ORONO, Maine — While some may shy from the ongoing debate and controversy over the proposal to build a mosque and Islamic center near ground zero in New York City, Dr. Mohammad Tabbah isn’t one of them.
Tabbah, a gastroenterologist at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, is also chairman of the board at the Islamic Center of Maine located on Park Street in Orono, and he welcomes the debate and the discussion it’s creating.
“I think debate is always good and healthy,” Tabbah said Friday. “I’m hearing a lot of differences of opinion and I think it’s a very good exercise of our Constitution and the freedom it provides in this country. I think this in the long run could be a good thing.”
The debate has changed Tabbah’s take on the situation over the last two weeks.
“When I first heard about it, my initial response was that it probably wasn’t a good idea at this time. It’s a sensitive issue,” he said.
“Speaking just for myself, after hearing all the debate, it goes down as that the U.S. is a free country and that is the essence of this country,” he added. “If we don’t allow it to be a free country for all, then it doesn’t go with the principles the United States was founded on: freedom and equality.”
Tabbah said there are other reasons for his change of opinion, such as the fact the proposed mosque would be built two blocks away from — not at the same location — where the World Trade Center stood before militant Islamic terrorists commandeered passenger jets on Sept. 11, 2001, and crashed them into both towers, de-stroying the two buildings and killing 2,752 people.
The Park51 project proposed for lower Manhattan is modeled after a YMCA and Jewish Community Center and calls for a pool, gym and 500-seat auditorium along with the mosque and a Sept. 11 memorial.
“American Muslims have been a part of Manhattan since the 1800s and have formed a large community while helping to build Manhattan,” Tabbah said. “I read that about 5 percent of New York City schoolchildren are Muslims and there are 1,000 Muslim police officers in New York City.
“With those numbers, that area obviously needs services for people of Muslim faith. From what I read, there’s a need for a mosque there and already there are mosques in that area, so I don’t see a huge problem with it.”
Neither does Tabbah’s wife, Jenan Jondy, who is the center’s outreach coordinator. While she agrees with her husband, she’s come to her opinion a bit differently.
“This wasn’t Islam, so it’s not a sensitivity issue. To equate 12 people with approximately a billion Muslims around the world and malign them by saying they’re somehow responsible is ridiculous,” she said. “It’s almost like it’s now politically correct to be xenophobic.”
This is the 10th day of the monthlong Ramadan observance for Muslims, meaning the center is much busier this time of year. Instead of one religious service a week, it is offering a service each night at 9:30 for its 150-plus members.
“We have five pillars of faith. The month of Ramadan is one of them,” Tabbah explained. “We fast from dawn until sunset and you cannot eat, drink or have sexual relations at that time. We also have an extra prayer beyond the five we already have each day and it’s not necessary, but preferred to do it at a mosque. We believe that whoever fasts this month, their sins will be forgiven.”
The center was founded 10 years ago, and it opened a new building behind the original one on Park Street earlier this year.
“We had an open house and really tried to educate people about our religion and bridge the obvious gaps between American Muslims and Americans, and this current debate does even more to help us do that,” Tabbah said. “Our major mission and original one is to serve our community and provide it a place for prayer and re-ligious observation and study. It’s for worship, social gathering, and education.”
Tabbah estimates there are between 500 and 1,000 practicing Muslims in the Bangor-Orono area.
“For me, the issue is Americans and our constitutional rights, one of which is freedom of religion, and we can’t forget that,” said Jondy. “Religious faith is a cornerstone for us as Americans. And a lot of people forget Muslims themselves died in the Trade Center.”