WASHINGTON — Florida Congressman Allen West, no stranger to controversy for his remarks about Muslim-Americans, on Wednesday renewed the debate over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York, just days before the country marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
West, who sponsored the screening of a movie about the opposition to the Islamic center, said he chose to host Wednesday's event because he thought that the center's backers had a moral responsibility to honor the wishes of the families of the 9/11 victims who don't want it near the public memorial to those killed.
"If 10 years or nine years after Pearl Harbor, if the country of Japan had come to the United States of America and said, 'We want to erect a memorial to Japanese naval seamanship at Pearl Harbor,' what would we have said?" West said. "Decades from now, centuries from now, we much remember what happened on Sept. 11, 2001."
The film, "SACRIFICED SURVIVORS: The Untold Story of the Ground Zero Mega Mosque," was produced by Martin Mayer of the Christian Action Network, and shown in a conference room in the Rayburn House Office Building across the street from the Capitol.
The film's producers bill their movie as a depiction of how "survivors and family members are experiencing yet another type of Islamic jihad." Survivors, the filmmakers said, "believe they must work to keep people vigilant and fighting against the march of radical Islam," including efforts to build the center two blocks from Ground Zero.
West, elected last year with tea party backing, is one of just two black Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Religious leaders criticized him in January for saying that Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim member of Congress, "really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established." West said at the time that he was referring to Ellison's support of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has asked West to disassociate himself from some people the organization thinks are anti-Muslim.
About a half-dozen relatives of people who died in the terrorist attacks flanked West during Wednesday's event.
Alice Hoagland, whose son Mark Bingham was among the 44 passengers on United Flight 93, said the developers should reconsider their plans for the center. The proposed community center and place of worship would be in an old Burlington Coat Factory two blocks from where the World Trade Center stood before two hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers.
"This is not a legal question," Hoagland said. "There is no question that anyone in the United States has the right to express his religious beliefs. There is no question that they have the legal right to build within two blocks of the site where 2,977 or so people died at the hands of Islamist terrorists. The question it seems to me is the moral right."
West again likened the attack to Pearl Harbor, and pointed out that 2011 also is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack that led the U.S. into World War II.
"We must never let events like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 go away," he said. "My fear is that maybe we could end up forgiving what happened on 9/11 because of certain things, this political correctness or this desire to be a multicultural America."
One man, Bruce DeCell, held up a photo of his son-in-law who was killed on 9/11 and said he wanted to tell people that "we are at war with the Islamic culture."
West didn't disagree with him publicly, but said later that he thought there needed to be "a recognition of some concepts, such as Shariah, that are the antithesis of what we believe in here in the United States of America," referring to a system of Islamic law.
"I don't think it's a war on a culture," he said, "but I think we need to recognize some of the ideological differences that separate us, and if you want to get to a point of having peaceful coexistence, I think it's where they need to reform some of these things."
Although Wednesday's event was billed as a news conference before the film's screening, most of the people who asked West questions were those tied to the movie or participants in a panel the filmmakers and other groups were organizing later in the day.
West didn't disagree with those who asked questions at the event, including one man who suggested that "Islam has a history of building victory monuments on places it has triumphed."
"Throughout the history of Islamic conquest, you do see the same type of parallels," West said, citing his recent trip to Israel and Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a spot sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.
The debate over the Islamic center's future in New York has largely quieted since its height last summer. The project's developers told The New York Times in August that they've hired a paid staff and begun raising money. They hold prayers and events in the building, and its developers told the paper it could be as long as five years before they begin the sort of project first envisioned.
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