NEW YORK — There's no shortage of opinions — or theatrics — at the site of a proposed Islamic center and mosque two blocks from where the World Trade Center stood before two hijacked jetliners crashed into its twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
It's a deliberate Muslim thumb in the eye to survivors of the terrorist attacks to build the facility on such hallowed ground, declared Andrew Sullivan, a star-spangled, red, white and blue hard-hat-wearing union worker as he stood outside the site one day this week.
"The whole connotation of putting a mosque on conquered lands has overtones here," said Sullivan, who runs a blog called Blue Collar Corner and is seeking signed pledges from union members that they won't work on center/mosque project.
An agitated and animated Anthony Hernandez expressed a different view as he took time from his lunch hour to visit the proposed site of the Cordoba House — or Park51 — Islamic center and mosque.
"What hallowed ground?" said Hernandez, a New York City government employee as he pointed to the Dakota Roadhouse bar next to the proposed project site.
Also nearby: a strip club called the New York Dolls gentleman's club, an off-track betting parlor and smaller mosque that's been there for four decades. The New York Daily News recently tallied the businesses within a three-block area of the World Trade Center site — 17 pizza shops, 18 bank branches, 11 bars, 10 shoe stores and "17 salons where a girl can get her lady parts groomed."
"This is a false argument. There's nothing wrong with having a mosque here," Hernandez said. "This is religious freedom. This is the United States."
The debate over the project spilled off the streets of New York and onto the national political scene last week after President Barack Obama declared that the developers seeking to build the center have every right to do so at that location.
Since then, opponents and supporters have dug in — sometimes regardless of the facts — and political candidates have latched on to the mosque flap as a talking point as the November elections approach.
On the streets of New York, however, it seems clear that no amount of talk will persuade one side or the other about whether the Cordoba House project should move forward.
A swirling 24-hour news cycle, the raw emotions of many New Yorkers who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, the inability of some to differentiate moderate Muslims from Al Qaida and other terrorist groups, and the Constitution's overarching protection of religious freedom seem to make the search for a middle ground impossible.
Polls in New York and nationally indicate that the majority of Americans oppose building the center. Less clear, however, is what people outside New York really know about the location or what the plans call for — a 13-story, $100 million multi-use facility that's modeled after the city's popular 92nd Street Y. It would house a pool, gymnasium, a 500-seat auditorium for public events, and a Sept. 11 memorial, in addition to a prayer space.
Also unclear is what they know about the men behind the project — local Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and developer Sharif Gamal. Rauf, for one, receives high praise from Jewish groups and the State Department as a leading moderate Muslim.
New York attorney Michael Grossman doesn't care about polls, pools or whatever would be inside the Cordoba House. He just doesn't want it so close to ground zero.
Grossman walked past the proposed site on his lunch hour twice this week and engaged in spirited debate with supporters of the project. He called putting up a facility with a mosque an affront to the sanctity of an area where more than 2,700 people — some of whom were Muslims — were killed on Sept. 11.
Grossman, who had an apartment near the twin towers, says the area's bars, strip club, and betting houses, don't detract from its sanctity.
"Yeah, it's not a pretty block," Grossman conceded, "but the attack didn't just take down the World Trade Center, it affected the whole area. The whole downtown area encompasses the World Trade Center atmosphere."
Grossman and Sullivan both voiced concerns about Rauf, the author of the book "What's Right With Islam Is What's Right With America" and whose detractors have raised questions about his intentions and his sources of funding.
Among Rauf's controversial remarks was an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, in which he said: "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened . . . but the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened."
Rauf's supporters say the imam's remarks have been taken out of context.
"We have always found him to be thoughtful, committed to pursuing tolerance and building bridges between communities," said Mark Pelavin, the director of Inter Religious Affairs of Reform Judaism for the Religious Action Center, a Washington-based Jewish advocacy and lobbying group. "Every place we've worked with him, he's been dedicated to building bridges, and that's important to him personally."
Blue Collar Corner's Sullivan told people at the proposed Cordoba House site Thursday that Rauf is currently traveling to "heavily-funded terrorist nations" and speaking ill of the United States.
The facts are somewhat different: Rauf is on a State Department-sponsored trip to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — all U.S. allies in the Middle East. The trip is part of the department's International Information Program.
"We have rabbis, imams, Protestants, Catholics who participate as part of our effort to promote religious tolerance and religious freedom around the world," said P.J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman. "This is his fourth trip and we value his participation as a religious figure here in the United States who can help people overseas understand the role religion plays in our society."
Told the exact details of the trip, Sullivan suggested that Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a backer of the center, had teamed up with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in support of the mosque. "I don't get a warm, fuzzy feeling that our mayor and our president are united with Hamas in support of the mosque," he said.
Sullivan's position doesn't wash with Susanna Lowbeer, a 30-year-old acupuncturist from Portland, Ore., and a former Brooklyn resident who visited the proposed Cordoba site earlier this week to see what the fuss is all about.
"There's a lot of anger and hatred that's being misplaced — I feel it is prejudice," she said. "There's absolutely no reason why Muslims can't build a mosque wherever they want. We have to practice tolerance. This isn't tolerance."
Hernandez, a 64-year-old fraud investigator, said he has no tolerance for the hallowed ground argument.
"They are haters," he said in a rising voice. "They are ignorant. They don't have knowledge."
The flap has given Republicans political ammunition and Democrats heartburn. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has been in the forefront of opposition to the Islamic center, but he's by no means alone.
Former New York City Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani, on NBC Thursday morning, called putting a Muslim prayer space near ground zero a "desecration."
Giuliani failed to mention that such a prayer center already exists about six blocks from ground zero and has been in lower Manhattan since 1970, the year the World Trade Center opened to its first tenants.
A gray metal door of an unassuming brownstone on Warren Street leads to a basement and Masjid Manhattan, a place where "City, State and Federal employees, as well as professional employees of the Financial area" come to perform their daily prayers, according to the group's website.
An imam at Masjid declined to discuss the Cordoba House controversy after he conducted an Iftar service, the sunset breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan. The mosque's website, however, features a disclaimer that says: "Please be advised that we are by no means affiliated with any other organization trying to build anything new in the area of downtown Manhattan."
The site also maintains that Masjid Manhattan members "condemn any type of terrorist acts. In particular, the attacks of 9/11 where non-Muslims as well as Muslims lost their lives."
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