COLUMBIA — Many members of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, located in Columbia, understand the sensitivity surrounding the building of a Muslim community center two blocks from ground zero; but they say Constitutional rights should be placed before emotions.
Controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan began in May, when a New York City community board unanimously approved the project. Since then, the plan to build the center near ground zero has been fiercely criticized by Republican leaders and some Democrats.
Opponents of the Muslim community center near ground zero — to be called the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center — have said its location offends the memory of Sept. 11. Many at Columbia's Islamic center think otherwise.
"Muslim Americans feel (9/11) was an attack on their country," said Rezwan Islam, the president of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri.
The organization seeking to build the center near ground zero has stressed its moderate beliefs. According to the official Park51 website, the Manhattan center would, "be dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet."
A Muslim religious leader visiting Columbia emphasized the community value of the proposed Manhattan center.
"Community centers are the bread and butter of social development," Muhannad Elnatour said. Elnatour, who lives in Chicago, was at the Islamic center in Columbia to deliver a lecture on brotherhood and to appeal for donations for Pakistani flood victims, especially orphans.
Rezwan Islam said he believes denying construction of the mosque near ground zero would have profoundly negative consequences.
"If you don't let this mosque be built (near ground zero), it will be the greatest recruiting strategy for al-Qaida," Rezwan Islam said. He said prohibiting the Islamic center in Manhattan might fuel anti-American sentiment in predominantly Muslim countries, which terrorist organizations might use to their advantage.
Rezwan Islam said politicians and newscasters opposing the building of a community center are judging unfairly.
"Judging based on religion and color of skin, this is prejudging, this is prejudice," Rezwan Islam said.
Samiha Islam*, a member of the Columbia center whose father is the principal at the center's school, said she tries to avoid the controversy but does have frustrations.
"Why should restriction be placed on us because of the actions of a minority that do not represent us?" Samiha Islam said. She said she believes the community center near ground zero would be a place for dialogue and building bridges.
Samiha Islam said Columbia residents have not treated the Muslim community differently since the Manhattan center controversy began, citing the city's diversity.
Rafa Nizam, the outreach officer of the Columbia center, said residents have been very supportive of the Islamic center since it was built in 1983.
"Columbia is an excellent place and shows remarkable academic plurality. It's a cultural and intellectual hot spot here," he said. "(The Islamic center) is part of it and we try to contribute to it and give back to the community."
The center offers open houses that are open to non-Muslims and encourages community participation. The center's annual open house, which is held the same day as Columbia's Earth Day, aims to explain Islam to the local population.
Apart from open houses, the Columbia center arranges Friday prayers, guest speakers and lectures that focus on helping the community. The center also distributes free food to St. Francis House, a homeless shelter, on alternate weekends. Center members are hoping to organize free medical clinics at the center in the future.
During the month of Ramadan, when Muslims observe a fast from sunrise until sunset, the center becomes the focus of Columbia's Muslim community. On weekdays throughout the month, they offer free dinners for singles and students. The local Muslim community turns out in large numbers for the community-sponsored weekend dinners.
Rezwan Islam said the community in lower Manhattan will benefit from similar services if the Islamic center is allowed to be built. He says the center would also highlight the American values of liberty and justice.
"It is a touchy subject because people feel emotionally about it," he said, "but it is also a great moment to show the true America to the world."