Despite the worldwide controversy that erupted last year over Sharif El-Gamal’s plan to develop a mosque and Muslim cultural center near the World Trade Center site, El-Gamal is spearheading a new effort to make the proposal a reality.
Mr. El-Gamal, the chairman and CEO of Soho Properties, a real estate development company, has launched a campaign to raise $7 million to support the mosque project. The deadline for raising the money is September 10, just one day before the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Referring to 9/11 in a speech at a fundraising dinner Friday night at the site of the proposed mosque in lower Manhattan, Mr. El-Gamal said “Two blocks from where we are today, our identities were stolen from us and our faith was defaced. And through this project we have an opportunity to show the world who we are, and what we believe in, and what our practice is, and what our faith is.” (To see a video filmed at the event, click here).
Mr. El-Gamal denied that the September 10 fundraising deadline had any connection to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. He called it a “motivational deadline” for people who want to support the project. Another project supporter suggested that the date, 9/10/11, may have been chosen for its numerological significance.
Plans for the building at 49-51 Park Place include a space to accommodate 2,000 worshipers and an adjacent community center that Mr. El-Gamal said would be like a YMCA. The building, which is owned by Con Edison, is leased to Mr. El-Gamal’s group and already houses a small mosque.
Less than 75 people attended the kick-off dinner, which had been advertised in ethnic newspapers and on foreign-language TV channels aimed at Muslim immigrants. Among those who showed up were a half dozen imams from around the country and representatives of the Nation of Islam, a mainly African-American sect. Some at the event speculated that many supporters of the project were scared to show up because of the negative publicity it received last year.
Noticeably absent were Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, who were the spokespeople for the project when it was originally introduced last year under the name Park 51 and who became lightening rods for criticism by the project’s opponents.
Mr. El-Gamal said Imam Rauf and Ms. Khan are no longer associated with the project, and its name has been changed to PrayerSpace.
Mr. El-Gamal acknowledged the difficulties in getting the project off the ground. “There is no skirting around the issue, the story of this project and what the media has made of it,” he told supporters. He said the mosque proposal is a response to “a specific need” in lower Manhattan’s Muslim community. He said it will be “open to all, promote community relations, trust, goodwill and have a sense of neighborhoodliness.”
Another speaker, Imam Abdul Malik of Panama City, Florida was among the few who directly addressed past opponents of the project, including conservative Republicans and some 9/11 family members who say it’s wrong to build a mosque so close to the site destroyed by Muslim terrorists. “Islam is not responsible for what happened on that day,” he said, “we have to stop apologizing.”
According to an unofficial estimate, the fundraiser netted more than $200,000, including a $100,000 loan from a mosque in Midtown Manhattan. That is on top of $1.5 million organizers said they had raised previously.
Mohsin Zaheer of Feet in Two Worlds and Sade-e-Pakistan contributed reporting to this story.