RELIGION

As 9/11 Anniversary Approaches, 'Ground Zero Mosque' Developer Hopes No Return Of Media Circus

07/25/2011 05:26 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2011

As political firestorms go, few have consumed more oxygen than last summer's "ground zero mosque" controversy in lower Manhattan.

Though it was neither at Ground Zero nor a stand-alone mosque, the Park51 project was cast as an insult to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by extremist bloggers whose venomous tone was taken up in the pages of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post and on Fox News.

Conservative politicians glommed on in an attempt to find a turning point issue in a lopsided New York governor's race.

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, one of the lone voices in defense of the project, issued an impassioned defense.

By mid-August, when President Barack Obama weighed in with carefully-worded support for religious liberty, the furor over what organizers described as a Muslim YMCA was sucking up the air time on cable TV and radio.

And then it was over, disappearing from the media's radar.

"This was one of those highly symbolic issues that taps into deep emotions. Such issues tend to be relatively short-lived, flaring up and then fading away," said John Green, a University of Akron expert on religion and politics. But, he added, "whatever one may think of the substance of the issue, the underlying attitudes are very real to a large number of people."

And still are. Last week's slaughter in Norway, allegedly by a man influenced by Pamela Geller and other American anti-Muslim bloggers who first assigned ulterior motives to the Park51 project, demonstrates in the extreme how deep-seated some suspicions remain. Geller, who writes the Atlas Shrugs blog, has pushed back strongly against linking her writings to Anders Behring Breivik's actions, saying the charge is "outrageous."

Even before the tragedy in Norway, though, the Park51 developer and his public relations handlers were wary of publicity as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches.

As new towers rise where the World Trade Center once stood, two blocks away little has changed at the 19th century cast-iron, former Burlington Coat Factory building slated as the future home of a gleaming, 13-story Islamic community center. Only police barricades and an NYPD squad car idling out front hint at why the non-descript building might need extra security.

In an effort to get an update on the project, The Huffington Post arranged to interview developer Sharif el-Gamal at 51 Park Place, the planned location for Park51. A day before the interview, though, his spokesman canceled. Sam Goldsmith cited scheduling conflicts and suggested unease about generating publicity in the weeks leading up to the 9/11 anniversary. When informed that HuffPost still intended to write about the project, the press adviser made Gamal available by phone.

What followed was an occasionally testy exchange that underscored the unease that still surrounds the project. Goldsmith repeatedly interrupted his client to correct him or take his words in a different direction, hoping to ensure a smoother public image for the center than in the past.

"Park51 is an Islamic community center modeled after the (Jewish Community Center) or YMCA," Gamal said. "It is open to all people but it is not an interfaith project."

"Hold on, Sharif," Goldsmith interjected. "You're wrong to say that. It is an interfaith project."

"That's what I said," the developer insisted. "It's an Islamic community center open to all people, serving all New York and based on pluralism and diversity."

The confusing exchange appeared to be less about semantics and more about a press adviser's efforts to downplay the Islamic nature of a project that has attracted, rightly or wrongly, fierce religious antagonism. Gamal's attempt to differentiate his project from a broader interfaith center being pushed by Park51's former spiritual leader and one-time public face, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, only underscored the difficulties in presenting a tolerant portrait to a skeptical public.

GOING SEPARATE WAYS

Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, who heads the American Society for Muslim Advancement, are no longer affiliated with Park51. The couple was widely credited with initiating the project with Rauf as its public face. Tensions with Gamal -- he says he "invited" Rauf to join the project and not the other way around -- prompted the imam's departure. Last month, Rauf completed a national speaking tour to promote a separate, less Muslim-centric center that would include all religions.

"We are not so committed to the location as we are committed to the vision" of a larger interfaith center with a focus on conflict resolution, Khan said in an interview with HuffPost. "Our dream is very much alive," she said, although there is no funding and the couple won't be ready to announce the next phase of their plans for at least six months.

"One thing we learned from our experience last year is coming out prematurely and making an announcement and not having all players in place set us back, it derailed us," Khan said. "We don't intend to make that same mistake again."

When Rauf, who declined to talk about anything other than Ramadan, and Khan parted ways with Park51, Gamal brought on a new imam, Abdallah Adhami. He left after just three weeks when it was learned he had called being gay "a painful trial" and attributed same-sex attraction to emotional and sexual abuse.

The center currently opens its doors, occasionally, to several imams at the Park Place building, which has hosted Muslim religious services since before last summer's controversy. "This is not a project of imams," Gamal said in explaining why there is no longer one full-time spiritual leader.

Park51 has a staff of five full-time employees, one consultant and nearly a dozen volunteers, interns and other supporters, Goldsmith said. In addition to prayer services, it hosts classes and other events, including an exhibit planned for late September that will feature photos of New York children from 171 countries and highlight the city's diverse immigrant community.

In the meantime, Gamal has waited nine months for word from the IRS on whether it will designate his organization as a tax-exempt 501(c)3 nonprofit. He said his lawyers expect approval by the end of the year. Without the designation, Park51 will be hard-pressed to raise anywhere near the $100 million it needs for the project.

"We're building our capacity every day," Gamal said. "We are in the very early stages but we've had a beautiful reception from our community."

Gamal refused to say how much money has been raised, but indicated it was less than one percent.

"We're getting close to our goals at this point," he said. "By the end of the year, God willing, we will be in the seven figures." Gamal said he hopes to raise $10 million to $15 million in private funds over the next five to seven years, with the rest financed through bonds or loans.

GIRDING FOR SEPT. 11

While Gamal purposely kept a low profile after last summer's furor died, shunning the spotlight will be more difficult as the symbolically fraught anniversary of 9/11 approaches -- especially amid clear signs that public sentiment has hardly mellowed. A newly released Pew Research Center survey found attitudes little changed from last summer: 69 percent of Americans said they are concerned about Islamic extremism. Many Americans still view Muslims as fanatical and violent. Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain has used Islamophobia to boost his campaign by questioning the loyalty of Muslims and claiming that communities "have a right" to ban mosques in their areas.

Closer to home, the fear mongerers who first ginned up the controversy plan to stage a "9/11 Freedom Rally" protest at the site on Sept. 11.

"Is it still a mosque? Then I am still opposed. Nothing has changed," emailed Geller, in an answer that illustrates just how quickly the attention span of the most prominent players in last summer's psuedo-drama have faded. Among protesters of Park51, Geller was, perhaps, the single-most influential agitator.

Gamal brushed off the critics. "Herman Cain is a nobody" who has made "un-American comments," he said. "Pam Geller is in the same category as the KKK."

While she declined to directly criticize Rupert Murdoch's conservative outlets, Khan relished the irony that the media mogul who once "took us and the entire Muslim community to task," is now embroiled in controversy over phone hacking scandals at his own outlets.

"Precisely one year later, they are tasting a piece of what we had to take for an entire summer," she said. "I hope they will learn from this mistake."

Whether the media will refrain from revisiting the themes of last summer as the 9/11 anniversary draws near remains to be seen. But the hyper-focus over Park51 has clearly faded -- perhaps because the project never was what it was painted to be; perhaps because its backers are now well-versed in modern PR.

"We are living in a time and age where the media has really lost a lot of its integrity with respect to their coverage. ... This project is really the opposite of everything that was represented about it," said Gamal. "This project has nothing to do with 9/11."

CORRECTION: While The Huffington Post reported that Park51 "employs" several imams, no spiritual leaders are paid for the religious services they conduct at its Park Place building.

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