War Over Ground Zero

A proposed mosque tests the limits of American tolerance.

They have almost everything in common, including the tragedy that defines their lives. Both women were born in the Bronx and educated in Catholic schools. They married and raised kids of their own in the boroughs that circle Manhattan; as parents, they—like most of us—fought too much and counted blessings too little. On September 11, 2001, Sally Regenhard and Adele Welty each lost one brave and handsome son—firefighters both—in the conflagration at the World Trade Center. Welty’s son Timmy, 34, was recovered only partially and in pieces—a fact that she, a 74-year-old grandmother, still cannot bring herself to recall without her chin trembling like a child’s. Christian Regenhard, 28, simply evaporated; not a cell of him was ever found. “ ‘He is unaccounted for,’?” Regenhard remembers a gruff old firefighter saying when she finally reached the firehouse by phone that Tuesday night. She mimics his tough Brooklyn accent—“fawr”—and as she does, her face crumples in grief. “Unaccounted for?” she remembers asking. “That’s something they say in war.”

I met with Welty and Regenhard recently on neutral turf—a hotel conference room near Central Park—for despite their shared experience, they firmly disagree about one thing. A large Islamic cultural center and mosque is proposed two blocks from the place where their children died, and since former Alaska governor Sarah Palin voiced her opposition—“UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts”—in a tweet heard round the world last month, the so-called Ground Zero mosque has become the focus of a vicious public battle. Welty supports it. She believes the mosque and community center will give a face and voice to moderate, peaceful, ordinary Muslims and so stand against the forces of terrorism and fundamentalism. “If we manage to get it built and can avoid violence in the process, the world can see that we are a towering nation, that we believe in and practice freedom of religion.” Regenhard opposes it. It’s too soon, she says. It’s too close to Ground Zero, and it doesn’t take into account the sensitivities of people like her, whose loved ones, she believes, may still be scattered even beyond the 16-acre area where the towers once stood. If the people behind the mosque really desired peace, as they say they do, they would move it somewhere else out of respect for the sanctity of that place. “You never change hearts and minds by shoving your religion on someone else.

They had met before, but long ago and in a crowd. Now they embraced, pulled apart, and regarded each other warily. Regenhard, the voluble one, had bought along an extra coffee: milk, no sugar. She was guessing, based on her own mood, that Welty would need sustenance. (I interviewed them together, and separately, in person and by telephone, at length.)

Welty and Regenhard had every reason to be edgy. Locally, the fight over the mosque has been more than ugly. Its founders—a well-known interfaith activist and spiritual leader named Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf; his wife, Daisy Khan; and a downtown Manhattan real-estate developer named Sharif El-Gamal—originally called their project Cordoba House, after the medieval town in Spain where a Muslim caliphate fostered one of the most vibrant periods of interfaith flourishing in history. But critics seized on the name as a signal that Rauf and the others had Islamic hegemony in mind, and the founders changed the name to the generic Park51 (based on the site’s street address). Mosque opponents hurled racist epithets at supporters; the worst came from former Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams, who called Allah the Muslim “monkey god.” (He later apologized.) Enraged, local politicians who supported the mosque steamrollered opponents’ objections, calling them bigots and haters. When Community Board 1 gathered to vote on the mosque May 25, the tension in the room was so thick, the hecklers so brazen, that mob violence seemed but a gesture away. “It was like, if you’re for this you’re a religious fundamentalist, and if you’re against it you’re a bigot,” says the Rev. Chloe Breyer, a longtime colleague of Rauf’s who was there.

Nationally, the fight over the mosque has escalated far beyond name-calling into an emotional, politically driven war over American values. Does being American mean holding the personal pain of some above the constitutional rights of others, as the Anti-Defamation League suggested in its statement proposing the mosque move somewhere else? Or does it mean seeing this country as a mighty power with a God-given mission to right global wrongs—rhetoric not heard since George W. Bush and the “Axis of Evil” days? Republicans running for election have seized on the mosque and Imam Rauf as symbols of what they see as President Obama’s inadequate and politically correct response to the terrorist threat. Not least among these is former House speaker Newt Gingrich, on the shortlist as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2012. “Building this structure on the edge of the battlefield created by radical Islamists…is a political statement of shocking arrogance and hypocrisy,” he wrote recently. In the same piece, he connected Rauf to terrorist and fundamentalist Islamic groups. (When I asked how he knew this, he referred me to a National Review Web column by the former terrorist prosecutor and partisan activist Andrew McCarthy.) Rauf has asserted publicly that he believes American policies abroad in part inspired the calamity of 9/11, and in a recent radio interview he refused to say whether he saw Hamas as a terrorist group. He denies any link to any terrorist organization and “forcefully and consistently” has condemned all forms of terrorism, according to a statement from Khan.

Gingrich rejects the notion that he is fanning a local controversy to serve his political ambitions. “How can you ask someone who’s concerned about national security to fail to acknowledge that we’re in the middle of a serious conflict? This isn’t about one family’s tragic loss. This is about the United States of America, which is under siege by a stealth jihad and a militaristic jihad which is violent.”

Last week New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered another view of American values in a speech he made against a backdrop of blue sky and the Statue of Liberty. Being American, he said, means holding tight to constitutional freedoms and the rule of law, especially under pressure to capitulate. Here the centrist mayor was staking out an unpopular position, for New Yorkers oppose the mosque by 52 to 31 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Nevertheless, he endeavored to appeal to Americans’ higher principles. “We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.” His voice broke as he talked about the firefighters who rushed into the buildings to save lives, without regard to race, creed, or religion.

At the eye of this storm stand two grieving mothers who don’t ever want to hear the word “closure.” Each remains convinced of the rightness of her position, and it is in their congenial conversation that one sees the issue laid bare. The core conflict over the Ground Zero mosque is not about racism, tolerance, paranoia, or even politics—though each of these has come to play an important part. It’s about the appropriate place of private pain in the public sphere and how to hold memory sacred when the world, in all its craven momentum, moves on.

Park51 was born several years ago, the vision of Rauf, Khan, and El-Gamal. In 1997 Rauf and Khan founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement, an organization devoted to interfaith work and promoting the cause of moderate Islam. In addition, Rauf had been the imam, or pastor, of a mosque in Tribeca, just 10 blocks north of the new, controversial site, for nearly 30 years. El-Gamal had his office nearby and prayed there frequently. The mosque, which still exists today, is a tiny storefront wedged between a bar and a French bistro. On Friday afternoons—which for Muslims is like Sunday morning—congregants overflow onto the sidewalk.

Frustrated by the cramped quarters, El-Gamal, an American born to a Polish mother and an Egyptian father, was inspired to improve facilities for Muslims downtown—and, after 9/11, to show his friends and neighbors “a new face of Islam, the voice that is not heard.” He bought the building at 45–51 Park Place two years ago for $5 million, and together with Khan and Feisal sketched out a plan. They would demolish the existing building and put in its place a deluxe, multipurpose center big enough to house a swimming pool, a gym, exhibition space, conference rooms, day care, a senior center, and a 500-seat auditorium. It would accommodate all the downtown workers—lawyers and laborers—who wanted to pray on Fridays; it would have an interfaith board and interfaith programming; and it would present to the world a moderate, peace-loving, diverse, ordinary Islam. As of last week, El-Gamal says, they had gotten all the necessary city approvals to begin construction on Park51, though lawsuits are still pending. The budget for the proposed construction is $100 million, which Khan says they hope to raise mostly through a bond offering.

The site is huge, nearly 100,000 square feet. Standing in front of the building, you cannot see Ground Zero; tall buildings entirely block the view. Khan says they chose it because it was big enough and it had the right zoning. Moreover, it was symbolically advantageous. “We want to provide a counter momentum against extremism,” says Khan, who spoke to me in her office. (Her husband was out of town.) “We want peace, and we want it where it matters most. This is where it matters most.” Though she knew some 9/11 families through her interfaith work, Khan says neither she nor her husband reached out to them in advance. “I guess in hindsight, if we had known this would be such an issue, we would have started with them.” Instead, they started with the community board, the city officials who would eventually vote their approval. (Khan plans to meet with 9/11 family members this week.)

Why, I asked her, did they not anticipate the outcry that would ensue? For one thing, she explains, they were fixtures in the neighborhood and had been for decades. But she also talked about “ownership,” the idea that 9/11 happened to them, too. Members of their congregation were killed in the disaster. “We have not been allowed to mourn, as if it was somebody else’s tragedy. We are accused and painted with a broad brush, as if we had anything to do with the people who perpetrated this. So for us, rebuilding this neighborhood is a responsibility, because 9/11 is not just an event, it is a historical event that has reshaped the world.”

Ownership is at the heart of Sally Regenhard’s objections. Ground Zero may be valuable real estate in a crowded city; it may belong, theoretically, to all New Yorkers, or even all Americans, or even every citizen of the world who values freedom above all. But in some important and incontrovertible way, Regenhard feels the sprawling site belongs to her and the people she calls “the families.” Ever since the tragedy, the process of deciding what to build there and how to commemorate the dead, she says, has been characterized by fighting, competing interests, politics, and paralysis; Regenhard feels she has “wasted the past nine years of my life in meetings” in an effort to recover some part of Christian and the others who died there and to honor their memories. When she learned about the Islamic center, she felt blindsided. “We were so shocked, it was crazy…I thought about it and thought about it, and I realized I didn’t feel right. I felt that it was a total disregard of the sensitivity we had. I’m still searching for my son.”

Regenhard reminded me of the controversy over a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz in the late 1980s—a controversy that has recently been revived in many editorials in light of the mosque. Jewish groups angrily protested the occupation of a building near the death camp by nuns who wanted to pray for the souls of the dead, saying it “Christianized the Holocaust.” No matter how goodhearted the sisters, they argued, they were appropriating the victims’ sacred memory. The fight went on for years, until, in 1993, Pope John Paul II finally ordered the nuns to relocate. “Pope John Paul has gone down in history as being one of the greatest people to improve Judeo-Christian relations,” says Regenhard. She understands very well that the Muslims who want to build Park51 are not the same ones who committed the atrocities on that day, but the analogy is there. “It’s a perception thing.”

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Regenhard, who won’t reveal her age except to say she’s a baby boomer, is a fighter. In December 2001 she founded the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, and since then she has testified before Congress and fought for, among other things, better entrance to and egress from tall buildings, more stringent adherence to building codes, and improved radio technology for firefighters. She sued for the release of the city’s emergency-call tapes and transmissions from that day. She is, in other words, one of the most quoted, visible, and active 9/11 family members—an annoyance to some, a heroine to others. Recently she has turned her attention to the question of human remains. The explosions and the collapse of the Twin Towers simply erased people. As of January 2010 more than 1,000 families had never found anything human to bury.

In Regenhard’s view, Ground Zero is a graveyard, as sacred as any American battlefield. Early on, she and others asked the developers to consider building a nondenominational chapel on the site—a place to pray, reflect. “I would like to see a building with the history of September 11 and its aftermath,” Alice Henry, another mother who lost a firefighter son, wrote to then-governor George Pataki in 2002. “Benches, flowers for every season, beautiful trees, a small lake, a non-sectarian chapel.”

That last request was never honored. Today, mourners can visit any number of houses of worship nearby. St. Paul’s Church, where George Washington prayed after he took the oath of office in 1789, faces the site. But no prayer space on the World Trade Center footprint is specifically dedicated to the dead. According to the developers of the 9/11 museum (scheduled to open in two years), the rest of the unidentified human remains will be installed in a small room behind a large concrete wall there that bears a legend from Virgil: NO DAY SHALL ERASE YOU FROM THE MEMORY OF TIME. Visitors to the museum will be able to see the wall, though not the room behind it. The wall is “an important recognition,” explains Joe Daniels, president of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Four hundred trees will be planted on the memorial plaza, he adds: the entire site will have a sacred feel. Regenhard believes otherwise. “This museum is going to be an homage to death, destruction, big pictures of exploding buildings, and crushed trucks. To me this is going to be a glorified Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

For all these reasons—exhaustion, relentless grief, disappointment, and a determination to cherish Christian’s memory—the Islamic center was the last straw. And then a reporter asked Regenhard whether she worried that her opposition would brand her as intolerant. Regenhard was astonished. She is not one of those she calls the “tea baggers and monkey-god people”; she was simply using her freedom of speech. And so she issues a warning to the Democratic Party, to which she has been loyal, more or less, for the past 40 years. “I don’t hear anyone having any sensitivity to the 9/11 families except for these Republican and conservative politicians. I feel abandoned by the people in my own party. I feel really insulted, and I’m mad about it.”

Adele Welty entered the fray on May 13 with an op-ed in the New York Daily News. Co-written with Talat Hamdani—a Muslim mother and retired schoolteacher whose son Mohammad, a certified medical technician, died in the towers on September 11—the piece voiced their support for the center. “We need to continue as Americans to focus on our commonalities as human beings rather than our differences,” they wrote. “We must abandon language meant to instill fear, fear that can allow us to curtail the freedoms of others.” They called on New Yorkers, who proudly inhabit a “melting pot,” to revive their commitment to pluralism.

Welty has thought a lot about anger and the violence it brings to families as well as nations. As a young mother of four children, she was known for her temper, and even today colleagues call her “crankypuss,” she says. She won’t concede she’s moved on, only that she’s learned her lesson. “Anger expressed violently is something we live to regret,” she says. “Especially those of us who have lost a child remember every single time we got mad and yelled and felt our anger uncontrolled. We reach a point in our lives when we can look back and say, ‘There are many better ways I could’ve handled that, had I had the knowledge and skills to do so.’ We need to learn them. We have Democrats and Republicans at the dinner table. We need to be able to express our own views in a way that’s thoughtful without making people too disgusted with us to listen.”

Armed with these convictions, Welty began searching for a way to honor her son, and in 2003 she joined the group September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization committed to establishing nonviolent resolutions to conflict. In 2004 she traveled to Afghanistan in an effort, she thought, to help change people’s perceptions about Americans and America. Instead, she says, it was she who went home changed. “The compassion and caring that was extended to me as a grieving mother was one of the most healing experiences of my life,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “These Muslims, who themselves lost family members in a U.S. bombing, welcomed me into their homes, were willing to speak with me, and agreed that we must work together for peace. I found not one instance of anger at me for the devastation my country had wrought on their homes and families.” She speaks of the Muslims she has met as “absolutely ordinary” people, who worry about safe neighborhoods and good schools, and it is this ordinariness she hopes the new Islamic center will reflect.

Welty agrees with Regenhard that Ground Zero should be sacred ground, but it isn’t, and she has no interest in that fight. She would love for the piece of earth where Timmy last walked to be an oasis for busy New Yorkers to clear their heads. Instead, she says, “it’s prime real estate. If it was sacred, we wouldn’t have bulldozers and all kinds of equipment there.” She does not believe that moving the mosque is any kind of answer. “How many blocks are we talking about? Five blocks? Another borough? Another city? We criticize moderate Muslims for not reaching out and speaking out, and then when they do, they get criticized.”

In the hotel conference room, the conversation turned warm, then sunny. Neither woman expected to change the other’s mind—and they didn’t—yet neither came across as a fundamentalist or a bigot. There they sat, sharing coffee and sandwiches, mourning their boys and loving their country. They listened respectfully and smiled at their commonalities; they experienced fresh pain at the other’s loss. And when I asked them what they had to say to the politicians on both sides who continue to use Ground Zero as a wedge or an excuse to inflame tempers, they found true common ground. Welty jumped in. “Don’t,” she said, her latent anger roaring to the surface. “Don’t go down to Ground Zero and make speeches. Don’t use family members as a backdrop for photographs. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, using people who are grieving for your own political advantage.”

“Amen, sister,” said Regenhard, clapping her hands above her head.