War over Ground Zero

Article excerpt

Byline: Lisa Miller

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. …