“That is when it hit me: We needed a building. There were a lot of Muslims downtown, and the places we did have were not pleasant; they were basements, holes-in-the-wall. The message was beautiful, but the surroundings were shabby. They were not places we could feel proud of. So I made up my mind. If this was a real-estate problem, that’s what I did, real estate. I am very good at real estate. Also, I’d undergone a change of life. My business has grown, I have two wonderful children. I signed my daughter up for swimming lessons at the Jewish Community Center at Amsterdam and 76th Street. It is an excellent facility, very welcoming, modern. Then I knew we didn’t need just a mosque, we needed a cultural center, something that took into account the entire aspect of life: our lives as Muslim-Americans in New York. So when you ask me why I would buy a place so close to ground zero, I say, I wasn’t thinking of that. I saw a building. A building that would fulfill a need. I spoke to Imam Feisal about it, and he agreed.”
Asked if, considering everything that has happened in the ongoing argument about the mosque, he would do it all over again, Sharif El-Gamal leaned back in his chair. “Yes,” he answered in low voice. “Even knowing everything, I would have done it again. Because there was a conversation that had to be had, and now we’re having it.”
We sure are. For years, through the dreary battles over money and control, we have outsourced much of the moral and political authority of ground zero to Fox affiliates. Now, it has come back to us because, at the heart of it, despite all the noise in the hinterland, the fight over the building Sharif El-Gamal plans to build on Park Place is a classic only–in–New York hassle.
To sum up the conundrum: When you live in the greatest city of immigrants in the history of the world, you never know exactly who is going to show up next. Outside of watching the World Cup in a Colombian bar, does anyone have a clue as to the national breakdown of all the people who live in those attached houses off Roosevelt Avenue in Queens? Or how many Indo-Guyanese live in Richmond Hill compared with the number of Afro-Guyanese in Flatbush? Who cares? They’re here, like everyone else, like Pakistani cab drivers scarfing down steam-table biryanis on Coney Island Avenue, like Egyptian baklava-makers on Steinway Street.
The other day I was sitting in the window seat of some desultory midtown Starbucks and out on the street were three woman in hijabs standing with an old man wearing an oddly fitting corduroy suit that made him look like a Caucasian sheepherder. They were pushing these giant suitcases—massive, bulging canvas jobs, bought cheap and already split open—the sort of latter-day-steerage steamer trunks one shoves an entire life into and hopes for the best.
“Fresh off the boat,” I said to myself, reveling in the vista and the fact that such tableaux were still available to be seen from a Starbucks window on 31st Street and Sixth Avenue, as I watched these would-be new New Yorkers try, and fail, to hail a cab.
The kicker is that if New York is singular in its big-tentedness, it is also singular in the fact that this is the only place where lunatics with box cutters flew two 767s into a pair of generally unloved 110-story buildings in the most spectacular display of terrorist stagecraft since ha-Shem smote down the Tower of Babel, causing His children to cease to understand one another, a pox on humanity that persists to this day. An incident like September 11 is a mitigating circumstance; even in the grand saga of New York, it cannot be ignored.
There are certain situations and events that emerge in the history of a city that can be seen as bellwethers, moments when the temperature of the times can be taken, Weegee-style snapshots that give the collective us an image, however cropped, of how we were at that instant. Over the past few decades there have been the 1968 schoolteachers strike, the 1977 blackout, the 1991 Crown Heights riots, and, of course, 9/11 itself. The controversy over the “ground-zero mosque” had all the earmarks of such a juncture.
Speaking of how life has changed since he came upon 45–51 Park Place, Sharif El-Gamal said, “Well, until a few months ago I never heard of Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. I didn’t even know such people existed.”
Authors respectively of the blogs Atlas Shrugs and Jihad Watch, the spectacularly prolific Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer have been the leading voices against what has been rebranded (by them) as “the Islamic Supremacist Mega-Mosque at Ground Zero.” Co-founders and directors of SIOA, or Stop Islamization of America—the logo, the first two letters sitting like building blocks on top of the second two, with the I leaning at a 45-degree angle, is apparently modeled after the famous LOVE postage stamp—Geller and Spencer are usually thought of as a dual entry. Most of the face time goes to Geller, a fit-looking, copiously coiffed 51-year-old former associate publisher of the New York Observer, whose blog Atlas Shrugs (recently rated No. 16 among conservative blogs, right behind Michelle Malkin and ahead of Dick Morris) features a golden-hued nude balancing the Ayn Randian planet above the city skyline. With her you-go-girl attitude, Geller has basically become the Fox News expert correspondent on Islamic affairs, My Cousin Vinny division. Spencer, in his late forties, bearded and bookish-looking, with more than twenty years in the roiling think tanks that produce the acolytes of people like Daniel Pipes and David Horowitz, is generally thought of as Geller’s Cardinal Richelieu factoid-provider. After a number of years of blogging away at what they see to be the ingress of Muslim culture (honor killings, beheadings) and Sharia law in this country, Geller and Spencer jumped on the mosque early and in what can only be called a major-league propaganda score and have more or less owned the story ever since, establishing much of the opposition talking (yelling) points: The location is in keeping with the Islamic practice of erecting “victory mosques” on the sites of their war triumphs, Imam Feisal’s alleged links to “radicals” and refusal to label Hamas a terror group, along with, of course, the money—where is the $100 million to build the mosque coming from? What Wahhabi sheikh, what mysterious cave dweller?