New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg disagrees with a Florida pastor's impending Koran-burning rally on the coming 9th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, calling the plan "boneheaded and wrong."
Even as he defended the pastor's right to carry out his plan, Bloomberg told "Good Morning America" anchor Robin Roberts that he didn't believe the pastor should do it.
Bloomberg made the comments to Roberts on a recent tour of the Ground Zero site, which is being prepared to house a memorial and underground museum to honor the more than 3,000 people who were killed when terrorists flew two jetliners into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
His reaction echoed similar sentiments expressed by interfaith leaders, politicians, and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Bloomberg: Builders Have the Right to Islamic Community Center and Mosque
Pastor Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., has cited the terror attack as the reason for his planned bonfire of Korans Saturday.
A proposed Islamic community center and mosque at Ground Zero in New York seems to have sharply polarized the public: critics say such a facility has no place at Ground Zero, while supporters say the nation's Constitution guarantees each individual the freedom to practice his or her religion.
Bloomberg told Roberts that the mosque sends a message, adding that most of the 9/11 victims' family members with whom he has talked have said builders should have the right to erect the community center and mosque.
'You Can't Let Al Qaeda Win'
"You can't let Al Qaeda win. Just can't do that. We have to stand up. And does a mosque send a message? I don't want to get involved in saying yes or no, because I am representing the government. But there are an awful lot of people that think it does," he said.
Much of the divisive rhetoric was coming from the political arena, and he also had strong opinions about that.
"It's a disgrace," Bloomberg said. "This is not a campaign issue."
A rising tide of Islamophobia across the nation has given way to reports of violence against Muslims – including an attack on a New York City cab driver who is Muslim – and a suspicious fire at a mosque in Tennessee.
Saturday, the planned date of Jones' Koran-burning rally at his church also could be the day that Eid, the end of the holy month of Ramadan, is celebrated, according to when the date falls on the lunar calendar.
Despite his unequivocal disagreement with Jones' plans, Bloomberg said he would "fight and make whatever sacrifices are necessary" to protect the pastor's right to carry out his actions.
"I think we should respect each others' religions. I think what he's doing is putting our troops in more danger around the world, and Americans in more danger, and America in more danger," Bloomberg said. "But nevertheless, either you believe in the First Amendment or you don't. And he has a right to do it. And we're fighting just as hard for his right, even when I think it is boneheaded and wrong."
More Than Just a 'New York' Issue
"If he doesn't have the freedom to do that, then I'm not going to have the freedom to say what I want to say, pray to whomever I want to pray to. Wherever and whenever," Bloomberg noted.
The issue of the Islamic center, which for some time was referred to inaccurately as the "Ground Zero mosque," has become more than just a New York issue. People across the country and the world are weighing in.
While some opponents of the Islamic community center and mosque have acknowledged the builders' right to build, they have said that actually going ahead with the project would demonstrate a lack of sensitivity for the victims' families and loved ones.
"If the builders want to build, they have the right to do it," Bloomberg said. "If people want to suggest that they don't build it or build it (elsewhere), they have a right to say that. What is clear is the government should never get involved in restricting what you can say, which includes who you can pray to or where you can pray. And that's the issue. This is a First Amendment issue."
Most Groups Have Faced Discrimination
People have pressed him further for an opinion.
His answer to them is "I'm the government. And I should not express my own views as to whether it should be or should not be built here. I've said the more cultural institutions and the more religious institutions that are built around Ground Zero, I think, the better we all are."
Some people have pointed out that churches may not be constructed in some Middle Eastern countries and have used that as the potential rationale for blocking construction of a mosque in this country.
To that, Bloomberg said, "That's the difference between those countries and America."
Bloomberg related a story of being interrupted as he and his girlfriend were out for a hamburger by a man who wanted to talk about the mosque.
"And I'm thinking, 'Oh, this is going to be -- my hamburger's going to get cold before I finish this conversation.' And he said, 'I just got back from two tours of duty overseas. Some of my best friends didn't come back. What are these people thinking about?' he asked. He said, 'You get out there and to explain to them. Keep explaining to them. That's why we went overseas to fight and some of us didn't come back. It's the fact that we have the right to do this, not whether we should or we shouldn't, that we have the right. "
Bloomberg is no stranger to discrimination.
As a child growing up in Massachusetts, his father couldn't purchase a home outright because the family was Jewish.
"The developer … didn't want to sell. I think he said his sister would never talk to him again if he sold … the house, which is the one we bought, to a Jew …," he said. "So they sold it to my father's Irish lawyer, who resold it to my father."
Bloomberg pointed out that it would be hard to find anyone in the U.S. whose ancestors hadn't faced discrimination.
"The pilgrims came here to avoid religious persecution in England. African-Americans came here as slaves. Jews came here and were discriminated against. The Irish – people don't remember – the 'No Irish need apply' signs that were all over. Italians. You know, all of the stereotypes kept getting brought up. Catholics. Remember John F. Kennedy? The Pope was going to run America."
America got beyond the rhetoric then, and could rise above it again, he said.