Park51 developer Sharif El-Gamal: “We want to build Park51 so it has something for everyone”

Don’t refudiate us, Sarah

When the Park51 project in lower Manhattan was first conceived, the developers could not have imagined that they would find themselves in the firestorm they are in today. The purchase of the property, the initial planning, and even the first community vote all passed uneventfully. But not long after the developers received their first community board approval (not a requirement, but done in order to show a commitment to the lower Manhattan community), the $100 million project has become the focus of intense debate. While national and state politicians (mostly Republicans) have been vocally coming out against the what has come to be known in the media as the “Ground Zero mosque”, most local officials remain strongly in support and most observers agree that there is no legal impediment to the project moving forward. Lost in all the fracas, however, is the voice of the owner of the building and developer of the Park51 project, long-time Manhattan developer Sharif El-Gamal of Soho Properties. We reached out to El-Gamal to find out how more about the project financing, the history of Muslims in Manhattan, and how the project can bridge a gap that seems to be growing day by day.

How will you use this center to promote good citizenship and American values? What are the specific American values you seek to promote?

Park51 will be a community center promoting tolerance and understanding through three types of programs: arts and culture, education and recreation. We’ll offer all New Yorkers valuable services, world-class facilities and empowering opportunities to learn more about the world around us and about each other. What’s more American than serving others?

Because New York City is a global city, and New Yorkers come from all parts of the world, we need the kind of community center that our economy and cultural diversity demand. It’s about fulfilling a need, meeting demand and looking to the future. I think that’s a very American attitude. I know it’s something I believe in very much. If we do something, we want to be the best at it, and we’re always looking ahead.

If you look at a map of Manhattan, most of our major cultural and community centers are north of Houston. For the past two decades, New York City has become an increasingly attractive place to live. That’s a great thing for the city. But, for more people to move into lower Manhattan, they have to have the right services. That’s our contribution to Manhattan and the city. By serving all types of New Yorkers, we’re doing our part as Americans to make our city and country stronger and safer.

Why must the project necessarily include a mosque? Wouldn’t a general prayer area, which could be reserved in advance by any religious group, be more appropriate and compatible with the community-centric interfaith mission of the project?

We will include a September 11th memorial and quiet reflection space where people of different faith traditions and beliefs, sacred and secular, can find quiet time and solace. Park51 will also include general spaces and world-class facilities for all New Yorkers to benefit from, whether that’s a Hebrew class meeting weekly or a yoga studio looking for space on a regular basis. We’ll have an auditorium to engage large audiences, and sophisticated classroom space as well.

With respect to the mosque, which will take up only a small portion of the final space, it’s a question of meeting a need. This mosque will be open to all. There are probably one million Muslims in the tri-state area and several hundred thousand in New York City. We should understand that Muslim New Yorkers are part of the city and have been for a very long time. Just a few days ago, I stopped to pray at a midtown mosque, and the congregation was led by a New York City Police Officer. He was a Muslim serving our city, keeping us safe.

There’s hundreds of thousands of Muslim New Yorkers like him. We’re doctors, lawyers, businessmen, cab drivers, teachers and students. That’s what people need to know.

Some of Imam Feisal’s past statements have been used by critics to undermine the project’s credibility. Can Imam Feisal clarify his views on terrorism to reassure New Yorkers he understands the moral weight of the tragedy of 9-11?

Imam Feisal has been a champion of pluralism and tolerance. He fully understands the enormity of 9-11. In fact his own congregation was only blocks away from Ground Zero. He works very hard, day in and day out, to fight extremism and radicalism.

More to the point, this is going to be a community center. Park51 is not a political organization. We do not have a political agenda, and we will be open to all New Yorkers. What we do not have room for are extremist views and opinions. Radical and hateful agendas will have no place in our community center or in the mosque. We are building this center for New York City, because we’re New Yorkers. We’re Americans. We have families here and futures here.

On September 11, 2001, I went down to the site of the attacks and spent two days handing out water to first responders and other victims. Hundreds of Muslims died on that day. New Yorkers of all faiths and no faiths died together. There are also hundreds of Muslims in our police force and fire department and many Muslims who volunteered to help the injured and the hurt. One of my close friends, a Muslim and a New Yorker, headed down to Ground Zero after the attacks, and helped set up a triage.

She was buried in the rubble when the towers collapsed, but she was dug out, thank God, and went right back to work. We understand the horror of that day because we lived it. Terrorists attacked our city and our country, and terrorists have continued to threaten our city and our country. We’re proud of the many Muslims who have worked with our fellow Americans to keep our city and country safe.

What are Imam Feisal’s specific roles and responsibilities in the project? If he is not in a leadership/executive position, then who is really “in charge” and making the decisions?

Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf is as an interfaith leader and a visionary in this project. He has served the lower Manhattan community faithfully for over 27 years. He is supported by political and religious leaders across New York City for his commitment to moderation and tolerance and his years of work in bringing people together.

Park51 is an independent project led by Muslim Americans. This project will be separate from The Cordoba Initiative and ASMA. The next step is forming a non-profit and applying for tax-exempt status. Imam Feisal and I are serving as the project managers until then. This non-profit will be run by an Executive Director, yet to be selected, support staff, and a 23-member Board of Directors.

Imam Feisal will be one of the Directors, and will oversee the Cordoba House, which will direct the interfaith programming within Park51. We have not yet selected the other members of the Board of Directors, but we will be picking people very carefully, based on their record of leadership, relevant experience and positive contribution to New York City and the country. The board will not be limited by religion.

The mosque will be run by a separate non-profit whose Board of Directors will reflect a broad range of experience. While the mosque will be located in the planned final structure of Park51, it will be a distinct non-profit. Neither Park51 nor the mosque, which hasn’t been named yet, will tolerate any kind of illegal or un-American activity and rhetoric.

Will you pledge to make all funding sources fully transparent? What are your criteria for accepting funding from a foreign source, to assuage concerns about extremist influences?

We have not yet launched our fundraising campaign. Park51 will incorporate as a non-profit and seek federal tax-exempt status. We are pledging to pursue this fundraising campaign in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations. We have hired legal counsel and top-notch auditors to oversee this process from start to finish.

We will hire security consultants to assist us in the process of reviewing potential financiers and philanthropists as we begin to establish our fundraising strategy. We will refuse assistance, financial or otherwise, from any persons or institutions who are flagged by our security consultants or any government agencies.

Why was the site’s proximity to Ground Zero considered a “selling point“? What other locations in lower Manhattan, if any, were considered that could serve the same purpose?

We are not at Ground Zero. In fact we’re as close to City Hall as we are to Ground Zero. Lower Manhattan is pretty small. You can’t see Ground Zero from our current building and on completion of our planned building some years from now, there won’t be any views of the Ground Zero memorial from the building. To honor those who were killed on September 11th, we have planned for a public memorial within our future facility as well as reflection space open to all.

Let me tell you a little bit about the history of this project. We’d been looking for at least seven years to find a space to accommodate the growing population of Muslims in lower Manhattan. We found this site in January of 2006 and getting to the finish line and acquiring the real estate was proof that persistence pays off. We had also been eager to contribute to the revitalization of lower Manhattan, in part because this is our area of business and also because as New Yorkers we wanted to give back to our city and help make it a better place to live.

Prior to purchasing our current facility at 45 Park Place, there were two mosques in lower Manhattan, although Park51 is not affiliated with either of these mosques. One was Masjid Farah, which could fit a maximum of approximately 65 people, and had to hold three or four separate prayer services on Fridays just to fit the crowds.

The second mosque, at Warren Street, accommodated about 1,500 worshippers during Friday prayers – people had been praying on sidewalks because they had no room. They lost their space around May 2009. We made the move to buy 45 Park Place in July 2009 in part to offset the loss of this space. Currently, our space at 45 Park Place, accommodates around 450 people every Friday. We are also easily accessible from many different parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, which was an important consideration.

At the same time, we thought, why not give back to lower Manhattan and fulfill a pressing need? We looked for a building that could grow into a community center. In Lower Manhattan, the biggest community center is at Bowery and Houston and it’s in a basement. There are new residential towers going up in lower Manhattan as we speak. The Four Seasons is planning one of the tallest residential towers in the city a block away from our site. If you think of all of the community centers in Manhattan, they are further north. Residents need services, investment in the neighborhood, activities and opportunities. Community Board 1, which represents the residents of lower Manhattan, acknowledged the needs we were fulfilling when they gave us their clear support on two separate occasions.

Do you concede there are genuine, valid concerns about this project which are not derived from Islamophobia or racism? What do you think those concerns are and how would you respond to them?

In a recent poll, even New Yorkers with a favorable opinion of Islam had reservations about the project. People have real questions and we need to work hard to make sure we get them answers, and that’s not going to happen overnight. We’re going to make sure our fundraising and planning involves people from across the city and we’re going to make sure we do so in a way that hears concerns and responds to them.

Unfortunately, the public meetings we had with Community Board 1 and the Landmarks Committee were overtaken by a minority who prevented people from expressing their real concerns. The meetings turned into public spectacles. We’re now looking for ways to engage our fellow New Yorkers and fellow Americans and have extended an open invitation to anyone concerned to come visit our space. They’ll see we have a warm community that reflects the diversity of this country, and they’ll see that we want to build Park51 so it has something for everyone.

I can’t say this often enough. We work in lower Manhattan, we care about lower Manhattan and we’re here to provide services to lower Manhattan.

How do you respond to a recent Quinnipiac poll showing a majority (52%) of New Yorkers actively oppose the project? What would you say to the 17% undecided New Yorkers to try and persuade them?

The same poll shows that a majority of Manhattan is behind us. Community Board 1 is overwhelmingly behind us, and they represent the people of lower Manhattan who are closest to Park51 and would be most relevant to our vision. They are the people of lower Manhattan. They’ve studied our project closely, they learned about who we are and they live in the area we hope to serve. They were clear in their support for us, and we’re tremendously grateful for that.

The Board recognized the value in jobs, programs and services we are bringing to the city, and they know that this project is very important for lower Manhattan. That’s a major reason why Borough President Scott Stringer, Mayor Bloomberg, Councilwoman Chin and Councilman Jackson, City Comptroller Liu, Attorney General Cuomo, State Senator Squadron, U.S. Congressman Nadler, Governor Paterson a number of key officials and institutions are supporting us. We’re also pleased to have the support of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. These leaders and organizations know Imam Feisal has served Lower Manhattan for a long time, and that he has been a positive force in this city and country.

But we need to do more to reach out to the undecided New Yorkers, the New Yorkers who have only heard misrepresentations about Park51, and other Americans in other parts of our country. I think that as more information comes out about the project, and more people learn about who we are and how we want to help New York City, we’ll see these numbers change.

I want people in New York who are undecided to know we’re a part of this city, and we want to make it a better place to live and work. We want to help stimulate our economy, and enhance New York’s position as a global hub of ideas and culture.

How do you make the case for supporting Park 51 to the local Muslim American community? Doesn’t Park 51 undermine support for (and even actively harm) more pragmatic mosque projects in Sheepshead Bay and Staten Island?

We’re not affiliated with either of those projects, but we do recognize that this project affects people from all over the world. New York City is the capital city of the world. I’m pretty sure New York City also has the largest Muslim population of any city in the United States. Muslim New Yorkers need to do more to become part of the institutions and organizations that serve and contribute to this city. We believe Park51 will be a positive step in this direction.

I believe that our model represents the best of American and Muslim values. More people need to know the truth about Islam, and that’s that Islam is a peaceful religion, a compassionate religion, which preaches service to all. Unfortunately, there is some opposition to Muslim projects which is driven by hate and negativity, and we should be concerned by this.

Because hate for one minority can become hate for anyone who’s different, and New Yorkers, like Americans, understand the value of diversity and the importance of protecting difference. That’s what makes America so dynamic and so unique.

The controversy has alienated many Americans and New Yorkers who are tolerant of Islam per se but viscerally react to the project with offense. In hindsight, what could you have done differently to avoid this reaction?

My heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones. We were all attacked that day, no matter what our color or our religion. I understand that people are offended, but we cannot lose sight of why we are doing this. And we cannot forget that we are a part of this city, a major part of this city, and we need to work together as Americans and as New Yorkers.

Moving forward, I hope and pray the dialogue reaches more New Yorkers and Americans. People have concerns and questions, and we want to answer them in a meaningful way, in a way that lets people know who we really are, what we want to do for the city and how they can be a part of Park51.

We have to appeal to the undecided, and change the conversation about Muslims in America. Because of that, we’re offering an open door. You know, I’d love it if Sarah Palin came to Park51 to see our community.

She’d see that we’re just as American as she is. She’d get the chance to meet some of her fellow citizens who happen to be Muslims. Consider that an open invitation, Mrs. Palin. We’d love to see you. We want to welcome everybody who cares about this city and about this country.

Aziz Poonawalla writes the City of Brass blog at Beliefnet. His other major Islamsphere projects include the group weblog Talk Islam and the annual Brass Crescent Awards. Aziz currently resides near Madison, WI with his wife and children. Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.


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