RIVERVIEW — More than a thousand miles away from Lower Manhattan, where the proposed building of a Muslim community center has sparked a vigorous national debate, Tony Morgano decided he had to act.
Morgano, 44, who describes himself as an average American, recently started an online petition against plans to build the community center two blocks away from ground zero, where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
Saturday marks the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the twin towers and killed nearly 3,000.
Morgano said his petition requests that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf build the community center, whose plan includes a mosque, a day care facility, an auditorium and a pool, at another location.
"While building an Islamic Center and Mosque two blocks from Ground Zero may be legal, it does not make it right," the petition reads.
"I don't want to say 'Don't build one at all,' " said Morgano, a Christian who lost two friends in the Sept. 11 attacks at the Pentagon. "We as Americans celebrate the practice of religion, and we all honor the freedoms to do that. But there's no practical reason to put (a Muslim community center) there."
Morgano said doing so disrespects the memory of those who lost their lives in the attacks.
"They are not respecting the grief of the families that lost people. They are not respecting anybody," Morgano said.
Earlier this week, the petition at honor911victims.com bore signatures of more than 200 people from all over the country.
But some local Muslims said they disagreed with Morgano's assessment.
The terrorist attackers were extremists who claimed to be Muslim, said Ramzy Kilic, communications director for the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national civil rights and advocacy group.
"It's not fair to marginalize all Muslims because of the actions of a few," he said. "Muslims died in that attack … foreign nationals who were working in the World Trade Center who were from Muslim countries."
Kilic said Muslims were also among the first responders the day of the attack and among recovery workers weeks and months later.
"They have the right to build a mosque there," Kilic said. "I think the Founding Fathers would be on our side on this one."
Opposing the building of the center means blaming the attacks on a religion rather than on a group of perpetrators, said Ahmed Bedier, a local Muslim commentator and president of the Tampa/Hillsborough County Human Rights Council.
"Islam is not responsible for what happened on 9/11," Bedier said. "The people are responsible. Are we going to start judging Christianity by the actions of its followers? Where does it end?"
Morgano said his petition does not intend to target Muslims. His motive, he said, is simply to move the country beyond such a divisive and vitriolic subject.
"I don't want anybody to think that this is against Muslims. We as Americans of all faiths need to pray for the Muslim people in our county so that they are not discriminated against," he said. Still, he added, "It would mitigate the division if they could move the mosque to another location."
Ultimately, Morgano said he might consider going to New York to meet Rauf in person and giving him a copy of the petition. He will do so, if he can afford the trip and if the imam agrees to see him.
"I will give it a couple months," Morgano said.
Nandini Jayakrishna can be reached at (813) 661-2441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.