Photo posted on Flickr by christiNYCa.

Few things in the United States have stirred more controversy than the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque', a Muslim prayer and community centre not far from the site of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Amid the heated - and not always rational - debate and the frantic media coverage of the affair, our Observer Gaja Pellegirni spent a day at the small building on 45 Park Place to try to "understand" the motivations behind the centre "without getting tangled in the moral considerations and issues around it" -- the equivalent, she found, of "nailing jelly on a wall with a knife."

Photos from the 'Ground Zero Mosque'

Police car guarding the entrance of the mosque/community centre at 45 Park Place



An amish market on the same street.

A block and a half away, the construction site at Ground Zero, slowly rebuilding the gaping hole left by the September 11, 2011, attacks on the World Trade Centre. 



This cross, made from pieces of debris from the World Trade Centre and erected by firemen who took part in rescue efforts after the attack, has been left at the site, despite some calls to remove it. 



Gaja dons a headscarf as she enters the religious centre. 



Indian-born Samira Patel has been praying at 45 Park Place for 3 years.

All photos sent by our Observer.

"Does the West truly understand the ideology of Sharia and the teachings of the Koran?"

Gaja Pellegrini is an Italian-American communications consultant. She currently lives in Brussels.

45 Park Place, Lower Manhattan, is becoming a well-known address these days. I only need to walk a block away from Ground Zero and the trail of journalists and TV reporters leads me immediately to the heart of the controversy: the ‘Ground Zero' mosque/community centre. Is this it? A run-down building surrounded by cops and cameras? The only clearly visible sign says: ‘Burlington Coat Factory' which was housed at this address until the 9/11 attacks damaged the building (a fragment of one of the planes apparently landed on the roof and is still in the building!).

As I walk up to the mosque, I listen to several TV news anchormen's opening comments pointing to the debate that has issued from this address all the way to DC politicians running for re-election on November 2. Groups such as Stop the Islamisation of America have gained notoriety by fiercely opposing the mosque. As I enter the sent I am given a pamphlet titled 'Islam is not anti-systemic', filled with statements such as ' as American as apple pie'. However, there are also a number of highly provocative sentences such as 'Since the historical orientation of most white Americans is Eurocentric and biased; they would oppose anything which dispels their conceived reality of superiority'.

Conversations with the faithful

As I wonder through the mosque, after having taken my shoes off (hoping to find them again- my suspicion is due to the fact that I am in NYC, and not that I am in a mosque!) and after having covered my head with a head-scarf, I walk over to the female section to ask some questions. The two cops at the entrance tell me that things have been calm today. I approach a woman who is ending her prayer. She tells me she is from India, her name is Samira Patel, she has been living in the US for ten years and coming to this prayer place for over three. I ask her what she believes is the most important teaching of the Koran and she replies: ‘love'. She also tells me that what is important for her is to have a place to pray. But is not interested in seeing 45 Park Place become a big community centre.

A man exits the prayer centre. He is from Pakistan, has been in the US for 5 years and has been coming to the centre for three. He tells me ‘Americans do not understand us, we are just praying here'. I ask him if he follows the tenets of Sharia and he tells me he is a practising Muslim and follows the words of Allah, then rushes away like a true New Yorker who has no time for chit-chat. Surprisingly, both the man and woman I spoke to told me they have been coming here for at least 3 years. Yet, officially, all sources state that this has been a place of worship for only one year.

After these talks, I reflect on a report authored by the Center for Security Policy in the US, titled ‘Sharia - the threat to America'. The report talks about the menace and threat of ‘civilization jihad' or ‘stealth jihad'. It quotes the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1995 as stating: ‘We will conquer Europe, we will conquer America! Not through the sword, but through dawa' (meaning the call to Islam). Correct or not, top security policy experts in DC are warning against the dangers of islamisation. The contrast with what I heard in the mosque makes me wonder: does the West truly understand the ideology of Sharia and the teachings of the Koran?

As I exit the mosque, I bump into another TV reporter filming and announcing that ‘on 22-23 October there will be a week of dialogue held here, just before the mid-term Congressional elections'. Interesting timing indeed..."