Muhammad Comes to Manhattan

Muslim prayer on a recent weekday on the ground floor of the old Burlington Coat Factory, where the proposed community center is planned to be built.Photo: Timothy Fadek/Polaris

It was startling to see Mike Bloomberg, head chief billionaire-in-charge, not known for effusive expressions of municipal compassion, on the verge of a public tear. The mayor, in what must be counted as the singular emotional policy statement of his nine years in office, was speaking on Governors Island, the Statue of Liberty stationed directly behind him. “Millions of immigrants” had arrived in this harbor over the past 250 years, Bloomberg said, his monotone surreally close to cracking, and it was no different today. New York remained “the freest city in the world.” Political controversies would “come and go but our values and traditions endure—and there is no neighborhood in this city off limits to God’s love and mercy.”

The impetus for the atypical mayoral oratory was, of course, the now-national furor over the planned Muslim-American community center at 45–51 Park Place, at the site of the old Burlington Coat Factory, two and a half blocks from where the September 11, 2001, terror attacks took place. It has been such a long slog with this, the issues over whether Muslims reciting prayers in such proximity to the scene of the horrific crime constituted an unforgivable lack of respect, the First Amendment arguments over religious freedom, the unruly Community Board meetings, President Obama’s carefully parsed half-endorsement, Abe Foxman, and some of the most overheated blogological rhetoric seen on these shores since the Draft Riots, much of it so flat-out racist as to read like kiddie porn. Yet with people like Sarah Palin “refudiating” and Newt Gingrich likening the “radical Islamist” organizers of the so-called ground-zero mosque to Nazis scheming “to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum,” this wasn’t exactly an issue on which the mayor of New York could remain silent. After all, isn’t this the story we tell about ourselves, true or not: that here, all immigrant groups should get a fair shake and get to worship whatever god they happen to believe in, whenever and wherever they like?

That said, when this proud son of Queens, someone who was there the day the towers crumbled, breathing in the dust of bodies that only hours before had been walking and talking, first heard of the plan to locate a thirteen-story Islamic center near the WTC site, my initial thought was: Now, that is one really stupid idea!

Why stir up all those ghosts, revisit the horror of those sad days? Was this the best way for the Muslim-American community to stitch itself into the grand mosaic of the city, to demonstrate that the followers of Islam were regulation Jills and Joes like the next caterwauling Yankee fan? I mean, how clueless, how tone-deaf could you be?

When I expressed this sentiment to Sharif El-Gamal, the owner of 45–51 Park Place, a nicely turned out, urbane 37-year-old real-estate man who has been buying and selling buildings in Manhattan for the past dozen years, he shook his head with a barely restrained impatience.

“Listen,” said El-Gamal, “do you have any clue how the Manhattan real-estate market works, what is involved? People seem to think that we picked that building to make some kind of point. But that is simply insane. This is New York; no matter who you are, you just don’t choose a building, move in, and take over. Do you know how many places I looked at? I looked at Chambers Street. I looked at Vesey Street, Broadway, Greenwich Street, Warren Street, Murray Street. Maybe half a dozen more, I can’t even remember now. It was only after all that that Park Place came up. Even then, it was the most grueling negotiation of my life. So many times I told myself, Wow, this just isn’t worth it. One minute the deal was on, eight months later it was off. The whole thing almost drove me nuts.”

But didn’t he think twice before buying a building so close to ground zero? Didn’t he suspect that he was putting himself at the center of a hornets’ nest?

“No,” said El-Gamal, who was born at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn and, after some world travels in the company of his father, a Chemical Bank executive, attended New Hyde Park High School in Nassau County. “It never entered my mind,” he said. “Not for a second.”

The story of how he came to 45–51 Park Place began on 9/11, Sharif El-Gamal said. “I was eating in a diner at 61st and Second Avenue when I heard about the planes, and I just started going down there. Everyone was going the other way, but I kept walking. Someone had attacked my country, my city. All I wanted to do was to see if I could help. I was down there for two days. I saw things I couldn’t believe. I wound up in the hospital because the dust affected my eyes. It was after that, I just felt like praying. We weren’t a religious family; a couple of holy days, that was it. I worked downtown, so I started going to a mosque on Warren Street. After a while I stopped in at the Masjid al-Farah on West Broadway, where I met Imam Feisal for the first time. I knew he had been there for a long time, twenty years or more, but I never heard him speak. His sermons were what I was looking for, beautiful, sincere, but American. I thought, finally, an American Imam, someone who talks to me as an American. But the place was so small. It had a 70-person capacity. You could hardly get in. After the Jumu’ah, which is what we call Friday prayers, I went up to Imam Feisal and told him how much I enjoyed his sermon and that it was too bad only 70 people could hear it at a time. He just smiled and thanked me.

A pro-mosque protester outside the old Burlington Coat Factory.Photo: Timothy Fadek/Polaris for New York Magazine

“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?

An anti-mosque protester.Photo: Timothy Fadek/Polaris for New York Magazine

The minions of the Cordoba House—as the cultural center was originally called, before Spencer and Geller began trumpeting that the Spanish city was not, as many historians contend, a multicultural “Ornament of the World” but rather one more scene of ruthless Muslim domination—were unprepared for the full-court press exerted by the bloggers. Asked about the money issues, Sharif El-Gamal, with an exasperated sigh, said, “I don’t know where the money is going to come from. I don’t have it. I have to raise it. We will hire private auditors and cooperate with all governmental authorities and not take a penny from any group flagged by them.” This statement, while likely true, has done little to quell the so-called transparency issue. There is also the question of where in the world is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf? The Imam has been out of town for weeks, since the really heavy coverage started, and won’t be back till early September. While visiting her NGO-like office at the Interchurch Center near Columbia University, I asked Daisy Khan, Feisal Rauf’s wife and executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, about her husband’s absence. Wasn’t this a problem, what with Pam Geller and Robert Spencer bashing the Imam daily, all but painting him as the Osama within? Wouldn’t a personal response, a little old-fashioned New York “Oh, yeah?” be in order? “Well,” said Khan, who was born in the Kashmir and graduated near the top of her class at Jericho High School in Long Island, “this trip had been planned for some time, long before this controversy began.”

“If you want to know why we’re winning, it is because we’re right,” Geller said, as we batted around some of her favorite topics—her John Galt fixation; the book Eurabia, by the Egyptian-born author Bat Ye’or, which depicts the Muslim-immigrant problem in Western Europe, a situation Geller believes will soon happen here; et cetera. Geller’s postings have been accused of having only tangential relation to the truth (she blithely continues to claim the Park Place mosque will be on the top floor so it can “look down on ground zero,” when actually the mosque was never planned to be on the top floor, and even if it were, there are two twenty-story buildings between the Islamic center and the WTC site). But the life path of this self-described “New York City career girl” is not without an eccentric train-wreck fascination. Her greatest hits include midwiving the rumor that Barack Obama is actually the illegitimate son of Malcolm X and launching into a screaming match on The Joy Behar Show, claiming she knew more about Ronald Reagan than her combatant: Ron Reagan Jr. For sure, there aren’t many members of the new media who would post a video of Nina Simone singing “Love Me or Leave Me” on the same day (July 23) she posted a picture of kaffiyeh-wearing youth holding up a swastika under the blog title “ ‘Palestinian’ Jihad Flag to Fly at the UN.” Indeed, asked if her new book (written with Robert Spencer), The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America, which does its patriotic best to depict the highest-elected official in the country as a Marxist-Leninist fellow traveler of the Muslim Brotherhood, was one more sign that the mosque issue was simply another facet of white America’s paranoia about immigrants and the Other in General, a fear driven in large part by the color of Obama’s skin, Geller laughed and indicated that this was just the way a dhimmi would think.

Dhimmitude was the state to which Muslim caliphs reduced their “useful” but decidedly second-class subjects, those who had to be made to “feel themselves subdued” (the Koran, Sura 9:29), Robert Spencer told me as we dined in the T.G.I. Friday’s on the scenic lower level of Penn Station. A canny operative who likely has the inside track on the State Department’s Middle East affairs desk should the tea party win the White House in 2012, Spencer nonetheless offered that he had spent part of his youth working at Revolution Books, which is run by the Revolutionary Communist Party (and its cultish leader Bob Avakian), a hard-line Maoist group most sixties-style radicals, like, say, Bill Ayers, would consider beyond the pale. Spencer—whose father worked for the Voice of America during the Cold War—contended that terror, the threat of the A-bomb in the burka, while worth worrying about, was “just one tactic” in Islam’s clash with the U.S. What was afoot was a more insidious thing, a burrowing infiltration of the enemy.

“Muslims are the first immigrant group that has ever come to this country with a ready-made model of society and government they believe to be superior to what we have here,” Spencer told me. The thinking was clear to anyone who took the trouble to study the plan, the blogger and author of Stealth Jihad contended. “Muhammad said, ‘When you meet the unbelievers, invite them to accept Islam; if they refuse, offer them the dhimma—second-class status—and, if they refuse that, go to war with them.’ That’s it. Conversion, subjugation, or war. Three steps. Conversion, subjugation, or war … That’s what Muhammad said. And in chapter 33, verse 21 of the Koran, it says Muhammad is the excellent example for the Muslim, you ask any Muslim and they’ll tell you that: That is nonnegotiable, what Muhammad said goes, and that’s not some hijacker extremist Islam, that’s mainstream … This is how it is, you don’t need a bomb. I don’t think Feisal is ever going to blow anything up, because that’s not his game; his game is a societal, cultural penetration … ”

Sharif El-Gamal, the real-estate man, plans to develop the community center.Photo: Reed Young for New York Magazine

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.”

Robert Spencer, blogger and co-founder of Stop Islamization of America.Photo: Reed Young for New York Magazine

The next day I made my way to 45–51 Park Place so I could stand in a straight line, toes splayed out, beside the Punjabi cab drivers, Senegalese fake-Rolex dealers, and Egyptian businessmen who gather there for the Jumu’ah midday prayers. For someone with serious issues with the impetuous, dictatorial God of Abraham, I remain a sucker for his services; Baptist or Hasidic, once the spirit starts flowing, I got to be in dat number. In all the doomsaying about the dire things that would occur should the ground-zero mosque be built, there had been little mention, on either side, that as many as 600 people had been showing up there for months to do their prostrations and reassert their submission to Allah and his messenger Muhammad, peace be upon him.

It was Friday, the Muslim holy day, so that meant there would be a Khutbah, or sermon. I had been hoping to hear Feisal Rauf, but the missing Imam was still traveling, so the speaker was Khalid Latif, the 27-year-old director of the Islamic center at NYU and the Muslim chaplain for the NYPD.

Latif’s name had come up in a conversation I’d had with a Muslim-American friend only days before. My friend, who was born in the Middle East, grew up in Washington Heights during the crack times, got his degree from SUNY, started a few businesses, had a family, and now rode around in a leather-seated Lexus, was very ticked off about what was happening with the mosque. It was all Islamophobia, my friend said. He was a Muslim-American, an American Muslim. He believed in the U.S. of A., hated terrorists, prayed every day but still worshipped Bad Brains along with most eighties hard-core bands, rooted for the Mets, and felt doubly screwed by 9/11, first by the assholes in the planes and then by the reaction of his countrymen. “We’re taxpayers, what else do they want?” my friend said. “We’re gonna get our piece of pie, we might have to wait, but we’re going to get it. In New York, you’ve either got a seat at the table or you’re on the menu.”

It was then my friend told me about Imam Khalid. “That guy is off the hook,” he said. “He’s like a rapper. He made me cry one time. He was talking about a guy throwing starfish into the sea, one of those parables, and all of a sudden I’m weeping. There was just something about the way he said it. He blew me away.”

It was a hot day, dead center in the middle of the heat wave that had ravaged the city for weeks, and it was hotter still inside the basement mosque at the old Burlington Coat Factory. Sweat seeping through your shirt as you sat under the fluorescent lighting, muddled speakers blurting out gnawing, indistinct Arabic, you could see why Sharif El-Gamal said he often felt less than proud at the “shabbiness” of Muslim places of worship. Here was nothing comfortable or grand, just these people from all over the globe sitting on the thin-piled green-and-gray carpet, because for many of them it was the only thing that seemed familiar in the great city where they found themselves. Then, attired in a white turban and beige gown, Khalid Latif began to speak, intoning the call to prayer.

I’d been to Islamic prayers before. In 1999, before the second intifada, I knelt in this same way at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Sitting there with 5,000 other people, within walking distance of the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was an interesting tourist experience, but nothing more. Everything was in Arabic, a language that makes sure the self-conscious stay in their place. At 45–51 Park Place, however, Latif, who grew up in Edison, New Jersey, son of a Pakistani cardiologist, educated at NYU, a local kid, an intellectual who could be seated next to you in a downtown theater, spoke English, American English.

Making clear that the “opportunity” offered by Allah in the month of Ramadan was something everyone must accept on an individual basis, Latif said, “It is not that this month was given to the community and as long as someone in the community observes it then it is fulfilled … You and I as adult Muslim men and women have an individual obligation within this ritualistic practice of fasting for the sake of the Divine. And we have ample opportunity to get ready for it. We don’t have to wait until the first hour or the first day, we don’t have to wait for that first hour to come in and then get into the mind-set that says, Now I will begin to get ready. Already I should have anticipated it, have a certain eagerness, not anxiety, but I should understand that this is something that will elevate me if I allow for it to elevate me, and there are things in it that are so unique that if I should let it pass, truly I would be a foolish man.”

It wasn’t necessarily what he was saying, a sermon is a sermon, but the sound of it. The sheer sonics, the way Latif pushed the words off his tongue, how his cadence pressed against the beat of what he was articulating, the absolute insistence of his music. It was half-hip-hop, half-something ancient, passed along through the history of Islam, no doubt with some of that blood and conquest Robert Spencer loved to talk about included, because those events were in the history books along with the mass killings done in the name of all religions, and Imam Khalid did not seem like one to sugarcoat things.

And right then I felt very happy, very joyful to be sitting on the haphazardly swept floor of the old Burlington Coat Factory. It was, after all, a rare opportunity. The papers were full of how supposedly “cooler heads” like David Paterson and Archbishop Timothy Dolan are offering to help find Sharif El-Gamal “alternative” space to the Park Place building. More likely was the fact that Imam Feisal’s community center will actually be built (good luck paying the insurance on that sucker). Then this funky old place will disappear, to be replaced by its modern equivalent, complete with central air-conditioning, just like in those megachurches where the “real” Americans pray in comfort not enjoyed by the apostles that followed the man they imagined to be the Messiah.

What was coming out of Khalid Latif’s mouth seemed like a genuine Muslim-American thing, something arrived at from a particular existential place. Like all legitimate experiences, religious and not, it lifted you out of everyday time and space. For the moment, 45–51 Park Place was not in any temporal proximity to ground zero. It could have been anywhere.

A Muslim service doesn’t take long. You get the Khutbah, the Jumu’ah, and you’re out in an hour, a real businessman’s religion. Leaving the disputed territory of 45–51 Park Place, I walked those now legendary two and half blocks to where the Trade Center once stood. The place is a vast construction zone now, with hundreds of workmen engaged in operating cranes and driving bulldozers. The tumult is deafening, a whole other kind of city rhythm. My old man used to take me down here, when it was still “radio row.” It was a drag when they built the Towers, but we accepted it as the way of things, as Lord Shiva continually replaces the destruction he wreaks. So now, after all the wrangling, we’ll have some new buildings here. The Freedom Tower, a totemic 1,776 feet tall, is going up. The day I was there, a construction guy said they were working on the twentieth floor, which is already seven more stories than Imam Feisal’s supposed megamosque. When it is done it will be more than 100 stories; that seemed an acceptable ratio.

Can’t say I am that crazy about the design of the Freedom Tower, but who really cares what it looks like? Something has to go up there. The fact that it is rising, that is the exciting part, watching things change, right here in the Big City.

Exclusive Photos From Inside the Mosque Site

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Muhammad Comes to Manhattan