By Jordan Buie
The planned construction of a Muslim community center in New York City, two blocks from ground zero, snowballed into a national controversy over the summer and cost lives overseas on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The center started out as a local zoning dispute when it was first proposed by Feisal Abdul Rauf, imam of a local mosque and most notable voice for the center.
The mosque was proposed on May 5, after the arrest of American-Muslim Faisal Shahzad the day before for his attempted car bombing in Times Square. On the following day, national headlines featured stories about what some would call the “World Trade Center Mosque.” From this point on, havoc broke loose.
Sarah Palin, 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, came on the air urging “peace-seeking Muslims” to abandon what she believed to be an “unnecessary provocation.” Following Palin’s address, similar phrases were uttered by pundits who believe the construction of the mosque so close to ground zero an insensitive act.
As national figures began decrying the mosque, New York locals voiced similar opinions in a poll conducted by “The New York Times” that said two-thirds of the city’s residents, including those in favor of the construction of the mosque, wanted the project to be relocated to a site farther from ground zero.
Dr. Joanne Stephenson, Union professor of psychology, said many times victims of a traumatic event such as a terrorist attack tend to have a variety of responses — from fear, anxiety and depression to anger and grief. She said all these emotions can cause victims to react in different ways.
“Many people can realize that the extremists who attacked us are a minority and not representative of Muslims, but some react less rationally out of the fear, pain, depression and grief following such an extreme event,” Stephenson said.
Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, defended the center, saying that not to allow its construction would infringe on the religious rights of those wishing to worship.
On a television broadcast in mid-August, President Barack Obama said he supported the group’s right to build a mosque in an approved location.
“Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,’’ he said at the time. The next day, his aides insisted the remarks did not endorse the project itself, but the rights of Muslim-Americans.
Many across the country have disagreed with supporters of the mosque, and in some areas anti-Muslim animosity has developed into manifestations of post-9/11 fears.
Here in Tennessee, about 160 miles from Jackson, the Muslim community of Murfreesboro found itself at odds with political radicals motivated to vandalize an Islamic-center site.
During its 30-year existence, the Murfreesboro Muslim community remained out of the spotlight, inhabiting one-bedroom apartments and office buildings. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the community, which has now amassed to 1,000 worshipers, remained unbothered.
However, when the community’s leaders decided to propose a 52,900-square-foot Islamic center, the neighborhood came alive with angry opponents who held a protest against the center. People marched through the town square by the hundreds, carrying anti-Islamic signs. Then, on Aug. 28, someone set fire to construction equipment on the site where the Islamic center is planned to be built, destroying pieces of machinery.
As news of the NYC mosque traveled farther south, Terry Jones, pastor of The Dove World Outreach Center, a nondenominational church in Gainesville, Fla., decided the best way his congregation could memorialize 9/11 would be to burn the Quran.
Jones said he would not burn the Quran if the New York-based center’s organizers chose to move the center to another location.
Although figures such as Jones are ordinarily overlooked, the controversy put him in the spotlight as the face for American anti-Islamism, and his threats to burn the Quran sparked riots and threats in the Middle East.
The White House, Pentagon and State Department all said the burning of the Quran could endanger U.S. troops and civilians abroad, and after much pressure, Jones decided to abandon the Quran-burning and flew to New York in hopes of meeting mosque leaders.
However, Jones’ decision not to burn the Quran was not stated soon enough, as two protesters were killed and several more injured in Afghanistan on Sept. 11, in response to Jones’ threat to burn the Quran.
Afghan security forces in the Logar province fought with about 500 demonstrators who threw rocks at the soldiers until they opened fire, killing two and wounding five others. Few protesters knew the Quran burning had been canceled.
On a U.S. television program aired the same day, Rauf said he “would never have done it” had he known all the havoc his plans would cause.
“I’m a man of peace,” he said. However, Rauf did not mention relocating the center.