"This question goes to the very heart of American democracy," he said. "On the one hand, stopping a mosque from being built undermines the very notion of freedom of worship in the United States. On the other hand, the idea of building a mosque and celebrating Islam at the site where 3,000 innocent Americans were killed by Islamic terrorists is an affront to so many people that I see it dividing New York and the nation."
The Islamic center project is the brainchild of Feisel Abdul Rauf, a New York imam, and Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. They hope to raise the estimated $100 million for the center through bonds and fundraising efforts.
Known as Cordoba House, the Islamic center will have a mosque for up to 1,500 worshippers on Fridays, Khan said. The complex would also include a swimming pool, performance space and a basketball court. It will be open to non-Muslims. Some 500 worshipers already use the site of the old Burlington Coat Factory for Friday prayers.
Khan said her group is open to suggestions from the community, and its members are reaching out to families opposed to the project in hopes of gaining their support. The plan for the mosque and cultural center was unanimously endorsed earlier this month by Community Board 1's financial district committee.
"It is definitely not part of the World Trade Center site," she said. "It's two blocks away. It's not even in front of the site, but on a side street. We already have a presence in the neighborhood … and we want to build a peaceful future. This center will give a platform to the silent majority of Muslims whose voices get drowned out by the actions of extremists."
The group hopes to unveil its full plans for the project by the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2011. "Extremism can only be defeated when Muslims and non-Muslims come together," Khan said.