be particularly problematic for New Yorkers, who traditionally have prided themselves on embracing every immigrant and religious group, and their right to live and pray where they want. But he said politicians seeking election this fall have stirred up public opinion against the center.

“Candidates running for reelection are not rational people,” Rangel said with a note self-irony.

Polls are showing that most New Yorkers and Americans oppose locating the center close to the site of the attack. Opponents call it “the ground zero mosque,” although it would not be at the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been its most vehement elected defender. Its critics include Rudolph W. Giuliani, mayor at the time of the 2001 attacks.

As they listened under the broiling sun to the speakers Wednesday, imams from across the city held aloft signs declaring Muslims’ support for peace and justice. They also brandished photographs of a special Muslim prayer service held days after Sept. 11 in memory of 300 Muslims who were among the nearly 3,000 people killed that day. The service was at a mosque blocks from the smoking wreckage; that mosque remains in the area.

“We do not believe that we are good enough to die, that we are good enough to minister to others, that we are good enough to respond to tragedy, but we are not good enough to build a place where we can pray right where we worked and died,” said Imam Talib Abdur Rashid. Muslims were among the police, firemen and chaplains who worked around the clock in the days and months after Al Qaeda terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, he said.

The Muslim leaders said they supported the right of a local Muslim developer to build the 13-story Islamic center, which will include a prayer room, near ground zero, but made a point of noting that if he decides to relocate the building, that’s fine too. They were simply fed up with the overheated public dialogue around the center that, for example, included Newt Gingrich likening the developers to Nazis scheming “to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum” and others labeling Islam as an “evil” religion.

Such comparisons and descriptions demeaning to Jews, blacks or Catholics, the imams said, would not be tolerated.