The famous—or notorious—“Ground Zero Mosque,” a proposed Islamic community center two blocks from the former site of the Word Trade Center, which so terrified some Manhattanites months ago, opened last Wednesday night with no fire bombings or pickets. In only a few paragraphs the New York Daily News reported that its main feature was an exhibition of children photographs, lovable young people from every possible skin shade and ethnic background, displayed to demonstrate that they had a basic humanity in common. A week before, the gossip word was that there would be no prayers at the 9/11 memorial dedication because the “families” might protest the presence of a Muslim cleric up there with the priest, minister and rabbi.
The community center is on the first floor of an undeveloped building in a temporary space, and it will be years before the project is completed—including a health club, theater, and mosque—if and when the developer, Sharif El-Gamal, raises the millions he needs and overcomes the political and social opposition from those offended by his and its presence in what they consider holy ground.
On Tuesday night at 9 pm on Public Television “Frontline,” which we can usually trust to get to the bottom of things, will present “The Man Behind the Mosque,” in which it profiles Sharif El-Gamal and lets his opponents speak for themselves.
Sharif comes off, to put it bluntly, as an operator. I use that term in a neutral sense, a condensation of what he calls himself: not a community activist, leader or Islamic academic, just a “New York Brooklyn real estate junkie.” He saw an opportunity and went for it. He admits today that he should have foreseen the emotional impact on survivors; but he did not.
On the other hand, his main opponents, led by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, co-founders of Stop the Islamization of America, with lots of air time on Fox News, claim that the proposed site will be an Islamic “victory mosque,” a “Mecca on the Hudson.” They come across as prophets of hate. Spencer tells a crowd, “When the Muslim armies rolled into Jerusalem in 636 one of the first things they did was begin construction of the Al-Aqsa mosque and where did they put it? On the Temple Mount.”
Sharif enlists a Muslim scholar, Iman Feisal Abdul, a Sufi, whose writings promote the United States as a model for Muslims worldwide, and who is established in interfaith circles, as his partner; but in time they part ways because they cannot agree on the interfaith aspect. Sharif wants a primarily Muslim center.
But Frontline presents the viewers at the beginning with the faces and voices of those who suffered most on that terrible day. Lee Hanson had a son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter on a hijacked plane, which smashed into its target while they were speaking on a cell-phone. Another says, “My wife was vaporized”; still another says they found her brother’s torso, parts of his head and leg. Lee says he clings to a small bone found from his son’s leg.
In a final scene Lee explains himself to Sharif, and Sharif understands. But Sharif is determined to move ahead.