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U.S. election skews NY Muslim center debate: imams
DUBAI/NEW YORK |
DUBAI/NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. debate over plans for an Islamic center near New York's World Trade Center site has been politicized ahead of the congressional election, the Muslim cleric heading the project and other city imams say.
Kuwait-born Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is touring Gulf Arab countries to speak about religious radicalism, said his plan for a $100 million cultural center and mosque in Lower Manhattan had become a campaign issue for the November 2 vote.
President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg support the right of Muslims to build the center.
But it is opposed by most conservative politicians, some Democrats, and others who say its location is insensitive to families of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the September 11 attacks by al Qaeda militants in 2001.
"There is no doubt that the election season has had a major impact upon the nature of the discourse," Abdul Rauf said of the heated U.S. debate in an interview published on Monday by Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper.
The Sufi Muslim scholar, whose tour of Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates has been financed by the U.S. State Department, said the issue was "not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between moderates of all the faith traditions and the radicals of all the faith traditions."
Republicans are seeking to wrest control of Congress from Democrats and mostly oppose the project two blocks from the World Trade Center site -- a sentiment shared by at least 60 percent of Americans, polls have found.
Abdul Rauf has said little during his Middle East trip about the Muslim center and mosque plans and instead has focused his talks on Islam in the United States and the fight against religious radicalism. He said he plans to comment further when he returns to the United States later this week.
New York is home to some 800,000 Muslims, about 10 percent of the population, and there are about 100 mosques throughout its five boroughs. One mosque, the Masjid Manhattan, is four blocks from the World Trade Center site known as Ground Zero.
Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, which was the city's first building erected specifically to house a mosque and opened in 1991, said he did not believe the planned Lower Manhattan location was insensitive.
"The very place that terrorists attacked ... we want to show that we are here to heal, that we are here to build bridges of understanding," Ali told Reuters during an interview at the mosque on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
"They want us to turn ourselves into enemies of the United States," he said. "So we wanted to tell them that 'we don't listen to you, we're here in the very place you attacked, we're there to rebuild it and to build bridges of understanding.'"
Indonesian-born Ali said Islam had been hijacked as justification for the September 11 attacks and that the uproar over the cultural center and mosque plans had been politicized. "I don't think it's a healthy discussion any more," he said.
Imam Ghulam Rasool, of the Muslim Majlis mosque in the New York City borough of Staten Island, described the opposition to the cultural center and mosque as "un-American."
"For this to become a national debate, that is surprising," he told Reuters at his mosque's iftar -- the evening meal when Muslims break their Ramadan fast.
"This is the best way to create a better image of America, by allowing the mosque to be built because we are the free society."
The plan is to construct a 13-story building that will house an auditorium, swimming pool, meeting rooms and prayer space. The structure is architecturally plain and does not include a minaret, dome or other motifs often associated with mosques. The building at the site is already being used for prayers.
But unlike several of his colleagues, Hafiz Mohammad Sabir, imam of the Makki mosque in Brooklyn, said the cultural center and mosque should be moved a little further away from the World Trade Center site if a location could be found.
"It's not necessary for us to build a mosque next to Ground Zero," he said. "To give a good gesture to Americans I think we should reconsider our position."
(Editing by Eric Walsh and Jerry Norton)
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