‘Ground Zero Mosque’ Furor a Faint Memory at Park51 Opening

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Jamming on the oud. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” finally opened Wednesday at 45–51 Park Place. Last year, Park51, as the mosque–community center two iconic blocks from the WTC is called, was the flashpoint of the most heated New York City public debate in decades, prompting raucous community-board meetings, much incendiary rhetoric about the supposed Islamization of America, and, eventually, the uncommon sight of Mayor Bloomberg crying on television while defending New York as an unending beacon of tolerance where “no neighborhood is off-limits to God’s love and mercy.”

On Wednesday night, however, aside from the cop car that sits outside the building 24/7 and a number of burly, black-clad bouncers, Park51’s recent history was little in evidence. Imam Feisel Abdul Ruaf, his wife Daisy Khan, and their Cordoba Institute — favorite targets of the anti-mosque forces — are out of the picture. “Feisel and Daisy thought the center was all about them, it wasn’t. The fact is his following wasn’t as big as first thought,” one project rep said.

Once planned as a fifteen-story structure, what opponents called “the Triumphalist Islamic Supremacist Mega-Mosque at Ground Zero” is still housed in the low-slung edifice that was once occupied by the Burlington Coat Factory. But while the gray-and-green carpeted “prayer space” that is primarily used by taxi-drivers and local merchants for Friday services remains the same, an ample exhibit hall been constructed. On the freshly painted sheet rock walls hung a series of photographs showing charmingly posed children from 160 different countries, but now living in New York. The portraits, taken by Danny Goldfield, were a manifestation of the project’s overriding message, which Park51 chairman, Sharif El-Gamel, described as inclusion, community building, and diversity.”

All in all, with the New York Arabic Orchestra and its four-oud section playing as guests imbibed non-alcoholic drinks and lamb balls, it was a relaxed, deeply secularized ceremony, an experience not wholly unlike one might have at the 92nd Street Y, the facility that El-Gamel says he wants to emulate. It was a time to celebrate progress — El-Gamel, once rumored to have accepted millions from Wahhabi princes, said the renovated exhibit hall cost $70,000, which he raised on kickstarter.com — not to rehash the fractious past. No one I talked to wanted to discuss the outrageous events of the past year. In fact, neither Pamela Gellar or Robert Spencer — the firebrand bloggers who concocted the bulk of the anti-mosque talking points — even mentioned the Park51 opening on their sites. Then again, they may still by lying low in the wake of the disclosure that their views were widely quoted in the papers of Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breivik.

Standing there, two blocks away from the crews working on the Freedom Tower, it left you wondering what all that business last year was truly about. Was it because finally, after nine years of shock, we had a concrete issue to focus all those pent up 9/11 feelings on? Was it just last year’s version of the Casey Anthony story? Standing amid those pictures of children who managed to smile no matter the odds against them, it was hard to imagine there was ever a problem at all.