'Ground Zero Mosque' Controversy: Insensitive? Political Football? Or Just Anti-Islamism?

Park51 Developer, Muslims in Government, speak out about "Ground Zero Mosque"

ByABC News
August 10, 2010, 10:25 PM

WASHINGTON, Aug. 24, 2010— -- 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.