Two Blocks From Ground Zero

I was sent to Manhattan to cover a polarizing story.

An Islamic community center (basically a mosque) is being built two blocks from Manhattan’s Ground Zero, the site where Islamic extremists brought down American skyscrapers in 2001. As for my opinion, I’m torn. Lucky for me, as a visual journalist, I get to be neutral and let people decide for themselves. However, I do have a few observations from our interviews while visiting New York…

Every New Yorker we spoke with didn't seem to care about the Muslim Community Center's location.

Nearly every New Yorker we spoke with didn't seem to mind.

Every New Yorker we spoke with didn’t seem to give it a second thought.  With thick, stereotypical accents and that strange eyes-down-fast-paced walk, most Manhattan locals we managed to slow down echoed the same thing: New York is a melting pot of diversity; why not let Muslims build a mosque where they want? A scraggly homeless man jumping off a subway told us the mosque’s location was inappropriate and wrong, but that’s about all the opposition we encountered. On our CBN Facebook news page nearly all are expressing anger at the proximity of the site. I pulled this one from the wall:

“This is a total outrage!!!! Wake up people, what is wrong with you, they are trying to take over America and we are handing it right to them! Wake up we need to be standing strange and saying no more!! This is America and go back to your own country if that is how you want to live and leave us alone!!!!”

Many people believe, like this person above, that Muslims are trying to take over the United States. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, meant to instill fear. They may have conversion aims, but what religion doesn’t eh? As a nation with a Christian majority, missionaries from the U.S. are planted all over the world. But as a religious group, Christians have no intention of ever taking over a country (not mainstream Christianity at least).

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, heading up the project to build an Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero in New York.

The mosque’s construction is being led by Cordoba Institute’s Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. A well spoken, ivy league educated academic, he repeatedly called the mosque a “Muslim community center.” Whenever we mistakenly called it a mosque he corrected us with a smirk. His community center will cater to Muslims however, and feature prayer rooms. In my opinion, he’s just masking the issue: it’s definitely a mosque. Imam Feisal Rauf also said the center was strategically positioned to allow Muslims to “leverage the voice of the vast majority of Muslims who condemn terrorism.”

Feisal claims its a sign of peace to the people of New York and the country as a whole. We asked directly, and he put it very plainly: the center in no way will be used to support extremism, nor will construction funds come from extremist ties. Those speaking out against the mosque are calling his statements debatable, if not a lie.

Ex-firefighter and 9/11 survivor Tim Brown tells us how he feels about the Mosque's location.

We spoke with ex-NY firefighter Tim Brown who’s a survivor of 9/11. He’s helping to lead the fight to move the mosque farther away. Wearing nice khakis and a blazer, he met us a block outside the busy construction of the Ground Zero Monuments. With jackhammer noise in the background, he passionately explained the emotional and spiritual problem with allowing a mosque to be built so close to GZ:

“That I will be praying at Ground Zero for the souls of my best friends and I will hear ‘Allah Akbar’ echoing through the canyons into my ears – that is the same war cry that those terrorist yelled as they flew the planes into the tower and killed Americans.”

The debate is polarizing. Personally, I think the mosque sits a little close for comfort. At the same time I understand the important role religious freedom plays in the United States. What makes this nation so great is the freedom of the individual, and that includes religious expression. There is no state religion (even though some Christians wish Christianity was). Separation of church and state keeps religion out of government, something Central Asia hasn’t been able to do. Sharia Law has penetrated deep levels of Middle Eastern government, which creates stepping stones for religious extremism. And also, as a Christian myself, I know that spreading hate and bigotry is no way to show the love of Christ.

Running around Ground Zero with a camera, shooting all the 9/11  memorial construction, I felt saddened at what had happened. Emotionally drained. Ten years after the twin towers fell we as Americans are still sensitive to the tragedy (and we should be). Walking a few blocks of sidewalk, standing outside and looking up at the future home of the seven story mosque, looking down the street and seeing construction on the memorials, I felt sad still. I wasn’t angry, and I didn’t feel betrayed by Muslims. I certainly didn’t sense a thick Muslim conspiracy to take over our country. But I felt troubled. It may be because of the immense hate both sides hold for one another. It may be because both Christianity and Islam see the other as “Satanic” and “evil.” And it may be because of the deep, ongoing hate and bigotry that exists on both sides of the fence. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe all Muslims are trying to rub salt in a deep wound. Maybe Islam is not a peaceful religion, but a religion focused on destruction and death. Maybe.

The old Burlington building on Park Pl., future home for a seven story Islamic community center.

I stood looking up at the future home of the Mosque through my gray viewfinder: a big, deserted, seven-story, brick warehouse in Manhattan. As soon as I finished shooting my exterior shots the crew and I jumped in a taxi and sped off towards the airport. Headed over the Williamsburg Bridge out of Manhattan, I turned my head to look at where the Trade Center Towers used to stand. Finding only a small gap in the skyline, I turned back to face the road, instead focusing on packing what camera gear I could in preparation for my afternoon flight out of JFK.

**I would love to hear people’s opinions on this. Would you approve the building permits? Would you want them to find a new location? Interested to hear…

**Finished story, click HERE.

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