Last summer's big news story was the broiling controversy over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque". It was on the front page of papers around the world. It led all the newscasts. And protests against the project were furious and frequent. But then the story seemingly died away. The man at the center of the media storm, Imam Feisal Rauf is no longer involved.
But the man who is truly at the center of the project who brought Rauf to it is still sticking with it. He is Sharif El-Gamal, the real estate developer, who came up with the idea in the first place. He joined me this past Sunday to tell the full story of the "Ground Zero mosque". Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
Fareed Zakaria: So let's start with the beginning. What made you think about doing something like this? You're a real estate developer.
Sharif El-Gamal: You know, I'm an American. I was born in Brooklyn to a Polish Catholic mother, to an Egyptian father. And I've lived around the world and I've moved back to New York when I was 18 years old. And when I moved back to the city, it became home. New York became home for me.
And after 9/11, I decided to reconnect with my faith. I did not grow up in – in a very religious home, but the seed of my identity and my faith was planted in me. And after 9/11, I decided to start praying in a mosque which was on Warren Street. And when I started praying there, there were several thousand people that were praying on – on the streets, on the stairwells of this building, and it was -
Fareed Zakaria: The mosque was – the rooms were filled.
Sharif El-Gamal: It was – it was over capacity. The place was just filled. And I made an intention, I made a decision that I wanted to help my community buy a building in Lower Manhattan. And after looking at dozens of buildings and bearing in mind that real estate in Manhattan, you know, Manhattan is one of the most competitive real estate market places in the world. It's not like you can just pick a building and say, I want to buy that building. There are so many sophisticated operators here trying to acquire assets. So after looking at dozens of buildings from – from 2002 to 2006 and buildings that we lost and we couldn't acquire, I finally stumbled upon 4551 Park Place. And when we finally acquired the real estate in July of 2009, in May of 2009, the mosque on Warren Street got evicted, and the building that they were in got sold, and several thousand Muslims got displaced. And there was a major crisis in Lower Manhattan, because there were thousands of people now literally praying on the street.
Fareed Zakaria: But then you decided at some point, well, maybe this should be more than a mosque. What made you think of that?
Sharif El-Gamal: In 2006, I – I met my wife-to-be, who was an American girl that I saw on the corner of 23rd and 6th then asked out to dinner. A couple of – eight months later we're married, and she's a Muslim. We have two beautiful daughters. And my daughter Sarah is about a year and a half at that point. And I'm thinking to myself, I want to teach her how to swim. We live on the Upper West Side and we joined the Jewish Community Center.
And every time that I would walk into the JCC, I would say to myself, why don't Muslims have a community center like this open to all people? And that's what Park51 is. Park51 is a – is a community center.
Fareed Zakaria: And designed where it is because that's what where the demand was, that was where the community was and they had been displaced.
Sharif El-Gamal: Yes. There were several different – several interesting coincidences that happened during this point of time. One, we never knew that Lower Manhattan was the fastest growing residential neighborhood in Manhattan and that there's close to 63,000 residents that live in Lower Manhattan today. And they don't have a true community center to serve them, to provide much-needed services, whether it's for children, adults or seniors.
Fareed Zakaria: This is all faiths?
Sharif El-Gamal: This is of all faiths. I mean, at the end of the day, you know, I'm a New Yorker. And there are JCCs and YMCAs all over the city, but there are no Muslim community centers. There is no Muslim- led project where we as Muslims are stepping up and building a community center giving back to the people. And it's open to all people. It doesn't judge you based on your religion, based on your faith. It's here to provide a service and – and to provide facilities and programs to the residents of the neighborhood.
Fareed Zakaria: So when you find this location, Park51, at that point do you focus on where it is in relation to Ground Zero?
EL-GAMAL: No. It never crossed our mind. We never – we never associated the two and we still don't. You know, when we – when we decided that we were going to start understanding this idea of building a community center, one of the first things that we did is we started with the Mayor's office. We started the outreach with the commissioners and the Mayor's office, and then we – and incredible, incredible receptiveness and approval, and it was incredible.
Meeting after meeting after meeting from – from September of '09 until April of '10 we met every single local elected official or person that mattered in Lower Manhattan.
Fareed Zakaria: When did you realize that this was turning into a controversy? What was the first inkling?
Sharif El-Gamal: Well, in May of last year, we voluntarily at that point when we finished our road trip with all the local elected officials, decided voluntarily to go into the community board. And we went into the community board voluntarily and shared with them this idea of building a community center. And on that first meeting, 16 people voted unanimously in favor of this project and these are all non-Muslim people, and they were excited that Muslims were going to build a community center in Lower Manhattan to serve all – all New Yorkers and all of Lower Manhattan, which was the intention behind this project.
We then followed that up with another full board meeting of 50. And when we went into that room, you know, at that next community board meeting, I invited my wife down to come. And I got there a few minutes after her and she was just in tears. And when I saw her in tears, I said what happened? And she goes, Sharif, you're not going to believe what's going on in that room. The people thought that I came here to protest against the Muslims, because they didn't realize that she was a Muslim because we don't fit whatever stereotype people have of Muslims. And when -
Fareed Zakaria: What was going on in that room?
Sharif El-Gamal: When I walked into that room, there was close to 700 people that were protesting what we were doing, and for the first time in my life – I – I had never seen, I'd never been discriminated against. I'd never seen that hate or that fear or that ignorance. I mean, I've never seen anything like that before in my life, and I was – I was scared.
And at that point, we made a commitment – you know, personally, I made a commitment that I would do whatever it took as a – as a businessman, as a human being to make this project a reality.
And, you know, this past year for me has really been about listening, has really been about listening and – and going back to basics and trying to understand that – that there's so much work ahead of us, that there's so much misconceptions about who we are as Muslims, what our faith, what our practice, what our belief system is. Criminals have stolen our identity almost in a way, and they've defaced our – our faith.
Fareed Zakaria: So you got out – get out of that room with the 700 angry people. And at that point, it just snowballs and it gets latched on to by all kinds of political figures. Were you – were you prepared for that kind of an onslaught?
Sharif El-Gamal: No, no. I'm a New Yorker. This is my city, and all we wanted to do was we wanted to build a facility that is based on who we are as Muslims, as Americans to give back to our city, to create jobs, to create hundreds of construction jobs, to create hundreds of full-time jobs once the facility is open, to create over 500 part-time jobs. We were thinking of a way of revitalizing our neighborhood, creating, stimulating our economy, and providing services to our neighbors.
Fareed Zakaria: Did you get threatened?
Sharif El-Gamal: I did. A lot of scary things happened in – a lot of very, very scary things have happened. A lot of very scary things have happened.
Fareed Zakaria: Did it ever make you think to yourself why do I need this?
Sharif El-Gamal: Because every time that I would look in my two little daughters, I would say that I don't – I want the world to be a better place for them, and that we have a responsibility that we – we just got subjected into this, but we have a responsibility now to reclaim who we are. Because if people knew who we were and if people knew that every time a mosque or an Islamic facility is built, it cleans up a neighborhood.
This is statistically speaking across the 50 states that it becomes a beacon of light. And unfortunately, criminals have – have taken control of the narrative today. And that's what was the – that was the impact of what we had gotten.
Fareed Zakaria: Will you be able to build the project?
Sharif El-Gamal: That's going to be a function of the community. This project is going to be as small or as big as ultimately the community decides. We are committed right now to building – one of the buildings we're 100 percent committed to. And it's going to take a shape and a form dependent of what the community comes back to us with.
Fareed Zakaria: You're not backing down? EL-GAMAL: From doing the right thing? Backing down from doing the right thing, from providing first and foremost a place for people to pray, for Muslims to pray in Lower Manhattan after they've been displaced and then going a step further and trying to provide community facilities to a neighborhood that needs community facilities, backing down from doing the right thing?