On September 11, 2001, I was packing my bags and headed out of my parents’ house in the southern New England suburbs of New York City, to go out west and begin college. In the aftermath of the tragic events of the day, it became known to me, I had lost in the ashes and rubble, three acquaintances, all from my hometown: the older brother of the freckled skinny kid I used to babysit for; one female friend’s stepfather; and one friend’s — one year my elder — father. This is in remembrance of all the roughly 3,000 souls lost that day.
September 2011, Mic; November 18, 2011 personal archive ©
Interfaith relations today are an intersection of pluralism and democracy. Last summer, blockbusting headlines told the story of an officially now-resolved dispute between a group of downtown Muslim Manhattanites who sought to build a mosque in the same neighborhood where the World Trade Center disaster occurred, in a building that was damaged by the wreckage when the towers came down; and the opposing voice who felt, after hearing the plans to build the mosque, as if they had been smacked in the face. ‘So soon since 9/11?’ ‘So near to Ground Zero?’ ‘Really?’
Despite the conflict and perceived antagonism, then-New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and then-president of the United States, Barack Obama, decided there was nothing un-New York, uncouth or unconstitutional about the proposition to build what would have eventually taken the form of a 13-story Islamic Cultural Center, and was once a Burlington Coat Factory, standing at 45-47 Park Place, in Lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from City Hall and the site where the two magnificent towers once stood at Liberty and Church Streets.
Currently, the venue formerly known as “The Ground Zero Mosque” sits between local businesses and residences, bearing no form of advertisement, let alone self-aggrandizement. In a speech last year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “We would betray our values—and play into our enemies’ hands—if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.” He continued, “It is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any way consistent with Islam.” And since, after much controversy about the project, Bloomberg said that anyone opposed to Park51 “ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
“It [the mosque] is a symbol of Islam and that can create a friction. This is the reality,” said Jeffrey I. Marks, a lawyer who holds headquarters in the area. Attorney Marks, Esq., recalling the beloved friends he had lost in the towers on 9/11 wore a face of sorrow as he gave his reticent blessing for the project. “They have a right to be there. I see no purpose in moving them. Everyone has a right,” he explained, [to practice their own religion]. “I am a Jewish man,” he added, “and I feel everyone has the right.”
The decision to build the mosque so near to Ground Zero, though, was not a decision stemming from the seed of Islam, however, the message Park51 has striven to express from the very start has been one of diversity, pluralism and common understanding. The project developers stated that Park51 is being modeled after the Manhattan Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side and the 92nd Street Y. Initially, the project was to be called the Cordoba House. A title meant to invoke 8th–11th century Córdoba, Spain, which is widely held by historians and progressive religious thinkers to be a paradigm of peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
“The interfaith component of Park51 is innate to the project and an essential piece of what we aim to do,” said Sharif El-Gamal the CEO of Soho Properties, a Manhattan-based real estate company that bought the property, and has been in the media spotlight since the controversy surrounding Park51 broke in the summer of 2010. In a statement he wrote, “Every JCC in the country is an interfaith center because they serve the local community, not simply the local religious community. Park51 serves the Lower Manhattan community, which includes Muslims, Jews, Christians and more.”
The difference between building a YMCA or JCC in the area in the wake of the most infamous terrorist strike ever, is that no Jewish or Christian parties were affiliated with the offense. Perhaps this is the great taboo providing the hurdle.
Earlier this year, a New York City State Supreme Court justice dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former firefighter against the developers of Park51. Former firefighter, 9/11 survivor, Timothy Brown, tried to legally declare the site a New York City landmark. “Why did they insist on building this mosque on the graveyards of our friends?” he asked, “I’d like it to be an historical landmark to teach America about what happened here…” Brown once said on American cable television. Justice Paul G. Feinman, however, declared that Brown did not have any kind of legal standing over the site of the Park51 project – the Islamic Cultural Center. Adam Leitman Bailey an attorney representing the initiative responded, “Imagine, instead of building a community center with a mosque in it, they were building a grocery store. Do you think Timothy Brown would be in this case?” he said, “We only have a case today because they don’t want Muslim people building a few blocks away from Ground Zero.”
Another opponent of the Park51 project is Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, ex-host of the erstwhile show, The O’Reilly Factor, (from which he was fired for sexual harassment and caused the network to lose a massive sum in civil damages), and author of the prolific historical-biographical book series, “Killing”. On July 22nd, O’Reilly interviewed Adam Leitman Bailey who stressed the justification to build the mosque and Islamic cultural center as well as the will and readiness to commence the project. “It’s time to build,” Bailey told O’Reilly. “Now that we’ve won the case, [against Brown] we have to demolish the existing building and then construction will begin – we have enough money to demolish the building but not enough to build the new one. Most importantly, we now have freedom of religion thanks to the court decision.” However, the Fox News talk-show host insisted that, “…I predicted the mosque will never be built. I don’t believe there is a construction crew in New York or New Jersey that will come and help you build it, no one is going to pick up a hammer. I may be wrong, but I flat-out predict that you’re not going to get this thing built. And if your clients were really sensitive to the suffering of the 9/11 families, they would move it three blocks away.” (Not to get ahead of myself and this story, but O’Reilly’s bet ended up closer to the green than anyone else interviewed or quoted for this feature article).
A few doors down the street from Park51, is an “arts and culture” synagogue. Delores Wine, a middle-aged lady who sits on the synagogue’s board and works as ‘events coordinator’ contended, “I think it is too close to the World Trade Center [site]. I also think it is too soon. I do not know when the right time would be.” She spoke relaxed and contemplative sitting in a downstairs room of the shul. “Emotions are still running incredibly high, people are hurt. I can go to the cemetery and put a stone on my mother’s grave, but the families of 9/11 victims cannot. Their loved ones are…ashes.” Therefore, she concluded, she would like to see the project halted.
The program, however, as promised by Adam Leitman Bailey and others, continues to move forward; or it did for a couple of years. Sam Goldsmith, a public relations (PR) representative of Park51 sought to put an end to rumors that the project was experiencing financial woes. He insisted that money is not an issue impeding the Islamic Cultural Center’s progress. But an NYPD officer who sits at Park51, guarding the entrance to what is now a makeshift prayer space, said she heard otherwise, that Park51 was just crawling along, fighting for its fiscal survival.
If the problem is indeed securing private funding, it could be a symptom of a universal illness in interfaith relations. New York City, the most colorful and diversified urban sprawl in the world is a microcosmic coin of interfaith relations between Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, representing both success in relations and animosity. On the one side, perhaps, a temporary separation barrier between various religions and factions could be necessary: zip-code districting, private schools, et al., while on the other side, people of all religions realize the ever-growing fissure, and with the 9/11 generation growing up, perhaps it is indeed time to get together.
Sharif El-Gamal became involved when in July 2009, Soho Properties bought the property at 45-47 Park Place for $4.85 million. Among the top investors was Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder and executive director of the tax-exempt foundation, the Cordoba Initiative. He is the spiritual leader for the project, however, El-Gamal has largely taken over his role as project spokesperson.
“Another way to describe the interfaith component of Park51 is to call it the inclusive component. We welcome people of all faiths with open arms. I have said many times before that one of our goals is to reclaim the Muslim identity that was stolen by the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks,” explained Sharif El-Gamal. “Part of that process is including other faiths in Muslim life so they can see our faith is–like other faiths–about peace and justice.”
Update on Park51: ‘The Ground Zero Mosque’; March 4 – May 6, 2021
The souls behind Park51 put up a good fight, but in around 2014, the dream eventually folded. The plans to build a 13-story Islamic Cultural Center at 45-47 Park Place, turned into plans to build a three-story Islamic Culture museum, which was then scrapped, as well, in favor of capitalizing on the opportunities presented by way of luxury real estate. On May 12, 2017, the New York Times put out a headline: ‘Condo Tower to Rise Where Muslim Community Center Was Proposed‘. And that is what fate became of the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center, also known as the Córdoba House, and housing the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’.
The city and, in fact, the entire country was more focused on other ways to utilize the space and practice resilience, sentimentality and capitalism. All 1,776 ft. of Freedom Tower, at One World Trade Center, were completed and unveiled on November 3, 2014. The first clients for the office space in the gargantuan building was the magazine publisher, Condé Nast (Vogue, The New Yorker, GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired, Architectural Digest, et cetera).