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08.29.10

Rift Imperils Ground Zero Mosque

New revelations about the owner of the  mosque building near ground zero could mean a split between him and the project's influential imam, making it unlikely to ever get built.

Sharif El-Gamal, 37, the owner of the building at the center of the storm over the construction of a "ground zero mosque," is a quintessential American story, a man who went from waiting tables in New York's A-list restaurants to buying and selling properties.

But new revelations are emerging that present a very different narrative. And it could lead to a split between the forces behind the mosque.

Court records from Florida to New York state reveal that Sharif and his younger brother, Samir "Sammy" El-Gamal, 35, a partner with him in his company SoHo Properties, both have a history replete with intersections with tax and debt issues, dating back to at least 1994 and continuing into this year. In one case, a NYPD officer arrested Sharif in 1994 for “promoting prostitution.” (He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of disorderly conduct.) In another instance, Sharif told a court he didn't hit a tenant from whom his brother and he were trying to collect back rent. He said to police, the tenant's "face could have run into my hand."

I now don't think the mosque will be built at the location staked out near ground zero.

The New York state licensing services division, which oversees real-estate agents, is investigating Sharif and his company, SoHo Properties. "We have an open investigation based on a complaint," the spokesman, Joel Barkin, said. According to the complaint, according to people familiar with the case, Taylor Lukof, a 20-something partner at Toro Trading LLC, a New York firm, gave Sharif and his brother $6,200 that was supposed to be kept in escrow for an apartment. When the apartment didn't come through, Lukof asked for the money back, the people familiar with the complaint said, and was promised the money, but he hasn't received any money. Jack Billelo, district manager at the licensing services division, is overseeing the investigation. Lukof declined to comment. Sharif has declined to be interviewed.

After tracking Sharif's finances and talking to acquaintances about his rough-and-tumble business style, I now don't think the mosque will be built at the location staked out near ground zero. According to people familiar with the mosque project, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, a community leader, were blindsided by the revelations about Sharif, making a partnership unlikely. Moreover, Sharif’s domineering personality troubles them because it doesn't fit into the slow, methodical, and even boring work of building a nonprofit.

I expect that Rauf and Khan will gracefully bow out of this project near ground zero, lead an interfaith community effort to build an Islamic center elsewhere, and welcome Sharif and his family in the congregation with open arms. To me, that’s the best solution out of this political—and now PR—debacle. I'm also certain that somewhere in there the businessman in Sharif will see a profit.

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Earlier this summer, I left the humble Jersey City home of Rauf and Khan, with my son, Shibli, 7, believing in their vision. But, over the next weeks, I got a funny feeling about the project. Four years ago, I had started an organization with three other Muslim moms, Muslims for Peace. Sharif had asked one of the moms if the new mosque effort could raise money using Muslims for Peace’s nonprofit status. That didn't feel right to me, nor did the insistence on the location near ground zero, amid so much opposition and hurt. I recused myself from the mosque effort. With conspiracy theories circulating, I wrote a story that Muslims for Peace had raised less than $9,000 for the mosque. The Muslims for Peace fundraising effort was later nixed because Sharif felt betrayed by the public disclosure, and I stepped down from the organization (though I’m still a Muslim for peace, lowercase).

The New York Post reported yesterday that Sharif and SoHo Properties are "tax deadbeats," owing $224,270.77 in back property taxes on the site, and that a Sharif company “failed to pay its half-yearly bills in January and July.” (An El-Gamal spokesman told the Post the taxes had been paid.)

On the trail of the El-Gamal brothers is a Sarasota, Florida, private investigator, Bill Warner, whose interest got piqued when he started getting phone calls last month from New Yorkers saying that the whole story about Sharif wasn't out. Warner is posting his findings on his website and sharing it with the media. He provided me with leads that allowed me to see more clearly the trail of troubles that lies in Sharif's wake.

Asra Q. Nomani: The Mosque is the New Balloon Boy

The Money Behind the Mosque
The El-Gamal family's immigrant journey is like that of many other American-Muslim families. The patriarch, Mohamed A. El-Gamal, an Egyptian, arrived in the U.S. during the late 1960s or early 1970s with a first wave of Muslim professionals and graduate students. According to media reports, he married a Catholic woman of Polish descent. Blond and blue-eyed, Sharif was born in Brooklyn two days before Christmas 1973. His younger brother, Samir, was born in the summer of 1974.

The family hop-scotched between the U.S., Liberia, and Egypt, and Sharif graduated from New Hyde Park High School in Nassau County, Long Island.

According to friends, the brothers ran with a fast crowd in their twenties. Sharif waited tables at the posh restaurant Serafina, while Sammy waited tables at Tao. For a short while, Sharif worked as a waiter at Michael Jordan’s, named after former basketball star. But, according to people familiar with that restaurant, he was fired within two months for arriving reeking of alcohol, among other things. This is around when Sharif started acquiring a criminal record, say people familiar with his life.

This past weekend, capturing this period of Sharif's life, the Daily News ran a headline, "Park51 developer Sharif El-Gamal has a history of run-ins with the law," including pleading guilty in 1994, 1998, and 1999 to disorderly conduct in Manhattan, as well as pleading guilty to disorderly conduct in 1990, a DWI in 1992, and attempted petit larceny in 1993 in Nassau County, N.Y.

According to Broward County court records, on March 3, 1999, Hollywood, Florida, police arrested Sammy, then 25, for "theft/to deprive," a misdemeanor. Later that year, Sammy pleaded guilty, and Judge Sharon Zeller fined him $143 and required him to attend a "substance-abuse through education" course. Just two years ago, during the summer of 2008, the court filed "financial obligation suspension" papers for Sammy's failure to pay his fine.

Neither Sammy nor Sharif responded to a request seeking comment.

After the 9/11 attacks, Sharif told New York magazine that "he just felt like praying." Sharif first started attending Manhattan Masjid, known in the community as "the Salafi mosque," for its adherence to a rigid, puritanical interpretation of Islam, espoused, among other things, on its website. Then, he discovered Masjid al-Nur, or "Mosque of Light," where Rauf preaches. It's nicknamed "the Sufi mosque" by congregants.

Career-wise, Sharif was heading into real estate, collecting commissions off rental leases. He was no big shot, and really never has been, building just a small portfolio of property. In late 2003, he created a website, sohoproperties.com. The three partners were Sharif, Sammy, and Nour Mousa, the young nephew of Amr Mousa, secretary general of the Arab League, a relationship that would later become a lightning rod for critics of the mosque.

On September 10, 2005, New York police arrested Sharif for alleged assault on a Manhattan renter, Mark Vassilieve, when Sammy tried to convince Vassilieve to pay his rent. The charges were dropped when Vassilieve filed a civil suit, which Sharif settled.

On January 24, 2006, according to court records, Nino and Nicola Gaudio won a judgment of $3,300 against Sammy, as well as permission to evict him from property they owned. On February 1, 2006, they won another $3,300 judgment, and on April 6, 2006, N&S Realty won a judgment allowing them to have forcible entry against Sammy. The Gaudios couldn't be reached for comment.

Big things were still in the air though. According to electronic records, Sharif created a website, retailsoho.com, in April 2006. (A visit this weekend showed nothing on the site.) That year, Sharif told the Daily News, he hired a teenager, Francisco Patino, to scout for a new mosque location, when he spotted him on a TV at a Sharper Image store, charming TV viewers of the reality show American Inventor. That same year, according to media reports, Sharif bid on the property at 45-47 Park Place.

The next year, on March 13, 2007, New York state issued a state tax warrant against Sammy for $19,895, according to court records. On April 30, 2007, Sharif bought apartment 6C in a building on W. 93rd Street for $1.075 million with his wife, Rebekka, an American-born convert to Islam.

By this time, the El-Gamal brothers knew Imam Rauf well. In December 2008, Rauf officiated Sammy's wedding to Allison Poole, a scarf delicately draped over the bride's golden brown locks. The young couple clasp hands and gaze softly into each other's eyes in a photo taken at the wedding, as Rauf led the ceremony, smiling, with a microphone hooked to his loose tunic.

On July 7, 2009, after buying the property where he wants to build the Islamic center, Sharif created two companies, 45 Park Place Partners LLC and 45 Park Place LH, LLC. The next day, he started Soho Properties General Partner LLC as a foreign limited liability corporation. On October 16, 2009, Sharif created Soho Properties Inc., naming himself chairman.

Since the controversy erupted, the media has largely portrayed the man behind the mosque effort as Imam Rauf, an Egyptian-born progressive Muslim cleric who could be Sean Connery's body-double. His wife, Khan, a Muslim community leader born in Kashmir, India, occasionally shares the spotlight. Known inside the Muslim community as unabashedly ambitious, the couple has irked Sharif and others in his camp. Last week, in a conference call with interfaith partners and others, set up by the Council on Foreign Relations, Khan said, "one of our congregants, Sharif El-Gamal, took it upon himself" to find new space for the overcrowded mosque where Rauf led prayers. Otherwise, there wasn't another word about the Brooklyn-born Sharif. Khan directed folks to the website of the Cordoba Initiative, an interfaith nonprofit her husband runs, not the developer's website for the effort.

Ironically, in one of Sharif's SoHo Properties newsletters, Sharif's company declared to its potential partners: "We look forward to a prosperous partnership!"

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace. asra@asranomani.com