While Sharif El-Gamal, developer of the planned Park51 Islamic cultural center and mosque in lower Manhattan, says the project is definitely going forward, he won't say whether he is committed to the proposed location two blocks away from Ground Zero.
"There are no final plans in place as of yet. We're working off of possibilities," El-Gamal told ABC News over the weekend. "We're in meetings right now to determine how best to serve our community and our neighbors. We'll be modifying plans based on these discussions and discoveries. We do know what we want to provide: a world-class community center with the facilities all of New York can benefit from."
He also said construction was "still some years away," and that he hoped to go with an American construction company. Its management's or employees' religion is none of his business, he said.
The 37-year-old developer, owner and CEO of Soho Properties, was born in Brooklyn to a Polish mother and an Egyptian father. He is as American as any of the other millenials whose parents immigrated to the U.S. within the last fifty years. He is naturally blonde and blue-eyed. Married to his first girlfriend, who is also American, he is the father of two little blonde, blue-eyed girls. He is technically more American than Miss USA 2010 Rima Fakih, who is an Arab Muslim immigrant. He is -- although some will debate this -- as American as President Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan.
Yet these days, he is finding himself identified as the "Ground Zero mosque developer", and now spends most of his days defending his multi-million dollar Islamic community center and prayer space. The center would be built in a building that was partially destroyed by falling debris from the terrorist attacks on September 11. Critics call his partnering with New York Islamic community-fixtures Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan to build the center so close to Ground Zero insensitive, and disrespectful of those who died there at the hands of extremist Muslims.
His frustration, over a seemingly-benign project that has been years in the making, is palpable.
"Of course, many New Yorkers and Americans have strong feelings about the project. Unfortunately, the productive conversations we've had and are having with neighbors, partners and stakeholders locally and nationally are overshadowed by the way in which this has been made into a campaign issue," El-Gamal said.
Gingrich: This is Not Political Football
Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is seen as a possible 2012 presidential contender, has been a vocal critic of the project.
In a recent interview with ABC News, Gingrich rejected the suggestion that the issue was merely a political football in a mid-term election year.
"The opposition to the Ground Zero mosque is based on deep feelings and principles and would lead to the same fight in a non-election year," he said.
Others call it dangerous, and paint it as a meeting ground for radical Muslims and would-be terrorists, belying the notion that Muslim Americans would also have a vested interest in a safe and secure America, including those who work in the U.S. government, and who already pray within their respective buildings.
For example, Muslim Americans working in Congress have prayed at the Capitol since at least the late 1990s. Gingrich was the first House Speaker to give Muslim American staffers approval to use one of the meeting rooms under the control of the Speaker's Office.
When asked about the difference between Muslims praying at the Pentagon -- another site attacked on September 11, or at the Capitol, Gingrich said, "People of prayer from all religions and denominations should be welcomed to pray. That is profoundly different from building a 13-story building next to hallowed ground."
"This is not an issue of religious liberty. There are over 100 mosques in New York City. I have said I would support a mosque and community center in the South Bronx. This is an issue of what is the right thing to do," he added.
Muslims: The New 'Other'?
But J. Saleh Williams, an African-Mexican Muslim American congressional aide educated at Stanford and Princeton Universities, says it is about being Muslim.
"Muslim Americans have become in the post-Cold-War the new 'other', the new threat. And there are people that seem to have vested interests to promote that notion. The vast majority of Muslims throughout the world are peace-loving," Williams said a recent interview with ABC News.
Williams is also the communications director of the Congressional Muslims Staffers Association, a group that knows what it's like to be demonized for representing Muslims. The non-partisan group was founded in 2005 by Muslim American staffers who wanted to teach members of Congress more about Muslims, as well as provide support and networking opportunities for Muslims working in government, or interested in working in government. The group was attacked by bloggers such as Pamela Geller, a conservative Republican.
On June 2, 2006, Geller blogged about the group in a post entitled, "ISLAM INFILTRATING CONGRESS AND HALLS OF POWER," writing, "there is a deliberate, carefully thought out, systematic program to infiltrate our Congress with the enemy." And in March 2009, controversy erupted over Williams submitting resumes of Muslim Americans to the White House.
Gellar was also one of the earliest and most vocal critics of the Park51 development. A Salon.com article traces the beginnings the Park51 controversy back to her.
Are Americans Prejudiced Against Muslims?
The most recent polling on U.S. attitudes towards Islam, conducted by Gallup in late 2009, showed that of all the faiths Americans were asked about, Islam as a faith elicited the most negative views, with 53% of Americans saying their opinion of the faith is either "not too favorable" (22%) or "not favorable at all" (31%).
Forty-three percent of Americans admitted to feeling at least "a little" prejudice toward Muslims, with 9% feeling "a great deal" of prejudice. Only 3% reported having "a great deal of knowledge" about Islam.
Williams said one of the most misconceived notions about Muslims in the U.S. is that they are Arab, when really they consist of a broad swath of first, African-Americans, second, South Asians, and third, Arabs.
"Here in the United States it is assumed that someone that is Muslim is also inherently two things: not American -- whatever that means, there's no racial identity, you know, we're a society of immigrants; and that Muslims are Arab.
"President Obama always says 'Muslim and Arab Americans'. If you want to make an impact, you should say Muslim and African American or South Asian Americans because those are really the key communities," he said. According to the official U.S. government website, America.gov, two-thirds of all Arab-Americans are Christian.
However, Williams admits there could have been more outreach from some Muslim communities.
"It wasn't until 9/11 when you had some of these very immigrant-based, marginalized, or to-the-side Muslim communities – I mean, if you went to their Islamic centers, you could see that they were trying to make it feel like they were back in Karachi. Or back in Cairo. You know, they're still speaking Arabic, a lot of these were alienated, but out in Southern California, we didn't have that. We have a vision of being American Muslims."
America.gov also states, "The size of the Muslim-American population has proved difficult to measure because the U.S. Census does not track religious affiliation. Estimates vary widely from 2 million to 7 million. What is clear, however, is that the Muslim-American population has been growing rapidly as a result of immigration, a high birth rate, and conversions."
Williams supports the idea of Park51, but is not actively engaged in advocating it. He, like other Muslim Americans working in the U.S. government, are going about their full-time jobs, in Congress, at the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon, where there is also a space for Islamic prayer.
Muslim Americans who speak critical languages, such as Farsi and Arabic, often work in the U.S. national security apparatus. Yet, as with those who work for members of Congress, they prefer not to associate their religion with their government affiliation.
But it does not mean they do not have strong personal views of the planned mosque.
"Mosques, no matter where they are built, are houses of worship for Americans who happen to be Muslim, of whom a good number works on national security issues," a Muslim American State Department official told ABC News.
"To say this center would be a monument to terrorism is ironic and offensive to say the least," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity and from personal opinion, not on behalf of the State Department.
Could the Mosque Help Fight Radicalization?
Williams says the debate is fracturing Americans.
"A lot of the people don't understand what they're doing is sending the wrong message of what it is to be American. Who has the right to grieve and who doesn't. Who has the right to define sacred space," said Williams. "That's what the terrorists want, to cause rifts and cause marginalization…they're creating that situation and people are falling into it."
A recent spate of discovered homegrown plots by young Islamic terrorists have put Americans on edge, such as the actual attack by Fort Hood shooter and army psychologist Nidal Hassan, the failed Christmas Day "underwear bomber" Abdul Farouq Abdulmutallab, the failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested in 2009 for planning attacks on the New York City metro system.
Williams thinks the best way to counteract this radicalization is with leadership from moderate Muslims such as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. He muses over the idea that the imam is the type of moderate Muslim whose programs the U.S. would be funding overseas. Indeed, the U.S. is funding a trip by the Imam in the Middle East, to reach out to Muslim communities and discourage extremist interpretations of Islam.
"If this was being developed anywhere else outside the United States in a Muslim majority country, our country would most likely be funding it. Because that's the type of Muslims we want to promote to counter extremist groups," Williams said. Rauf is one of the signatories of an open letter from Muslim leaders to Christian leaders dated October 2007, calling for interfaith understanding.
Still, two recent surveys, one conducted by CNN and another by Gallup, show that a majority of New Yorkers are opposed to building a mosque near Ground Zero, and that 37% of Americans disapproved of President Obama's statements supporting the developers' right to build a mosque at the proposed location.
But El-Gamal remains optimistic over the project, despite heated protests in New York over the weekend where opponents reportedly outnumbered supporters.
"We believe that as more New Yorkers and Americans get to know who we are, what we stand for -- freedom of religion, tolerance of difference, celebration of diversity, a commitment to the environment and a passion for service -- then those numbers will change," said El-Gamal.