NEW YORK // For all the controversy surrounding this downtown Manhattan building, the makeshift prayer room inside it looks much the same as one might find anywhere, with its bare lights, tangled electrical cables and green-and-brown striped carpets that serve as prayer rugs.
Yet 500 Muslims from across the New York City metropolitan area converged here on Friday for noon prayers. While some were regulars, others were visiting the building for the first time to add their presence and voices to those Muslims and non-Muslims in the US who insist that a planned Islamic centre on this site - a short distance from where the World Trade Centre once stood - falls within the constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of worship in America.
They found a gathering of police, reporters, television crews and placard-wielding protesters both supporting and condemning the plans to replace this building and an adjacent one with the centre, a $120-million (Dh441m) complex called Park51. Aisha Javed, 30, a Pakistani-born American who was worshiping here for the first time, said the heated, nationwide debate about the complex made her feel "uncomfortable".
"It shouldn't have become such a big deal," said Ms Javed, an immigration specialist who lives in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. "People say they are open-minded about the freedom of religion and the freedom of belief, but at the same time there has been this backlash and protesting against us and that really bothers me." For many of the protesters outside, the issue over the proposed centre is not one of rights but of appropriateness and sensitivity, against the backdrop of an America still deeply wounded by the events of September 11, 2001, and still the target of attacks by Islamic extremists.
"Remember 09.11.01. This is not about religion, this is about tact," read one of the demonstrator's signs. On a lunch break from a nearby building site, Bronx-born electrician John Barretto, 27, said the centre's location is "too insensitive and it touches a nerve". Recent public opinion polls bear out this sentiment. While most Americans support the right to build a mosque, the surveys say most Americans also oppose the construction of an Islamic centre at the lower Manhattan location.
In the raging controversy over the centre, Rafi Shikoh sees an opportunity to educate non-Muslims. Like Ms Javed, Mr Shikoh was visiting the Park51 site for the first time on Friday. The Pakistani-born American, a business consultant, said that building an Islamic centre near Ground Zero could help to allay the fears many Americans have about Muslims. "This centre is an opportunity to address people's apprehensions of the Muslim community, while we in the Muslim community address being Muslim-Americans, looking at our identity and showcasing it," said Mr Shikoh, 38, who traveled from mid-New Jersey with his wife and daughter to attend Friday prayers.
"We have kids here, children who are Americans, so it's about our next generation and the opportunities they will have here. This is their home, so how do we make sure they are a part of this community? That's why these objections to the Islamic centre are so disturbing," he said. Delivered inside tarpaulin-covered walls and against the din of whirring fans, the Friday sermon by the imam Khalid Latif steered clear of political issues and focused on charity-giving during Ramadan and the need to build a sense of community among American Muslims.
The 27-year-old Mr Latif later said that countering hostility towards American Muslims was a complicated process that cannot be distilled "into a press release". "People are very curious about Islam," said Mr Latif, who was born to Pakistani parents in the US and serves as Muslim chaplain at New York University. "The impetus lies on Muslims from all walks of life to become comfortable engaging people and sending to them a very humanized understanding of Islam, where we're not focused on stereotypes and archetypes, but moving beyond those and learning each other's narrative and stories begin to really humanize each other," he said.