Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New Yorkers fight three new mosques

Holy wars are breaking out all over New York.

Three separate plans to build Muslim worship centers in New York City have proved more difficult and contentious than expected, igniting protests by local residents and anti-jihad activists and prompting charges of "Islamophobia" and bigotry.

The three projects raise different sets of issues, are set in three different boroughs and are still in the planning stages.

But together, they show that building a mosque in New York is not like building a pizza parlor — whether it's logistical concerns about neighborhood traffic and changing demographics, the sanctity of the World Trade Center site, or backyard politics.

New Yorkers have not been shy about their opposition, and a recent poll on the most contentious of the three projects — involving a Muslim center just two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack — shows residents stoutly opposed.

"This is about radical Islam wanting to colonize the world," said Joan Moriello, a community activist fighting one of the other projects. "They pretend to be tolerant, they pretend to be loving but they aren't. It's just starting to come bubbling up to the surface."

However, those kinds of reactions cause Muslim groups to cry "foul" and say objections about zoning and noise are mere covers for religious intolerance.

The Muslim American Society, a Washington-based nonprofit group, is determined to build mosques in Brooklyn and Staten Island. A separate organization called the Cordoba Initiative, which seeks to improve relations between Islam and the West, plans to build an Islamic center just a few minutes' walk from the site of the Sept. 11 attack.

"The Staten Island issue and the Brooklyn issue are kind of bifold," said Lana Safah, a spokeswoman for the Muslim American Society. "On the one side, you have a community that is concerned with logistical issues such as traffic and noise, and those are concerns we absolutely acknowledge. On the other hand, there is a lot of outside influences. There are things that are planting seeds of doubt."

The property of the proposed mosque on Staten Island was owned by St. Margaret Catholic Church until the Rev. Keith Fennessy decided to sell the vacant convent to the Muslim American Society in May. The group wants to use the property on Fridays for a community center and prayer hall.

The sale, however, is in the hands of the parish's board of trustees, which includes the pastor, two lay members of the congregation, the archdiocese’s vicar general and the archbishop.

The decision to sell the convent was met with overwhelming opposition, which led Father Fennessy to write a letter in June to Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan withdrawing the pastor's support of the sale.

The parish's board of trustees has not set a meeting date to discuss the future of the property.

While the community awaits the meeting, Staten Islanders have rallied against the proposed mosque, carrying signs of protest near the property.

"This is all very shocking," said Ms. Moriello, who pointed out that Staten Island already has five mosques. "I really don't know who was thinking this was a positive move. People have been so disenchanted."

The Muslim American Society has been widely accused of having ties to the jihadist Muslim Brotherhood.

Opponents of the Staten Island sale, and critics of the Muslim American Society more generally, have zeroed in on a videotape of the society's president, Mahdi Bray, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood at a 2000 rally outside the White House. Also, the 1993 founding of the Muslim American Society involved Muslim Brotherhood members, including Mohammed Mahdi Akef, now supreme guide for the Brotherhood in Egypt, and Ahmed Elkadi, then the leader of the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood.

Ibrahim Ramey, the human civil rights director for the Muslim American Society, defended his group as a peaceful organization in an open letter to the press.

"We know that we must overcome prejudice and fear, and even racism, just as other religious groups in this nation have confronted the same barriers," he wrote.

Ms. Safah said neighbors were angry and fearful because they know little about the organization.

"We acknowledge that people have fears, especially from an organization they have not heard of much," she said.

Protesters also have rallied against plans for a mosque in Sheepshead Bay, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.

The Muslim American Society also is funding this project, a four-story mosque and community center intended to serve 1,500 people. The site is surrounded by homes, prompting fears among residents that the mosque will cause noise, traffic and a parking shortage.

Although much of the opposition stems from quality-of-life concerns, some people are wary of the reported connections between the Muslim American Society and the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It's about the Muslim American Society," said Pamela Gellar, an author and anti-jihad and pro-Israel blogger.

"It was originally the Muslim Brotherhood and they changed the name to make it more acceptable. I can understand why [the neighborhood] would not want the Muslim Brotherhood building a huge edifice there."

The Muslim Brotherhood is an international entity founded in 1928 as a youth organization. Its primary goal is to make the Koran and associated Muslim traditions the "sole reference point" for family, society and the state. The group's headquarters are in Cairo, though the group is officially banned in Egypt.

According to its official website, the Muslim Brotherhood's objectives include efforts to "inform the masses, Muslim and non-Muslim of Islamic teachings." The organization says it opposes violence as a means of achieving political goals, though it has spawned violent offshoots and the Egyptian government accuses it of numerous killings.

Perhaps the group's most well-known member was Sayyid Qutb, whose book "Milestones" calls for using jihad to overthrow political structures in the Muslim world. His other works criticized Western society for moral and social decadence. Jihadists worldwide, including Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, cite Qutb as a formative influence.

Mr. Ramey called the backlash "religious bigotry" and "hatred."