With a debate raging from coast to coast over whether an Islamic community center and mosque should be built near the World Trade Center site, NY1’s Political reporter Grace Rauh sat down for an exclusive interview with the developer on Tuesday to talk about the future of the project.
Sharif El-Gamal is the developer behind the plan to erect an Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from the World Trade Center site.
Calls are mounting for him and the other backers to find a new home for their center, further away from the site of the September 11th terrorist attacks, but El-Gamal isn't budging.
He is sticking with his plans to erect Park51, a 13-story center and prayer space in Lower Manhattan. He likens the project to a YMCA or Jewish Community Center, with programs open to all residents of all faiths.
"A landmark, an iconic building that will have people come and visit it from around the world,” said El-Gamal as to what he imagines. “This looks like it is going to be the most famous community center in the world."
Some might argue that the center would be the most famous mosque in the world, but El-Gamal emphasized throughout the interview that he is building a community center, that is expected to house a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a restaurant and an auditorium.
The developer takes issue with the fact that so much has been made of the location of the project, saying it is "nowhere near the World Trade Center site."
"Park51 is a community center. It is two blocks north of the World Trade Center site,” said El-Gamal. “In New York City, two blocks is a great distance. There are some buildings in New York that have their own zip codes. There is such a scarcity of space in New York, especially in Lower Manhattan. Keep in mind this is a small island, so we are nowhere near the World Trade Center site."
I asked El-Gamal if he's been surprised by the backlash against the project and the national attention it's garnered. He chose his words carefully.
"I am surprised at the way that politics is being played in 2010. There are issues that are affecting our country, which are real issues: unemployment, poverty, the economy,” he said. “And it's a really sad day for America when our politicians choose to look at a constitutional right and use that as basis for their elections."
El-Gamal views the fight over the center currently raging on television and in newspapers in sweeping, historic terms.
"This is a defining moment for you and I and the First Amendment, and I see us passing this test as Americans," he said.
Of course, the project got a boost from the White House last weekend when President Barack Obama spoke strongly in support of the developer's right to build the center. El-Gamal says he heard the president's remarks while he was on his way to East Hampton. He says he was blown away.
There was also word on Tuesday that Governor David Paterson is planning to meet with mosque developers to discuss moving the project. El-Gamal says that while there is no such meeting scheduled yet, he is open to talking to the governor.
He insists, however, that he is not open to moving the center.
"This is not a debate. This is not a debate. This is us as Muslim Americans giving back to our community," said El-Gamal.