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Originally published Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 9:52 PM

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Islamic center debate stupefies Muslim world

The heated debate across America over construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero is reverberating across the globe, with the ...

Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — The heated debate across America over construction of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero is reverberating around the globe, with the potential of creating a black eye for the United States.

Many Muslims abroad are miffed by the debate, largely conducted by non-Muslims, that has grown so loud as to become a topic of discussion on talk shows and newspapers from Bali to Bahrain, from Baghdad to Berlin. The proposed Cordoba House has become a symbol of America's fraught relations with the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.

"Rejecting this has become like rejecting Islam itself," said Ahmad Moussalli, a professor of Islamic Studies at the American University of Beirut. "The United States has historically been distinguished by its tolerance, whereas Europe, France, Belgium and Holland have been among those who have rejected the symbolism of Islam. Embracing it will be positively viewed in the Islamic world."

Some compare the controversy to racially tinged campaigns to ban Muslim women in France from wearing Islamic garb or Muslims in Switzerland to build minarets on their houses of worship.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, America has spent millions trying to improve its image among Muslims, especially in the Arab world, from where the Sept. 11 hijackers and their leaders came.

Ironically, the proposed Muslim center's leader, Kuwaiti-born scholar Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is touring Persian Gulf states on a State Department trip to promote good will for America.

Rauf said Sunday that the attention is positive and that he hopes it will bring greater understanding. "It is my hope that people will understand more," the imam told a gathering at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Bahrain. He did not elaborate.

In an interview with Bahrain's Al Wasat newspaper, he said America's sweeping constitutional rights are more in line with Islamic principles than those in some Muslim nations.

"American Muslims have the right to practice their religion in accordance with the Constitution of the United States," Rauf said. "I see the article of independence as more compliant with the principles of Islam than what is available in many of the current Muslim countries."

Commentators from the Middle East to South Asia to Indonesia to Nigeria have praised both President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for coming to the defense of the community center, even as the president hedged his apparent initial support for the project.

Obama has "placed ethics and principles ahead of politics that not only enhances his credibility to the Muslims only but also his stature as a statesman to the rest of the world," read an opinion piece in the Daily Star of Bangladesh.

But in interviews conducted mostly in the Arab world and in commentaries by newspapers across the Muslim world, many emphasized that the United States will be judged ultimately not on a building in Lower Manhattan but on whether it helps resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and leave Iraq and Afghanistan in peace.

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The proposed center, a sort of Muslim YMCA with a pool and a prayer room situated 2 ½ blocks from the World Trade Center site, is not a huge topic of debate on websites that draw frenetic commentary over the Arab-Israeli conflict or tensions between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam.

Houses of worship are humdrum affairs in the Muslim world, and many ordinary Muslims wonder primarily whether the New York project is "needed," as if Muslims in that neighborhood now have nowhere else to go. Some appear baffled that anyone would fight a $100 million private-sector investment at a time of global economic crisis.

Other Muslims say it's a bad idea to construct the building so close to the site of the Twin Towers, whose fiery destruction at the hands of 19 Muslim extremists is etched into the minds of people around the world.

"Building a mosque there will increase hatred between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West," said Gamal Awad, a professor at Cairo's Al Azhar University. "It will further connect Islam with a horrible event."

But many Muslims tuning into the debate see a demonization of their religion by some Americans who have been painting the 1,400-year-old faith as a dangerous political ideology. They bristle at the ignorance of politicians who argue the structure should not be allowed because Muslims don't allow Christian churches in their countries. Saudi Arabia is the only country to specifically bar churches.

While some conservative American critics allege the building would serve as a "victory mosque" to the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center, Muslims contend the project could serve as a bridge not only to non-Muslims, but to those of their faith who may have lost their way.

Those in Osama bin Laden's strict Wahabbi faction of the Sunni branch of Islam consider the offshoot of Sufism espoused by Abdul Rauf a degenerate form of the religion. And Iraqi authorities said in April that they uncovered a Sept. 11-style al-Qaida plot to fly planes into mosques revered by Shiites in Najaf and Karbala.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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