Sharon Otterman of the New York Times asked me for comment on this story, as she did for one recently on the 9/11 Museum — and this time she actually quoted me in the story. She severely disfigures her piece here, however, in characteristic New York Times fashion, by dismissing opponents of the Ground Zero Mosque as “right-wing, anti-Muslim organizations,” and by describing me as someone who “runs an anti-Muslim blog, Jihad Watch.” Describing me and my work as “anti-Muslim,” as common as it may be, is a vicious slur: I am no more anti-Muslim than foes of the Nazis were anti-German. The idea that working to defend the freedom of speech and equality of rights for all people (including Muslims) is “anti-Muslim” says more about what Sharon Otterman thinks being Muslim consists of than it does about me.
Anyway, just for the record, here is my actual exchange with Sharon Otterman:
1. Otterman to Spencer:
Hope you’re well. I saw you reprinted our exchange on your website– I’m glad I spelled everything correctly.
I had another question for you– hopefully this answer will be included in the final piece!
Sharif El-Gamal, the developer of Park51, has just proposed a new plan for the former Burlington Coat Factory site near ground zero: a three story museum dedicated to exploring the faith of Islam and its arts and culture, that will include a sanctuary for prayer services and community programs.
Apparently he will keep the building to 3 stories instead of 15, and has commissioned a famous architect to do the design, and include a public green space. He proposes hosting academic and cultural events there.
I’m wondering what you think about the plan, in its broad outlines. If you want to pass this email along to Pam Geller, feel free, or I can reach out to her directly. Do you think it will cause a similar uproar to the last plan?
2. Spencer to Otterman:
You can reach Pamela Geller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sharif’s new plan sounds as if it will be dedicated to improving the image of Islam that was so tarnished by the 9/11 attacks. The structure as you describe it would be as grotesque as a three story museum dedicated to exploring the faith of Shintoism and emperor-worship, and its arts and culture, with a sanctuary for prayer services and community programs, at Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor would not be an appropriate place for such a museum, and it would indeed be legitimately seen as a tasteless attempt to exonerate the Japanese civil religion of responsibility for the attack and the war. Likewise this museum, if it is to be built at all, should be anywhere but at Ground Zero. Just as it is inappropriate, offensive and unnecessary for the 9/11 Museum to go out of its way to improve the image of Islam, so also it is inappropriate and offensive to build a museum/mosque dedicated to the glories of Islam at the site of a catastrophic attack that its perpetrators described as inspired by and motivated by Islamic texts and teachings.
This structure may (or may not) be so different from the previous 15-story plan that it will be less likely to be taken in the Islamic world as a triumphal mosque a la the Dome of the Rock, the Hagia Sophia and the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, etc., but it is still a spectacularly inappropriate idea for that location. If Sharif wants to improve the image of Islam, a mosque celebrating its purported glories at Ground Zero will not do the trick; only a concerted effort to reform Islam and counter the jihadist narrative within Muslim communities will accomplish that.
I ran into Sharif not long ago in New York and he invited me to meet privately with him and an imam. I was willing to do so and gave him my email address, but he never followed up. You can pass along to him that I am still willing to do so, but that if he wants to convince people that Islam is a religion of peace, building Islamic museums and having talks with unbelievers won’t do it; only solid work to refute the jihadist understanding of Islam and convince young Muslims that it is wrong will accomplish that. What is Sharif doing toward that end?
“Developer Scales Back Plans for Muslim Center Near Ground Zero,” by Sharon Otterman, New York Times, April 29, 2014:
The developer whose proposal to build a Muslim community center and mosque near the World Trade Center failed amid a national controversy three years ago said Tuesday that he now plans to construct a museum devoted to Islam in the same location.
Sharif El-Gamal, the developer, said through a spokesman that instead of a $100 million, 15-story community center and prayer space, he now planned a smaller, three-story museum “dedicated to exploring the faith of Islam and its arts and culture.” The building would also include a sanctuary for prayer services and community programs.
To make the plan more attractive to neighbors, he said in a statement, he had commissioned a French architect, Jean Nouvel, winner of the 2008 Pritzker Prize, to design the building at 45-51 Park Place, about two blocks from the former World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, and had included plans for a public green space.
“This is a more tailored approach, both physically and programmatically,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a spokesman for Mr. El-Gamal. “It will prove to be an important addition to the neighborhood and to New York City’s arts and cultural community.”
The museum will be a 5,000-square-foot, three-story structure, Mr. Sheinkopf said, adding that the dimensions and design are still in development. He said Mr. El-Gamal’s signing of Mr. Nouvel “shows his serious commitment to realizing this project.”
Mr. Sheinkopf said Mr. El-Gamal is not anticipating an outcry like the one he faced in 2010, when the center was loudly opposed by right-wing, anti-Muslim organizations, some relatives of Sept. 11 victims, and others who contended it would be insensitive to build an Islamic institution so close to ground zero.
But he may be naïve about the depth of opposition. Robert Spencer, one of the loudest voices against the 2010 proposal and who runs an anti-Muslim blog, Jihad Watch, said this plan would be no better.
“The structure as you describe it,” he wrote in an email, “would be as grotesque as a three-story museum dedicated to exploring the faith of Shintoism and emperor-worship, and its arts and culture, with a sanctuary for prayer services and community programs, at Pearl Harbor.”
Left unclear by Mr. El-Gamal’s announcement was how realistic his plans are. When asked about financing, Mr. Sheinkopf said only that Mr. El-Gamal would initially finance the museum and sanctuary himself and that he hoped to find other benefactors.
Mr. El-Gamal has had trouble raising money in the past. And, in 2011, he was sued by Consolidated Edison Company, which owns part of the site, for $1.7 million in back rent. Mr. El-Gamal disputed the formulas used to calculate this figure and filed a lawsuit.
There was no timetable given for the museum. This month, however, Mr. El-Gamal filed plans with the Buildings Department to demolish the five-story 45 Park Place and four-story 51 Park Place to make way for the project, and Mr. Sheinkopf said demolition would begin in the coming months.
The nonprofit organization, Park51, that holds daily Islamic prayer services and cultural events at the site would temporarily relocate in the neighborhood, and the prayer services would resume in the new building, the spokesman said.
Daisy Khan, who along with her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, was originally a partner with Mr. El-Gamal in the Park51 Community Center project, said that they had not been contacted or involved with these latest plans. “I am just as surprised as anyone else,” Ms. Khan said.
“It is definitely a scaled-down version, a minuscule version of the last project,” she said.
It did not seem that Mr. El-Gamal had reached out widely to the city’s Muslim community before this announcement. Ameena Meer, who worked on advertising and social media for the original project, said she had received an invitation to hear about Mr. El-Gamal’s new agenda this week.
Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said Mr. El-Gamal called on Tuesday morning to invite her to meet with a few community leaders to talk about the project this week….
That in itself is telling. Linda Sarsour is a rabidly anti-Semitic Islamic supremacist who has said that “nothing is creepier than Zionism” and equated it with “racism.” She is also a frequent visitor to the Obama White House, and has claimed that the jihad underwear bomber was a CIA agent — part of what she claims is a U.S. war against Islam. She is a practiced exploiter of the “hate” smear against foes of jihad terror and Islamic supremacism, and has never apologized for using the Islamic honor murder of Shaima Alawadi to spread lies about the prevalence of hate crimes against Muslims in America. Although she decries “hate,” she is venomously hateful herself — far more so than any foe of jihad has ever been.
Nicole Pesce of the New York Daily News also contacted me for comment on this.
1. Pesce to Spencer:
Good evening, Robert Spencer:
This is Nicole Pesce at the New York Daily News. I apologize for reaching out to you so late, but I’m writing a story for tomorrow’s paper about Sharif El-Gamal’s revised plan for a museum and sanctuary at Lower Manhattan, and would like to get your reaction. How did you hear about the revised plan? Is it an improvement over the previous one? Will this be better received by the public than his first plan?
I’m available directly by email or at (xxx) xxx-xxxx to discuss, and I am on deadline for tomorrow’s paper.
Thank you kindly,
2. Spencer to Pesce:
I heard about it only when the NY Times asked me for comment.
Sharif’s new plan is not an improvement over the previous one. It just causes different kinds of offense. The three-story structure may (or may not) be so different from the previous 15-story plan that it will be less likely to be taken in the Islamic world as a triumphal mosque a la the Dome of the Rock, the Hagia Sophia and the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, etc., but it is still a spectacularly inappropriate idea for that location. If Sharif wants to improve the image of Islam, a mosque celebrating its purported glories at Ground Zero will not do the trick; only a concerted effort to reform Islam and counter the jihadist narrative within Muslim communities will accomplish that.
It will likely be better received publicly than the first one, because the size of the structure makes it less obviously a triumphal mosque, and because for years now the public has been inundated with stories about how fine a man Sharif (despite his many financial irregularities) and all others involved with the Ground Zero Mosque project are, in an effort to break down resistance to the project.
And here is what they printed: “Developer behind ‘Ground Zero mosque’ plans Islam museum near World Trade Center by Nicole Lyn Pesce, New York Daily News, April 30, 2014:
The developer behind the scrapped “Ground Zero mosque” announced Tuesday that he plans to build a museum dedicated to Islam on the same controversial site.
Sharif El-Gamal wants to construct a three-story museum devoted to Muslim arts and culture at his 45-51Park Place property, just blocks from the World Trade Center. The site will also include a sanctuary for prayer services and community programs, he said.
“New York’s arts and cultural institutions have always been a great inspiration to me and I consider this opportunity to create a museum to be a true privilege,” said El-Gamal in a statement.
The new museum is much smaller than the 15-story, $100 million house of worship he proposed in 2010, which failed under opposition from vocal critics including some 9/11 families, who argued that a mosque in the shadow of the World Trade Center was insensitive. El-Gamal opened a modest prayer centerat the site in 2011 but earlier this month an application to tear it down was filed with the city.
The museum may still may spark criticism. “Sharif’s new plan is not an improvement over the previous one. It just causes different kinds of offense,” said Robert Spencer, who runs the blog Jihad Watch and was an outspoken opponent of El-Gamal’s original proposal.
He called it “still a spectacularly inappropriate idea for that location” but conceded that it would probably be better-received than the mosque proposal.
The proposed site will be designed by award-winning architect Jean Nouvel, who is masterminding an expansion of the Museum of Modern Art.
It was unclear how the museum would be financed. A spokesman for El-Gamal told The New York Times, which first reported the plan, that the developer would initially finance the project himself.