Governor seeks 9/11 mosque talks

David Usborne
Wednesday 18 August 2010 00:00 BST

The governor of New York, David Paterson, is seeking face-to-face talks with the Imam and developer who are behind plans to build a new Muslim community centre and mosque close to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan with the hope of persuading them to build elsewhere.

Mr Paterson, a Democrat who is not seeking re-election and leaves office at the end of this year, means to defuse a controversy that has abruptly taken over political conversation in the US and threatens to linger as a highly polarising issue in the run-up to midterm congressional elections in November.

A spokesman confirmed that the Governor, who has already expressed his view that the centre should be moved away from the 9/11 site, is hoping for talks. "We are working with the developers on a staff level," said Morgan Hook. "However, we expect to have a meeting scheduled in the near future."

There has been little to suggest that the developer of the proposed centre will heed the Governor. He remains attached to a 13-storey former office building that was damaged on 9/11 when the landing gear of one of the hijacked planes that destroyed the Twin Towers crashed through its roof.

"While we have a tremendous amount of respect for our governor... this has always been about serving Lower Manhattan," Sharif El-Gamal said several days ago.

The squabble was catapulted far beyond the confines of New York City when President Barack Obama during an event to mark Ramadan at the White House last Friday squarely defended the rights of Muslims to practise their religion where and when they want to in America. He back-pedalled mildly a day later saying he was not talking about this specific case. But the political dynamite was already lit.

There was backing for the president yesterday from the New York Times. It said in an editorial that his words had been "simple and forceful". The newspaper by contrast berated Republican leaders who are "determined to whip up as much false controversy and anguish as they can, right through November".

The chorus has been joined by Republicans who may consider themselves possible presidential candidates in 2012, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich whose rhetoric on the subject has been especially hyper-oxygenated.

"Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington," Mr. Gingrich said on Fox News this week. "We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There's no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center."

Worryingly for the White House, some notable Democrats have begun to bend before the blast of Republican indignation, including Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. Facing a tough re-election contest in Nevada, he suggested on Monday that placing the mosque so close to Ground Zero was a mistake.

But the Democrat Congressman who represents the neighbourhood, Jerrold Nadler, has asked that everyone take a deep breath.

"Ultimately I suspect that once this simmers down in a few weeks, people will realize that everybody's liberty is at stake here," he said, adding that he doubted that the issue would in fact linger into the midterm election campaigns that will get under way in earnest next month.

Mr Paterson first made his concerns known and his preference for finding another site for the Muslim centre, if necessary with help from the state government, a week ago.

"I think it's rather clear that building a centre there meets all the requirements, but it does seem to ignite an immense amount of anxiety among the citizens of New York and people everywhere, and I think not without cause," he said.

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