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Muhammad Comes to Manhattan

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Sharif El-Gamal, the real-estate man, plans to develop the community center.  

After that, Spencer peered up from his plate of Caribbean chicken and bid me to look around the T.G.I. Friday’s. “Remember this moment and this spot,” he said. “Because the freedoms we enjoy are in danger. You might not know it now, because it is just beginning. But 25 or 30 years from now you’re going to think of this place and say to yourself, Spencer was right.

This was becoming depressing. Geller and Spencer’s Stop Islamization of America has a rally planned for ground zero on September 11. One of the featured speakers will be Geert Wilders, the rising exclusionist Dutch politician whom even Glenn Beck has implied is a fascist. Wonder how families of 9/11 victims feel about that. “These people are nothing more than Republican operatives,” said Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, a mosque supporter who was still smarting from being called “a Jewish Uncle Tom” by former tea-party boss Mark Williams—a comment that left Stringer to ponder if the slur was more insulting to blacks or Jews. “They’re always talking about how we have to defend ourselves, but you never hear them talk about Ray Kelly. Don’t they think that Ray Kelly and the NYPD can protect us from these supposed Muslim plotters? I put my faith in him.”

I had to agree, Ray Kelly and his space-age anti-terror units had our backs, all right. But they couldn’t catch everyone. It was one more upsetting thing about the entire mosque episode and its attendant apocalyptic subtext. You knew it was going to happen again, sooner or later. Just because one moron-scumbag would-be jihadi in Times Square couldn’t connect one wire to another didn’t mean the next one would be as dim. There’s a longtime rumor in my neighborhood that Mohamed Atta, leader of the 9/11 terrorists, briefly lived about a block and a half from me and my family. Any of us could have passed him in the street, walked beside him on the way home from the subway. Hearing this made me think about the guys who own the area bodegas. They’re almost all Muslim, many of them of Arabs. Would not Mohamed Atta have stopped into one of these places, chatted for a moment in the language of the homeland? They might have even had a laugh together. I mean, that guy, that friendly guy from whom we buy the cat food, sharing a joke with Mohamed Atta? It was a creepy little thought. Because to tell you the truth, as a New Yorker I want to feel good about my neighbors. I reserve the right not to speak to them or even bother to look up when they go by. But I want to feel good about them.

“Even knowing everything, I would have done it again,” said Sharif El-Gamal, the building’s owner. “Because there was a conversation that had to be had, and now we’re having it.”

I was thinking about this a few days after, as I drove over to Sheepshead Bay, where there has been another ongoing protest against building a mosque. I am almost always happy to go to Sheepshead because this is where half my family came to escape the pogroms. My mother always claimed she couldn’t tell whether the family was moving up or down when they relocated from Avenue Z to Avenue X. I spent a lot of my boyhood here, jumping off the wooden bridge into the incredibly foul bay water below. Still, I was a little leery of the trip due to an online comment attributed to an individual tagged “from Sheepshead Bay”: “Islam is a religion of death and subjugation that gives birth to intellectual zombies who extol death,” this person wrote. “Those of you, the so-called tolerant people, who mock the Sheepshead Bay residents for their courageous quest to stop the spread of this virus, are useful idiots who will not be spared when the time comes.”

This sounded pretty bad, but luckily I never believe anything I read on the Internet, so I drove over and met with Alex, Stan, and Bob, all of whom had been active in the local protests. As we stood across Voorhies Avenue from the vacant lot where the prospective mosque was due to rise, Bob ticked off problems with the building—it would be four stories high in a totally residential area, there would be an increase in traffic, et cetera, et cetera. You could see his point. No doubt there was a growing Muslim population in the area, with many of them living a few blocks east in the smaller houses near Nostrand Avenue. These people, of course, needed a place to pray. But it would be a stretch for any city planner to recommend a religious building, or any institutional building at all, on the vacant lot across Voorhies Avenue from where I stood with Alex, Bob, and Stan. It was just “wrong,” Bob said. Besides, most of the locals—not counting the thousands of fairly recent Russian immigrants, of course—had been in the area for decades. There was a “familiarity” to the place. Having grown up in such a “familiar” New York neighborhood, I knew what he was talking about. The city is finite; you fight to protect your turf, strive to preserve the status quo against the inevitable next wave of whomever. Perhaps there were some people in Sheepshead Bay who preferred not to live near a Muslim mosque. Did that necessarily make them bigots? They seemed like basically okay people, the sort you could depend on in a pinch. No one’s perfect. This was what I was thinking when Bob pointed to the brown house next to the mosque site. “How’d you like to be that guy, next door to a freaking mosque! That’s got to take $75 grand off your property values right there … See what I’m trying to tell you? We have a nice, quiet neighborhood here and we aim to keep it that way.”


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