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Sunday, August 22, 2010 - 20:30
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Nothing stirs passion in New York more than the future of the World Trade Center site, and plans for a mosque a few blocks away are proving one of the most controversial issues yet.

Video journalist Sophie McNeill meets locals, who don't hold back on their views about infiltration of America by Muslims, the threat of more terror attacks, and the insult they feel the mosque will be against those who died.

Those behind the plans say they're stunned by the response. They say the building will also be a community centre that will promote tolerance, and isn't even visible from the Ground Zero site.

WATCH - As politicians across the United States also wade into the debate, Dateline captures the passion of both sides of the story.

BLOG - SBS's World News Australia blogger Matthew Hall lives in New York, and gives a personal insight into the debate over the World Trade Center site. 

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Photos: AAP/Getty

Blog

SBS's World News Australia blogger Matthew Hall lives in New York, and gives a personal insight into the debate over the World Trade Center site.

Click here to read his blog.

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Transcript

As issues go, they don't come any hotter than our next story. All this week, there's been a media firestorm in the US over whether or not an Islamic mosque and cultural centre should be built close to the 9/11 Ground Zero location in downtown New York. Here's Sophie McNeill

REPORTER: Sophie McNeill

We understand the pain it's causing the people that lost many friends, many family members, our firemen and policemen. We say to the people of America, to the people of New York, we will not build this mosque! We understand how painful it is to you.

WOMAN, PROTESTOR: American Joan, will not wear a burqa! I will not wear a burqa!

MAN, PROTESTOR: And for a further understanding of the sundry cultures and religions that make this city and law great, allowing a radical sect - tyrannical and absolutist in their means - build a mosque.

The plan to build the mosque and cultural centre has ignited New York and the nation.

PAMELA GELLER, AUTHOR: It could have been you and it could have been me in that building. It was us that was targeted. The 9/11 families, they took the hit, but it was every single one of us that were targeted, and the majority of Americans are against this project.

It's the location - here, just two blocks from Ground Zero - that is causing such offence.

DEBRA BURLINGAME: The last thing you hear these men screaming when they drive that plane to the ground at 580 miles per hour is 'Allah Akbar' - 'God is Great' in Arabic.

Debra Burlingame's brother Charles was a pilot with American Airlines. He was killed in the September 11 attacks when his hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon.

DEBRA BURLINGAME: To build a towering mosque with a commanding view of Ground Zero, 600 feet from where the North Tower fell and where atrocities were committed in the name of Islam, I think that is an audacious act - utterly insensitive.

Debra is busy fanning the opposition to the mosque.

DEBRA BURLINGAME: You will get an 18-page document - the first part of it is in Arabic the other half of it is in English - which lays out the entire plan for infiltrating America.

She believes that Muslim extremist groups are trying to infiltrate the Unites States to convert Americans and spread extremist messages. She's worried the mosque project could be part of a bigger plan.

DEBRA BURLINGAME: And when they say by their hands, they mean that we are going to help them, because they are going to get into all our social, political and cultural institutions.

The idea of Muslims praying near Ground Zero has now blown up into a major national debate.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Let me be clear as a citizen and as President, I believe that Muslims have the right to practise their religion as everyone else in this country and that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.

SARAH PALIN, 'GOING ROGUE' AUTHOR: This leader of the free world has such power in his words he should utilise that power to represent the will of the people and not underestimate the wisdom of the people in America. And the overwhelming majority of Americans right now are saying, "Mr President, no, this hurts".

COMMENTATOR: There's no reason why this mosque should be built at this site, there's no Muslim population nearby and many 9/11 families object.

VIDEO CLIP: This ground is sacred, where we weep, they rejoice. That mosque is a monument to their victory and an invitation for more, but we Americans will be heard. Join the fight to kill the Ground Zero mosque.

Brooklyn-born real estate magnate Sharif El-Gamal doesn't seem like a Muslim extremist waging a war. He's responsible for the mosque development proposal.

SHARIF EL-GAMAL, DEVELOPER: Dude, the bigger you get, the more problems you have.

El-Gamal can't believe his project has turned into a national political issue.

SHARIF EL-GAMAL: Shocked - I would have never imagined that I would be sitting with Sophie from Dateline Australia asking me questions about this simple project. Shocked.

Where are you from?

CAB DRIVER: Bangladesh.

SHARIF EL-GAMAL: Good people.

CAB DRIVER: Where are you from?

SHARIF EL-GAMAL: Brooklyn!

It's Friday prayer time and El-Gamal wants me to see the Muslims who are peacefully using the building he has purchased.

SHARIF EL-GAMAL: There is a tremendous need for this facility within the Muslim community and once we start getting the community centre aspect of it opened, it is going to show the tremendous need from the community aspect as well.

El-Gamal says the American media has misrepresented his project by simply labelling it as a 'mosque at Ground Zero'. He says they failed to explain that the plan is for a community centre that will also house a pool and a library - and that you can't even see the building from Ground Zero.

SHARIF EL-GAMAL: The mosque or the religious Islamic component of the project is going to be less than 10%. Really this is a community centre that is going to promote tolerance and understanding. All this that you are seeing - all this sitting down with these other people that you have sitten down with, this is a machine of hate and bigotry against Islam. It's nothing more, nothing less. The negative things that have been happening in the name of Islam, is not Islam. It does not represent Muslims, and it does not represent Islam. Those are actions and those are ideals that are extremist views and have nothing to do with the religion of Islam. What we are doing has no reflection or association with the horrific events that happened at 9/11. It's the complete opposite.

But for many New Yorkers, the events of 9/11 are inextricably bound to Islam in a negative way.

PAMELA GELLER: Not at Ground Zero! Not at Ground Zero!

In June, online activists organised a rally against the mosque, attracting around 5,000 New Yorkers.

PAMELA GELLER: It is unconscionable to build a shrine to the very ideology that inspired the jihadist attacks at Ground Zero, right there

Right-wing anti-Muslim blogger and author Pamela Geller was one of the key organisers of the rally.

PAMELA GELLER: Hi, can I get a medium coffee?

She has formed an online action group called 'Stop Islamization of America.' Pamela argues that Muslim groups are becoming too powerful in the United States and that the fight against the mosque is part of resisting a wider Islamic takeover of America.

PAMELA GELLER: A woman in Florida working at the Rising Star Company was fired because she actually ate a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich in the company cafeteria. We see Muslim prayer in the public school where a Muslim child wants to pray so now we are setting aside prayer rooms for Muslim children. The placing of Muslim footbaths at universities and at airports - that's taxpayer dollars.

Pamela thinks the mosque project will become a rallying point, inspiring Muslim extremists around the world.

PAMELA GELLER: This is the crowning triumph - to open up a mega-mosque looking down on Ground Zero on September 11. You don't think that's going to fuel religious fervour? You think it's going to quench it? You think they are going to say "Hmm, lets all hold hands now and sing around the campfire?" No. Listen, the jihad is on the march.

Opponents have raised questions over this man - chosen to lead the religious component of the project - a New York based Islamic scholar called Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf.

PAMELA GELLER: He will not denounce Hamas he will not denounce Hezbollah. I have many, many questions about his affiliations

REPORTER: What is this, Daisy?

DAISY KHAN, SOCIETY FOR MUSLIM ADVANCEMENT: This is our efforts to show that violence in all its forms is unacceptable.

Daisy Khan is the wife of Imam Faisal Rauf and the head of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, the organisation they co-run. She says her husband has no ties with any militant Muslim organisations.

DAISY KHAN: For the record he has absolutely no links, he has never met anybody, he does not know anybody. He has no association whatsoever. It is completely baseless accusations

REPORTER: For the record, does your organisation condemn those groups?

DAISY KHAN: We condemn all forms of terrorism.

I'm unable to speak with Imam Rauf himself because he is preparing to travel to the Middle East as part of an official US State Department sponsored trip. He's also worked with the FBI on counter-terrorism efforts.

DAISY KHAN: We are frequently sent by the State Department to go tour around various Muslim countries to speak about the merits of America and its constitution, and how Muslims live in America. And when people see that record they dismiss what the opponents are saying.

All over America, Muslim groups wanting to build mosques are running into increasing opposition. This small rally is in support of a mosque project that was recently blocked in Staten Island, New York by local residents.

WOMAN: We wanted people to let people in New York City as well as Staten Island know that there are non-Muslims that live here who are tolerant and we are not bigots. And we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

But many neighbours are happy the mosque will not be going ahead.

MAN: When we were protesting we had 300, 400 people from the neighbourhood protesting trying to save our neighbourhood from terrorism. They say we are Islamophobes. We're not Islamophobes. We have terror-phobia and we have mosque-phobia. Terror-phobia because somewhere in a mosque somebody is preaching terror - Not every Muslim is a terrorist but it seems that terror comes out of mosques.

MAN 2: There was actually Muslims coming into the community to buy homes. If they would had have built that mosque in the neighbourhood - then again there are no Muslims in this neighbourhood - if they would have built that mosque within three to five years this community would have been totally transformed into a Muslim community. With that comes Sharia law and a change of way of life for this community and we didn't want that here.

REPORTER: So your worried that Muslims will buy houses and implement Sharia law in Staten.

MAN 2: Yes, absolutely.

Despite opinion polls showing most New Yorkers are opposed to the project, the Ground Zero mosque has cleared all the necessary development hurdles and has the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But Mosque opponents aren't giving in. They are now planning a national day of action on September 11, with protests held across America.

SHARIF EL-GAMAL: What has happened is that people - groups, organisations, individuals - who have agendas of hate and bigotry against Islam, have used this project to amplify their own agendas. That's why it's very important that we build this project and that we build this community centre and they will see that we are just like them - there is no difference between us.

GEORGE NEGUS: Sophie McNeill filming and reporting. Something tells me they won't be seeing sharia law in the Big Apple any time soon! But given the verbal brawling we just saw, maybe the city's moderate Muslims might think it would be politically smart to put their mosque somewhere else? As they say - they're not terrorists! Anyway, tell us what you think on our website, sbs.com.au/dateline.

Reporter/Camera

Sophie Mc Neill

Producer

Victoria Strobl

Researcher

donald cameron

Editor

Nick O'Brien

Additional Camera

David Miles

M.P. Noonan

Original Music composed by

VICKI HANSEN

22nd August 2010