Aziz Poonawalla, who is the kind of man who posts obscene photoshops about his ideological opponents, and who once fooled a whole passel of rubes at spitblogger Dean Esmay’s site by claiming that my use of the standard and ordinary Arabic transliteration of my name was a ludicrous error, has now published a supposedly frank, open, and honest discussion of the plans for the Islamic supremacist mega-mosque at Ground Zero with Sharif El-Gamal (pictured above at Tuesday’s hearing of Manhattan’s Community Board 1), the multimillionaire who owns the property. As might be expected, El-Gamal’s answers fall significantly short of actually being frank, open, and honest.
“Q&A with Sharif el-Gamal about Park 51, NYC,” by Aziz Poonawalla at BeliefNet, July 24:
As promised earlier in the week, here are the interview questions and answers from Sharif el-Gamal, CEO of SoHo Properties and lead developer of the Park 51 project. I am sincerely grateful to Sharif for taking the time to answer these questions and speak directly to the broader Muslim community.
1. 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?
Swell! But self-consciously over-the-top in its swellness. After all the anger and pain that the plan for this mega-mosque has aroused in 9/11 families and others, for El-Gamal to be nattering blandly about “serving others” as if he and the Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf just got back from a meeting of their Boy Scout Troop is disingenuous, to say the least. If this initiative is really all about serving others, what about serving those who oppose it by showing even the tiniest modicum of good will toward them, instead of vilifying and smearing them and dismissing their legitimate objections as “hatred” and “bigotry”? Is Sharif El-Gamal capable of even the smallest acknowledgment that he understands the pain that this mega-mosque is causing, and is willing to accommodate it in some way? Or is he only interested in “serving” his own constituency?
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.
Again, that all sounds really swell. But recall that Poonawalla asked El-Gamal how the mosque would promote “good citizenship and American values,” and asked him which “specific American values” the mosque would promote. In response, “serving others” was about as specific as El-Gamal could get.
He had an opportunity to say that the Ground Zero mosque would institute programs to teach Muslims the virtues of American principles that contradict Sharia, such as the freedom of speech and the equality of rights of all people before the law. He could have said that the mosque would teach Muslims the virtues of the Constitutional principle of the non-establishment of religion, as opposed to the theocratic autocracy prescribed by Sharia. He could have said that the mosque would teach that apostates from Islam should not be killed, but should be allowed to exercise their conscience without interference.
He could have said all that and more. Instead, he murmured sweet nothings about “serving others.”
2. 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.
Yes, but the question was why must the project necessarily include a mosque? There is no other available real estate in Manhattan to meet this need? The mosque organizers veer back and forth from claiming that they just happened upon this property and their initiative has nothing to do with 9/11, and is several blocks (actually, just around a corner) from Ground Zero, to assuming that it has everything to do with 9/11 and that they’re trying to send a “positive message” that “reverses” that of the attacks. But they can’t have it both ways.
3. Some of Imam Feisal’s past statements [1,2] 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.
Actually, Rauf is an opening proponent of Sharia who actually calls for restrictions on the freedom of speech in his book, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America.
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.
Define “radical” and “hateful.” Is advocating for the rule of Islamic law “radical” and “hateful”? Given Rauf’s writings, this is a very important question.
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.
Does anyone know who he might be talking about? The story doesn’t ring true to me, which many will no doubt take as evidence of my inveterate “Islamophobia,” but I do this all the time, all day every day, and I’ve heard thousands of stories of people who were in and around the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and I’ve never heard anyone tell the story of a Muslim woman who was working to save people and who was buried in the rubble, was dug out, and went back to work. Given the politically correct avidity to find “moderate Muslims” on the part of both government and media since 9/11, I seriously doubt that if such a woman existed, her story would not have been repeatedly trumpeted far and wide. But I am not saying El-Gamal is necessarily lying; if anyone (including you, Mr. El-Gamal, or even the shifty Aziz Poonawalla) can give evidence to establish this woman’s existence and substantiate these claims, I will publish the material here.
[UPDATE: El-Gamal may have been referring to Ruby Ramadan. I have no idea of the veracity of the account here (thanks to Peter), but it does roughly match up with El-Gamal’s words.]
4. 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.
Besides being an open advocate for Sharia, Rauf has (like CAIR) refused to denounce Hamas. He has lied about his commitment to religious dialogue. He has lied about whether the Islamic center planned for the Ground Zero site will contain a mosque or not. And he has lied about whether or not the project is getting foreign funding. He is involved with a group that helped fund the jihad flotilla against Israel.
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.
Here again, precise definitions are needed. Does El-Gamal believe it would be “illegal or un-American” to teach Sharia supremacism in lower Manhattan? And of course Aziz Poonawalla doesn’t follow up with specific clarifying questions.
5. Will you pledge 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.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not “flagged.” But it is dedicated, in its own words, to “eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within.” Will the Ground Zero mega-mosque organizers deal with Brotherhood individuals and groups? If so, how will they keep the Brotherhood’s perspective on Sharia and Islamic supremacism out of the mosque? Are they even interested in doing so?
6. 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.
Of course, a September 11 memorial could be in Des Moines, it could be anywhere. When he talks about how Ground Zero can’t be seen from the current building, El-Gamal is in “Ground Zero? What Ground Zero?” mode, as explained above. Rauf’s wife Daisy Khan played the other side of this game here, emphasizing the property’s symbolic closeness to Ground Zero.
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 St., 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. Four Seasons is planning the tallest residential tower 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.
Again — no mention of Ground Zero in any of that windy explanation. It’s a far cry from Daisy Khan’s words: “I think the building came to us, which goes to show that there is a symbolism there, and that there’s a divine hand in it. That it’s so close to the tragedy, that its close proximity is very symbolic for the fact that we really want to reverse what happened on 9/11.”
7. 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.
The problem with this is that El-Gamal and Rauf and Daisy Khan and all their allies have consistently demonized all the opposition to the mega-mosque. There is nothing “Islamophobic” (a manipulative, trumped-up word in any case) or “racist” about pointing out that throughout history Muslims have built triumphal mosques on the cherished sites of conquered peoples, or that Rauf has not been honest, or that the mosque would be an insult to the people killed by Islamic supremacists on 9/11. I have seen people at Community Board meetings and elsewhere painstakingly and cogently explain why their opposition to the mega-mosque had nothing whatsoever to do with “bigotry” or “intolerance,” only to be rudely ignored and again vilified as bigots by mosque proponents.
8. 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.
Then address our real concerns, instead of setting up straw men and engaging in the basest forms of character assassination.
9. 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.
Here again, opposition to the mosque has nothing to do with “hate.” No one would ever take the time to “hate” Muslims or think about them at all were it not for the ongoing threat of jihad terrorism and the increasing arrogance and demands of the Muslim community in the U.S. And the mega-mosque is just another example of it.
10. 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.
Fine, let’s dialogue. Let’s continue this discussion. I’ve raised what I believe to be legitimate concerns here. I invite Sharif El-Gamal to respond, and we will have a dialogue. I’m ready when he is.