CNN: Debates Over Proposed Islamic Center Near Ground Zero Continues

WHITFIELD: The reaction to the planned Islamic center are varied and strong, and our next guests are ready to give their opinions about this firestorm of debate on this. Ahmed Al-Mahdawy is the head of the Hoda Islamic center in Gainesville, Florida. Good to see you. Hussein Rashid is an expert on Muslim cultures. He's join me from -- where are you exactly? From Toronto. And joining mere here in Atlanta, Melody Moezzi. She's the executive director of the non-profit group "100 People of Faith." Good to see all of you. She's also the author of "War on Error, Real Stories of American Muslims." I thought that was the typo. Sorry about that. Welcome to all of you. Melanie, let me begin with you, because you're right here in front of me. So is what's at issue the center, its location, or the tolerance and acceptance of Islam in this country?

MELODY MOEZZI, AUTHOR, "WAR ON ERROR": I think what really is at issue is a constitutional issue. This is a First Amendment issue.

WHITFIELD: In what way?

MOEZZI: This is a matter of freedom of religion. That we would be letting the terrorists win if we said we won't freely allow Muslims to build an Islamic center close to, two blocks, from ground zero. There's already an Islamic center, as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out, four blocks from ground zero. This is a matter of freedom of religion, and the truth is, over a certain period of time, we thought Jews and blacks and other groups and Catholics didn't deserve the rights all Americans deserve. Right now, Muslims are suffering from that kind of Islamaphobia. But I believe Americans are stronger than that, smarter than that, and eventually we will rise above that.

WHITFIELD: I want to get to that word, "Islamaphobia" and if we are in a state of that. Ahmed al-Mahdawy in Florida, you apparently disagree as to whether it is appropriate, whether it is an issue of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, for this Islamic center to be poised where it is proposed to be in ground zero. Is that correct?

AHMED AL-MAHDAWY, CHAIRMAN AND FOUNDER, HODA ISLAMIC CENTER: My views are really basically and fundamentally lined with our constitutional rights and the campaign lately between the two sides, which, I'm a Muslim and I lead the Muslims in Gainesville or one of the leaders in Gainesville, Florida. The views of Muslims now are if we give in to a very tiny minority of burning the Koran or asking for moving of the center, it is, to me, burning of the Koran stopped and Terry Jones will be invited to our mosque. And in Gainesville, we know how to make our country and our society abide by the law and the constitution. The question really is, why are Muslims sticking with a plan of one center rather than sticking to the demand that this activity, trying to make Muslims second class citizens, is the issue. The fear in the Muslim communities now is that Islam in America is under attack. And they fear what happened in Bosnia prior to war, what happened in Germany prior to the holocaust, they fear that this tiny little minority can take America away from its road of decency, equal rights for all citizens, abide by the constitution. And for the first time in my 42 years in America, I don't know what to tell my grandchildren about respect to the constitution based on great leaders of ours stating statements and websites that say, do not admit Muslims to America. Do not build Islamic centers in America. So, my views were not one side. It is rather preserve the constitution to all American citizens.

WHITFIELD: So, let me bring in Hussein Rashid in Toronto. Do you agree with protesters, those who don't like the idea of this center being so close to ground zero, that that encourages this Islamaphobia, that encourages defeat of this very argument of freedom of religion?

HUSSEIN RASHID, HOFSTRA UNIVERSITY: I don't want to come out against anybody. I don't want to be against anybody. I want to be for the constitution. And I think I agree with melody on this. There is a constitutional and moral right for that center to be there. There is a community there is of Muslims and non-Muslims that needs to be serviced. And this project is an attempt to be a community center to do that. My issue is that I don't think that the team has done a very good job in reaching out and explaining what it is they need to do. They haven't done a good job in building the support in lower Manhattan for both Muslims and non-Muslim to get behind the project. I think it's dangerous to say that just because I support the constitutional right and I support the moral right that I support the center. I think those are two separate issues.

WHITFIELD: So, Melody, is there Islamaphobia? And if so, at what point did that flame get sparked?

MOEZZI: Certainly, there is Islamaphobia. That's the reason I wrote my first book.

WHITFIELD: Let me let Melody have her moment here.

MOEZZI: I agree there is Islamaphobia, because, as I said before, I think Americans really are smart and I think through education they can learn and rise above it. I have traveled all over the country, speaking at universities, churches, synagogues all over the place. And I can tell, just when people learn and meet different Muslims and see that we don't like look we think we look, we don't sound like you think we sound, that we are Americans, then they have different perceptions. So I think we will get past this. Right now, there were periods of times that we discriminated against a lot of other groups, and we have gotten past that. Unfortunately, Muslims gave a lot of other people are still subject to a lot of discrimination in this country and I, as a young person, hope that will end.

WHITFIELD: At the end of Ramadan here, we are hearing from a number of Muslims in this country who are saying they are afraid to acknowledge their religion openly because they're afraid they will be targeted. Can you comment on that?

HUSSEIN RASHID, HOFSTRA UNIVERSITY: Yes, America is the greatest land, the greatest system that man has ever created here on earth. We shall preserve that and the fear in the hearts of Muslims is not fear for their safety because the society is very safe. It is the fact that we are sliding with some politicians taking advantage of the discussion between the right and left to develop extremists. And we are against extremists, as President Obama said. We are not in war with Islam. We are not in war with Muslims. We are in war with the people that killed our people on 9/11. More than 2,700 people were killed, including more than 30 Muslims. We have Muslims in the military. We have Muslim generals. We have Muslims Noble Prize winners, we Muslims in America that do everything every day. As for the mosque in New York or the center in New York, I do agree with the gentleman that spoke and said that it was not handled correctly. I agree that financial side of it has not been totally explored, that the elements of a small minority of Muslims in America should dictate the major, major issue of making America equal for all. We aren't going back to the '50s and '60s where the war of internal discussion. Now we are one unit under god, we respect the rights of our neighbors, and we declare that Muslims are integrated fully into this society and their rights must be kept. And the fear in their hearts, no Muslim integration to America, no building the Islamic center, must be denounced by all sides of politician including the right and center and the left.

WHITFIELD: OK, thanks so much here in Atlanta. We're out of time. Thanks to all of you and your availability and expressed thoughts on this issue.

MOEZZI: Thank you.

AL-MAHDAWY: Thank you.