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Remains of the day

"Remains of the day" Continued...

Issue: "Remembering 9/11," Sept. 10, 2011

Against that tide, master planner Daniel Libeskind (see "The agony of victory," March 24, 2007) designed the memorial and museum at the World Trade Center site to reach seven stories underground, encompassing the full depth of the twin towers' destruction while exposing a slurry wall that resisted the force of the attacks (but likely would have flooded the city had it cracked). Many 9/11 families, according to Tallon, objected: "Initially there would be no names of the dead at street level. We were involved in getting the names out from underground and into the light."

Another battle arose over having the names of firefighters, police, and military personnel so designated. Firefighter names are listed together but without their rank. And most recently the museum has acquired remains from the office of the medical examiner to be used as "a programmable element," Tallon said, in its exhibits. "We want these elements out of the basement and given the separate dignity that they deserve," Tallon said.

Given those skirmishes, Tallon said she thought it was "a joke" when she first heard about plans to build a mosque and Islamic community center in the old Burlington Coat Factory. The building, a squat five-story Italianate structure built in the 1800s, took severe damage on 9/11 when plane parts-including landing gears and parts of a fuselage-crashed through the roof and down through two empty floors. Most Manhattanites thought the building had emptied after that, but for months starting in 2009, hundreds of Muslims have been meeting for Friday prayer services there, listening to an imam read from the Quran.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the cleric at the center of the project along with developer Sharif El-Gamal, quietly had purchased the building in 2009. Together with a group of investors, they planned to tear down the current building and construct a 13-story Islamic cultural center and worship space. Rauf's wife, Daisy Khan, served on an advisory board for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. One of the investors, Nour Moussa, is a nephew of the former Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, who is currently running for president in Egypt.

By the time Tallon and others learned of it, the Lower Manhattan Community Board already had given a go-ahead for the project. That was May 2010. Though protests over the site were growing, and there have been battles since to get the building designated a historic landmark and otherwise halt its transformation, there's little the city-or protesters-can do to stop developers who now own the site from using it as they wish.

Proponents of the project point out that there were Muslim prayer rooms inside the World Trade Center and that there are active nearby mosques predating the twin towers. Imam Rauf promised that the project will send "the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11."

But the symbolism of a high-rise Islamic center within sight of the rebuilt World Trade Center-"right on the precipice of slaughter at the hand of Islamic jihadists," as Tallon puts it-is more than many New Yorkers, or most Americans, will support.

On June 6 a crowd of 5,000 gathered near the proposed site to protest what was becoming popularly called "the Ground Zero Mosque." They included 9/11 family members as well as out-of-towners, former Muslims, community leaders and organizers Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, who each run popular anti-jihadist blogs as well as an organization called Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA).

By July 2010 a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 52 percent of New Yorkers opposed the Islamic Center, and a CNN poll conducted late in the year showed over 70 percent of Americans nationwide oppose the project.

Struggling to recapture public-relations momentum, the developers repeatedly have changed the wording for the project, which is valued at $100 million. Initially their website referred to it as a "mosque" but later they changed that to a "prayer space" able to accommodate between 1,000 and 2,000 Muslims each Friday. Rauf named the building Cordoba House, a reference to the Great Mosque at Cordoba in Spain built to commemorate Muslim conquest of Europe. In recent weeks local New York media reported that the name had been changed to PrayerSpace.

Gamal, who remains the lead developer, has dismissed Rauf, whose ties to Hamas supporters and comments about U.S. policy serving as "an accessory to the crime" of 9/11 stirred more controversy. Gamal likes to call the project by its address, Park51.

Tallon doesn't believe Gamal would succeed with building the Islamic center were it 2002, and that the project highlights America's failure to come fully to terms with what happened at Ground Zero. "This is not about bigotry," she says, adding that her Catholic brother would have saved Muslim or Jewish victims inside the North Tower: "But my mother cannot pretend that her son was not killed by Muslims."

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