'This is a way for me to give back'

Ground Zero Islamic center backer explains goals.

9 11 mosque 311 (photo credit: AP)
9 11 mosque 311
(photo credit: AP)
NEW YORK – Lower Manhattan, site of the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, has yet again become a battleground – this time ideological – as plans to build a mosque in the area are prompting intensified debate on the national stage.
The proposed Islamic cultural center would be located a few blocks away from Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers stood. The $100 million project, which would include a mosque, was originally called Cordoba House and now goes by the name Park 51.
Park 51 is a creation of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, an organization that seeks to improve relations between Islam and the West.
“This is a way for me to give back, as a New Yorker, to my community,” Soho Properties developer and project backer Sharif El-Gamal told The Jerusalem Post. “I’m a New Yorker. This is about giving back to a city that’s given us so much.”
Gamal pointed out that the proposed center would not be “on Ground Zero,” but two city blocks away, and would include a September 11 memorial.
According to the Cordoba House NYC Web site, the 13- story project would include a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores and restaurants.
“There will be a mosque component, which will be a separate not-for-profit component of the project,” Gamal said. “It’s going to be a small component in a community center, just like the 92nd Street Y has a synagogue.”
Notwithstanding, the project has met with vociferous detractors, who call it “the Ground Zero Mosque.” Many US politicians have seized the proposed mosque component as a political battleground.
Congressman Peter King, a Republican member of the House Homeland Security Committee, and former New York congressman Rick Lazio, a Republican running for governor, have called for an investigation of how the project would be financed.
In response to the Post’s query about whether Saudi funds were being used to finance the center, Gamal said, “We are in the process of establishing a not-for-profit entity, and we have not raised any money from foreign governments.”
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin took to Twitter to voice her dismay with the project, urging New Yorkers to “refudiate” (sic) its construction – though she retracted her unwitting creativity with the English language soon thereafter.
“‘Refudiate,’ ‘misunderestimate,’ ‘wee-wee’d up.’ English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!” Palin wrote.
She later opined, “Many Americans, myself included, feel it would be an intolerable and tragic mistake to allow such a project sponsored by such an individual to go forward on such hallowed ground. This is nothing close to ‘religious intolerance.’ It’s just common decency.”
At a press conference in Lower Manhattan on Monday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg reiterated his support for the project and denounced Palin’s stance on the mosque.
“I think our young men and women overseas are fighting for exactly this – for the right of people to practice their religion and for government to not pick and choose which religions they support, which religions they don’t,” Bloomberg said.
“Sarah Palin has a right to her opinions, but I could not disagree more,” Bloomberg said. “Everything the United States stands for and New York stands for is tolerance and openness, and I think it’s a great message for the world that unlike in other places where they might actually ban people from wearing a burqa or they might actually keep people from building a building, that’s not what America was founded on, nor is it what America should become.”
Many others have come out on the national stage in support of the project as a healing measure. Padraic O’Hare, director of the Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College, advocated the cause in an opinion piece in The Washington Post.
“Build a Muslim house of prayer near Ground Zero?” he wrote. “Build a house which nurtures and cultivates less wounded, less ego-driven and more just and peaceful Muslims, people of real and healthy prayerfulness? Hand me the shovel.”
Meanwhile, opposition to the project has now moved to the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission, where detractors have suggested that the old building being demolished to make room for the center should be designated historically significant.
The Landmark Preservation Commission is expected to vote later this summer on whether the building meets the standards for preservation.
Such a designation would complicate plans to alter or tear the building down, or to develop the former coat factory for a different purpose.
When asked about the negative response to the project, Gamal said, “Those aren’t my neighbors, my friends or my New Yorkers. A vocal minority have come out to amplify their own agendas of hate and bigotry that have nothing to do with my project.”
He added, “I see this project succeeding where all New Yorkers are going to be involved and engaged in it. This is what represents our city.”