September 1st, 2010
11:38 AM ET
Building an Islamic community center near the site of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York will "deprive al Qaeda of its No. 1 recruiting tool," a former United States military interrogator in Iraq said Wednesday.
"The No. 1 reason foreign fighters came to Iraq was Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo," said Matthew Alexander, the author of "How to Break a Terrorist," referring to the notorious U.S.-run prison in Iraq and the detention center for foreign fighters at the U.S. military base in Cuba.
"Symbols do matter," Alexander said, arguing: "What's going to end the conflict is defeating al Qaeda's ability to recruit."
Alexander was speaking to reporters on a conference call in defense of the controversial project that has been labeled the "ground zero mosque."
Liberal Christian and Jewish leaders also participated in the call, organized by a group called Faith in Public Life.
Opponents of the plan to build the community center say it is too close to the site of the 9/11 terror attacks, and is an affront to the memory of those who died in the al Qaeda strike.
But Lisa Sharon Harper, the head of New York Faith & Justice, said backing the project was a chance to put into action Jesus' commandment to love your neighbor.
And Simon Greer, the head of Jewish Funds for Justice, cited the first-century Jewish thinker Hillel, who demanded: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself only, what am I?"
He said Americans were doing a pretty good job on the first question - being for themselves - but he questioned whether they were doing as well by their Muslim neighbors.
"Are we for them? If not, what are we?" he asked.
Also on Wednesday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations launched a series of commercials designed to fight what it called growing Islamophobia. One in the series features a Muslim firefighter who was among the first responders on 9/11.
Opponents of the New York Islamic center are "trying to tell the world and tell Americans that Muslims do not belong here. That Muslims are the others, when we are in fact, all Americans," said Nahad Awad, executive director of CAIR.
"They're trying to portray Muslims as foreigners. This is a dangerous repeat of history. If it's allowed, it's going to hurt all of us," he said.
Security expert Andrew Bacevich of Boston University insisted in the Faith in Public Life conference call that the United States was not fighting the Muslim world.
"We are not engaged in a war with Islam – and were we to be engaged in a war with Islam, we could not win," he warned.
But Pamela Geller, one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of the New York Islamic center, said that there were both religious leaders and security experts on both sides of the debate.
And, she said, the organizers of the project "have already shown that they don't care for their neighbors at the ground zero site. They have zero regard for the hurt feelings that this mosque has provoked. Why is it always incumbent upon non-Muslims to accommodate and show neighborliness to Muslims, but this impulse is never reciprocated?" she demanded.
"We are not calling for no mosques to be built anywhere. We're just asking Muslims to take account of non-Muslim feelings regarding ground zero. They have, in response, spit in our eye," said Geller, of the group Stop the Islamicization of America.
And she completely rejected the former interrogator's argument about undercutting al Qaeda.
"Actually, the mosque at ground zero would be a huge recruiting tool for Islamic jihadists and supremacists: there are thousands of triumphal mosques built on the sites of churches, synagogues and Hindu temples that were destroyed by jihadists, and absolutely no 'mosques of reconciliation' built on the sites of Islamic jihad attacks," she told CNN.
"Which, then, is more likely? That the mosque will be viewed as a monument to jihad victory, as so many others have been, or that it will be seen as the first-ever 'mosque of reconciliation?'" she asked.
The project in question, officially known as Park51, is slated to include a variety of facilities, including a prayer room, a performing arts center, gym, swimming pool and other public spaces. It is due to be located two blocks from the World Trade Center.
A source familiar with the project told CNN's Allan Chernoff Tuesday the structure is being planned as an 11-story building. It will cover 120,000 square feet - 10,000 feet of which would be designated for the Muslim prayer space. The developer is considering the possibility of an interfaith education/meditation/prayer space as well, the source said.
It will be built on property the center already owns, two blocks from where the World Trade Center was destroyed by Islamic extremists on September 11, 2001. The attacks killed more than 2,700 people.
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