US & Canada

Muslim developer defends NY Ground Zero plan

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Media captionDeveloper Sharif El-Gamal: "We are the school teachers, we are the cab drivers, we are the street vendors we are a part of this society"

Sharif El-Gamal has had a surreal eight months. The 37-year-old property developer behind the Islamic community centre and prayer space near Ground Zero says he never anticipated the row over its location.

Living on the upper west side of Manhattan and visiting the Jewish community centre there gave him the vision for a similar project which would serve the people of lower Manhattan.

Now he has been labelled an Islamic supremacist who wants to build a victory mosque at the site where nearly 3,000 people were killed by al-Qaeda.

The man who thought of himself as a New Yorker has been thrust into the role of ambassador for Muslim Americans in what is a fraught, politicised, and emotionally charged arena.

"I never held myself or my faith accountable for the horrific events of 9/11," says Mr Gamal, standing outside 51 Park Place, the unremarkable-looking building two-and-a-half streets away from from Ground Zero.

"Today I am experiencing identity theft. Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden have stolen my identity as a Muslim.

"I have been trying to understand why there is such ignorance, hatred, bigotry and fear of what we're trying to do. People are associating that we are a part of them, and we have nothing to do with such extremists."

In his smart new office downtown, Mr El-Gamal shows us the latest plans for Park 51. Only about 20% of the building at most will be a Muslim prayer space. The rest will include a swimming pool, classrooms, facilities for the elderly - even a culinary school.

But some of the media reporting of the project has suggested that a mega mosque is about to be built.

"It's not a mosque. It's not mega," he says.

"It's going to have a strong and robust interfaith element, and it's going to serve the community of lower Manhattan."

The prayer space will help Muslims living and working in the financial district to fulfil their obligation to pray five times a day, he argues.

But opposition to the project has been vocal. Pamela Geller is a conservative blogger who led a rally against the Islamic centre on the anniversary of the the 11 September 2001 attacks.

"To build a 15-storey mega-mosque on the hallowed ground of Ground Zero is deeply offensive and deliberately provocative. It's part of the Islamic Supremacist agenda," she says after a busy day doing media interviews on the topic.

"I think it's spitting in my face and telling me it's raining. Look at all the divisiveness. It's an issue of common decency, of human compassion, and they should move it. To build a shrine to the very ideology that inspired the attack is healing? How?"

Mr Gamal claims there has been a campaign of deception involving inaccuracies and falsehoods about the proposed Islamic Centre.

"The narrative is one of deception, and what's been fuelling the fire is misinformation about the project," he says, which is why this week the young developer is doing media interviews for the first time since the row intensified.

But a group of relatives who lost their loved ones on 11 September is also calling for the centre to be moved, saying it is insensitive to have it where it is.

Mr Gamal says he is "very aware of the pain" they went through.

"But at the same time I need to let them know that this is one of the most competitive real estate markets in the world, and it took us four years to acquire this real estate," he says.

"This is about giving back to the community, this is about establishing our identity as Americans."

He insists that the centre will not take money from Hamas, as its critics have alleged, or any other militant group.

"We will not allow anyone to participate who doesn't share the values of Park 51. We plan on being a model for funds coming into a not for profit."

He says the centre should be built in three to five years, and when asked if he has raised the $100m it will cost to build, he says he has received "expressions of interest".

Mr Gamal is set on reclaiming his identity from those like Osama Bin Laden who he feels hijacked it.

He sees the community centre as a way to build trust, through pluralism, dialogue and tolerance.

"We have as Americans a right to be here, and we also have a responsibility to build bridges of reconciliation with the families of those who died on 11 September," he says.

"There is nothing I could say or do that would make their pain go away. But one of the things that is a fact is we are a part of this community. "

Six-hundred people a week already pray on the first floor of 51 Park Place, even before the site has been developed.

The Muslim prayer space by Ground Zero is a fact, even as the debate over its right to exist continues.

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