By Rebecca Henely
While the Park51 Muslim Community Center’s plan to build two blocks away from the former site of the World Trade Center has been controversial not only in the city but across the country, those sharing the dais Monday evening at Queens College did so in the spirit of unity.
Daisy Khan, wife of Park51’s Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and Jim Riches, retired city Fire Department deputy chief whose son died as a first responder Sept. 11, talked about why they did and did not want the mosque at the location, then fielded questions from students at Queens College before an audience of more than 200 people.
“Far too often we do not sit down with the person we disagree with and explain ourselves as best we can, and then listen with an open mind to our opponent,” said James Muyskens, president of Queens College, in his opening remarks.
Khan said she did not attend the event to win an argument but to build understanding. She said facts about the center and about Islam have been distorted by people such as Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, Republican candidate for governor Rick Lazio, expelled Tea Party member Mark Williams and Pamela Geller of “Stop the Islamization of America.” On the other side of the debate, she cited those who had praised the plan on the grounds of religious freedom, such as U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan), City Comptroller John Liu and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“Are we going to go with the divided America or are we going to go with the united America?” Khan asked.
She also compared the messages of peace in the Quran to America’s founding documents and said she and her husband had been involved in talks about fighting Muslim extremism.
Riches said he did not agree with the opponents of the mosque whom Khan mentioned and that he and other relatives of those lost on 9/11 could not be responsible for what those people said.
“That’s not the way we feel,” he said.
Riches said he does not want the mosque project to be scuttled and believes Rauf has the right to build there, but said the 9/11 families would like it to be moved out of sympathy toward those lost. He told his story of working at ground zero and finding his son’s maimed body in March 2002, then having his own lung collapse and falling into a coma for 16 days because of the conditions at the site.
“My son was murdered by a Muslim and it hurts inside,” Riches said.
In responses to questions from Queens College students, she said there are issues in moving the privately owned site and she condemned the vilification of Muslims, who have been forced to defend extremism they do not believe in. She also said she was touched by Riches’ comments.
“We did not realize this pain would surface this way,” Khan said of the 9/11 families’ response to the center.
When questioned, Riches said he believed if the mosque were moved somewhat farther away, it would be sufficient and pointed out it was possible some body parts could be at the site. He also criticized the media for heightening the extremist voices in the debate, such as the Florida pastor Terry Jones, who threatened to burn Qurans if the proposed center was not moved.
“We have a lot of people who, as we say, are hate-mongering on both sides,” he said.
Both panelists were confronted by mothers of 9/11 victims in the audience. Nelly Braginsky of Staten Island, whose son Alex has a room at Queens College dedicated to him, said moving the location of the mosque would ease her pain and offered to help Khan and her husband find a new place to build after Bloomberg is out of office.
Talat Hamdani of Suffolk County, whose son Mohammad Salman Hamdani was killed, said she has had to face the pain from the death of her son and prejudice against Muslims and she believed Riches’ saying the mosque had to relocate was infringing on her religion.
Khan asked Braginsky to meet with her husband and Braginsky agreed. Riches told Hamdani that he does not want to bar Muslims from practicing their religion, but believes it is a problem of where the center is located.
Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4564.