New York

Why the Ground Zero Mosque Is Worth Saving

The developer is walking away from an idea that became a hater’s dream. If a mosque doesn’t return, it’s a loss for everyone who loves America.

Spencer Platt/Getty

As if out of a Muslim hater’s dream, New York City Buildings Department demolition permits No. 121955946 and No. 121955134 authorize the holder to reduce the so-called ground zero mosque to rubble.

But the person authorized to perform the demolition is not Sarah Palin or some other purveyor of junk jingoism.

The destroyer of the mosque will be Sharif El-Gamel, the same real-estate developer who created such a furor when he established it as part of a proposed Islamic cultural center four years ago. Haters back then called it “mosque madness” and “Islamic domination and expansionism.” Former Mayor Giuliani denounced it as a “desecration.” Palin tweeted, “peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.”

El-Gamel had remained steadfast, insisting that he had been inspired by the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side and only hoped to bring different faiths together. He even seemed on his way to prevailing as the uproar died down and outrage sputtered into grudging acceptance.

He is still a developer. And to be one he needs money. He now seems to be abandoning that dream because of a lack of financial support from the Muslim community.

“He couldn’t raise the funds,” says a consultant who worked closely with him in the past.

Last April, a team of surveyors discovered a wing flap control from one of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, in a narrow space behind the mosque. The surprising find takes on an added twist now that it appears the surveyors were part of the process by which El-Gamel was exercising an option under his lease to purchase the property from its owner, Con Ed.

The sale has hit some snags, but the lease also gives El-Gamel the right to demolish the building. He seems to be in such a rush to do the job that he has filed for the permits before he actually becomes the new owner.

At the same time, he has announced plans to demolish a three-story building at the edge of Times Square that happens to house a synagogue.

But under the terms of its long-term lease, the Garment Center Congregation is guaranteed an interim location following the demolition and a new home once the 23-story building slated to rise in its place is completed.

A spokesman for El-Gamel and his Soho Properties declined to say whether there are similar plans to incorporate a new mosque in whatever building is planned for the site on Park Place two blocks uptown from where the Twin Towers once stood.

The Muslim faithful who presently worship at the mosque seem to have some cause for hope in a report that El-Gamel’s representatives were seen inspecting a vacant space above a bar and grill on Trinity Place on the other side of ground zero.

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El-Gamel is saying nothing other than to promise he will announce his plans in the near future. The former consultant, who asks not to be named, says that the developer will most likely construct a high-rise residential building that will not include a new mosque and cultural center.

The present mosque, which calls itself the Park51 prayer space and community center, draws hundreds of worshippers each week with nary a grumble from those who once so angrily protested its presence so close to where Islamic extremists murdered so many innocents. People coming and going from the September 11 memorial can pass the mosque’s uncurtained plate glass windows and see Muslims gathered in peaceful prayer amidst an atmosphere of tacit tolerance.

A test of this tolerance came with last year’s discovery of part of the hijacked plane behind the mosque. Teams of crime investigators came and went, photographing, measuring, recording the Boeing serial number that was visibly stamped in the metal.

But the furor of 2010 was not revived. The part was vouchered as evidence and taken away. The worshippers continued going to the mosque, their very presence signaling a defeat for the murderers who hijacked those planes.

The murderers’ hope was to terrorize us into becoming less than who we really are. And for a time they succeeded. A reminder of that will come when part of the CIA report on torture is finally declassified.

But we have since begun to recover ourselves. One proof of that is in the Muslims who now come and go from the ground zero mosque without receiving so much as a glare.

If the mosque is indeed demolished and not reestablished in the building that rises in its place, we should consider it a defeat for all America lovers.

Surprisingly—until you think about it, and then not surprisingly at all—those who passionately love America include the custodian of the ground zero mosque, who prefers to go by the single name Kamal.

In a place now slated for the wrecking ball, Kamal watches freedom and tolerance give daily lie to the extremists who try to say we are at war with Islam.

Whatever happens next with the ground zero mosque, Kamal will have seen the U.S. return to being us.

“The greatest country in the world,” he said this week.