By THANASSIS CAMBANIS
For more than two decades, Abdelhamid Shaari has been lobbying a succession of governments in Milan for permission to build a mosque for his congregants — any mosque at all, in any location.
For now, he leads Friday Prayer in a stadium normally used for rock concerts. When sites were proposed for mosques in Padua and Bologna, Italy, a few years ago, opponents from the anti-immigrant Northern League paraded pigs around them. The projects were canceled.
In that light, the furor over the precise location of Park51, the proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, looks to Mr. Shaari like something to aspire to. “At least in America,” Mr. Shaari said, “there’s a debate.”
Across the world, the bruising struggle over an Islamic center near ground zero has elicited some unexpected reactions.
For many in Europe, where much more bitter struggles have taken place over bans on facial veils in France and minarets in Switzerland, America’s fight over Park51 seems small fry, essentially a zoning spat in a culture war.
But others, especially in countries with nothing similar to the constitutional separation of church and state, find it puzzling that there is any controversy at all. In most Muslim nations, the state not only determines where mosques are built, but what the clerics inside can say.
The one constant expressed, regardless of geography, is that even though many in the United States have framed the future of the community center as a pivotal referendum on the core issues of religion, tolerance and free speech, those outside its borders see the debate as a confirmation of their pre-existing feelings about the country, whether good or bad.
“America hates Islam,” said Mohaimen Jabar, the owner of a clothes shop in Baghdad, Iraq.
“If America loved us, it would help the Palestinians and stop the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “It would stop Iran and Israel from distorting the image of Islam.”
Interestingly, leaders in Iran, Afghanistan and even occasionally prickly rivals like China and Russia — both of which have their own tensions in some of their heavily Muslim regions — have refrained from making much of the Park51 debate.
China’s state-run news media has used the story to elaborate on the need for a secular state strong enough to police extremism, a matter near and dear to its own ideology.
American diplomats are selling the controversy as Exhibit A in the case for America as a bastion of free debate and religious tolerance.
But “the harmonious image of the melting pot, of the ability to integrate all immigrant ethnicities is tottering dangerously,” Federico Rampini wrote in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
That was echoed by Pierre Rousselin, a French columnist writing in Le Figaro: “America is discovering that its Constitution and liberal principles don’t protect her from the debates that the practice of Islam stirs up in our countries.”
In Thailand, which has contended with its own Islamic insurgency, an editorial in The Nation worried aloud that America’s handling of the cultural center would affect relations worldwide between Muslims and non-Muslims. “If the era of former President George W. Bush tells us anything, it is that how the U.S. deals with the Muslim world affects us all,” the editorial said.
Far more common, however, was a sort of shrug of the shoulders from clerics and observers accustomed to far more unpleasant debates. While extremists have presented the controversy as proof of American hostility toward Islam, some religious leaders have taken quite a different stance, arguing against placing the center close to ground zero.
Dalil Boubakeur, head of the Grande Mosquée of Paris and one of the most senior Islamic clerics in France, told France-Soir: “There are symbolic places that awaken memories whether you mean to or not. And it isn’t good to awaken memories.”
A senior cleric at Egypt’s Al Azhar, the closest equivalent in the Sunni Islamic world to the Vatican, said that building at the proposed location sounded like bad judgment on the part of American Muslims.
“It will create a permanent link between Islam and 9/11,” said Abdel Moety Bayoumi, a member of the Islamic Research Institute at Al Azhar. “Why should we put ourselves and Islam in a position of blame?”
That is not to say that the language in the United States has not agitated some observers, like Aziz Tarek, who wrote on the Saudi Web site Watan that America was in the grip of “intolerance and racism.”
He referred to Newt Gingrich’s widely reported statement that there should not be a new mosque in Lower Manhattan until Saudi Arabia allows construction of churches or synagogues.
“How can they compare building a mosque in N.Y. with building whatever in Mecca?” Mr. Tarek wrote. “I thought they viewed themselves better than that country of Saudi Arabia with its many human rights violations, as they love to put it.”
One Cambridge University researcher, writing in the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam, said Muslims could win their case for a center near ground zero in a court of law, only to end up losing in the court of public opinion.
“Provoking the other side will eventually create public opinion that will undermine the very laws that the Muslims evoke today,” wrote the researcher, Khaled al-Haroub, adding that many Muslim states do not tolerate Christian or Jewish houses of worship: “We keep increasing our religious demands vis-à-vis the West, while refusing to meet even a few of the demands made by religious minorities living among us.”
Paradoxically, the public reaction has not been heated in Lebanon, a country with 18 recognized religious sects where Muslims and Christians have a long history of occasionally violent coexistence.
If the mosque were built, many Lebanese commentators said, it would increase the influence of the ideal of the secular state. Many Lebanese, however, seemed more interested that Miss U.S.A., Rima Fakih, a Lebanese-American, had suggested that Park51 seek another location, than in the debate itself.
“Let’s be honest, it is kind of weird to build it there,” said Samer Ghandour, 33. “But the U.S. is also incredibly polarized and does not tolerate Islam.”
Mahmoud Haddad, a history professor at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, said that “the Muslim community should take the high moral and political ground” and agree to move the center, even though it has every right to build near ground zero.
“They should show they are more concerned about the general good of all Americans,” said Mr. Haddad, who studied and taught in the United States for two decades. “American society refuses to accept Muslims, even of the Westernized type, and consider them as a potential risk at best.”
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the project leader, has been speaking about his Cordoba Initiative on a two-week tour of the Persian Gulf sponsored by the State Department, although he has gingerly avoided discussing the Park51 location.
“What’s happening in America is very healthy,” said Muhammad Al-Zekri, a Bahraini anthropologist, after spending an evening with the imam.
The United States, he said, was still assimilating historical influences, including Islam, into its inaccurate self-image as a solely Judeo-Christian nation. The construction of Park51, Mr. Zekri believes, will help shape that.
“We pray for the people of New York, for peace,” Mr. Zekri said solemnly. “And if it matters, we apologize for what those people have done on 9/11.”
Thanassis Cambanis reported from Bahrain. Reporting was contributed by Anthony Shadid from Baghdad, Maïa de la Baume from Paris, Ethan Bronner from Jerusalem, Nada Bakri from Lebanon, Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome, Mona El-Naggar from Cairo and Thomas Fuller from Thailand. Li Bibo contributed research from Beijing.
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