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By Jon Campbell
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The developer who wants to create a 15-story Islamic cultural center and mosque on Park Place near the World Trade Center site is named Sharif El-Gamal. Put your assumptions aside: He was born right here in Brooklyn.
Last week, he was in the middle of describing himself as "proof of the American dream" and the proud father of two beautiful American daughters, when the heckling from the yahoos kicked in. A few rows behind him, a guy in a porkpie hat and a T-shirt cupped his hands around his mouth and hooted, "You're no American!"
This was on Tuesday at the theater at Hunter College, where the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission had moved its hearing to accommodate the crowds. The question before it was whether to let the mosque's builders demolish a five-story building at 45-47 Park Place with its rusting row of cast-iron pillars. Before this, its chief claim to fame was that Sy Syms once sold suits here to educated consumers and the Burlington Coat Factory plied its trade. Preserving urban landmarks hasn't been high on the roster of concerns in Tea Party land, from where a lot of the protesters were recruited. But many who showed up to denounce a Muslim-sponsored development so near sacred ground tied their cause to municipal art. All were suddenly gung-ho advocates for salvaging this splendid example of 19th-century Italian palazzo mercantile architecture.
As luck would have it, a drenching afternoon cloudburst kept the numbers relatively low. A couple of hundred people turned out, and after they went through police metal detectors, they dispersed through the big auditorium, sitting in small clusters. This may have been to avoid injury in a possible attack. Testifying at a microphone on the aisle, a heavy-set woman pointed to a tiny teenager seated nearby wearing a hijab. "How do I know this young woman isn't going to be strapped with explosives?"
That was about par for the course during the three-hour session. One speaker suggested that this is how Muslims took over London. "It's unsafe for a Westerner to go to London's East End," she said. "The mosques are used to subvert the neighborhood." After she sat down, she was asked if she'd been to London. "No, but I've been doing a great deal of reading about it, mostly on the Internet," she replied.
Another woman said she had been born in Europe and wanted to explain the secret behind the project's name, Cordoba House. Sponsors say the name—since dropped—was chosen to invoke the harmony that existed between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in that Spanish city hundreds of years ago. Not so, said the speaker. "The Muslims conquered Spain; this represents the re-taking of something that was lost to them. It starts with a mosque. This has happened over and over again."
On September 11, landing gear from one of the planes crashed through the roof of the Park Place building. Several speakers said this merited its preservation as a war memorial, "like Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor." That's the least the commission could do, they said, since it had also landmarked the townhouse on West 11th Street after Weatherman bombs destroyed it in 1970. This was crackpot history at its finest: Actually, when the explosion occurred, the entire block was already part of a Greenwich Village landmark zone.
The twisted talking point came courtesy of Pamela Geller, an Upper West Sider who heads something called "Stop the Islamization of America." Geller organized a June 6 rally near Ground Zero to protest the mosque. There, she denounced the planned 9/11 memorial, with its sunken pools, trees, and museum on the trade center's former site, as "a dungeon" that "must be stopped."
Geller, 51, once taped a video in a bikini for overseas troops. Her website, Atlas Shrugs, diligently defends Radovan Karadzic, the former Serb leader on trial at the Hague for the massacre of thousands of Muslims. Her book explaining President Obama's secret Muslim identity and alliances will be out this month.
Such were the guiding lights of the anti-mosque forces. In a selfless demonstration that leftists can be equally intolerant loons, a lone pro-mosque heckler raged at opponents. Gary Phaneuf, an old hand at such disruptions, wore a straw hat and held a sign denouncing Muslim "scapegoating." His Bronx cheers finally resulted in his ouster by police, a remarkable achievement given the ceaseless bile billowing from the other side.
And then there were those whose only baggage was the memory of loved ones lost that cruel day nine years ago. A couple of relatives spoke in favor of the project. Several others were strongly opposed. A temple representing the same faith as the murderers two blocks from the crime scene was a disrespect they shouldn't have to bear, they said. One of these was Sally Regenhard, who lost her son, Christian, a firefighter, on 9/11. Regenhard has long channeled her grief into making sure the mistakes that helped trap hundreds of New Yorkers in the towers after the planes hit don't happen again. Her Skyscraper Safety Campaign helped win a federal investigation of the collapse, and she has pushed for stricter building codes.
"I think they should build their mosque, but not right here," she said before she testified. She cited the bitter battle over a Catholic convent adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp. Pope John Paul II agreed to move it after Jews, mostly Americans, voiced outrage. "I don't remember people accusing them of being anti-Catholic for feeling that way," she said. "And I resent anyone saying I'm anti-Muslim."
This is the kind of situation that calls for leadership, and the response of the two top candidates for governor has been instructive. Republican Rick Lazio has made the mosque a key issue in his wobbling campaign. He showed up at the hearing to denounce the sponsors as anti-Americans using suspect funds. "I will use every means at my disposal to slow this process down so we get every question answered," he said.
On the other hand, the mosque has been Democrat Andrew Cuomo's finest hour so far: "What are we about if not religious freedom?" he asked, his voice rising as reporters first hammered him on the issue. Last week, despite polls showing that most New Yorkers oppose the mosque, Cuomo was sticking to that position. "There's valid sentiment on one side, and valid principle on the other," he said. "In some ways, it's so ironic. The 9/11 site is about freedom and liberty. It would be the ultimate defeat, I believe, to reject it."
Down on Church Street, the plaza alongside Ground Zero where tourists and mourners once gathered is now part of a busy construction site. Visitors are directed to the temporary museum around the corner on Vesey Street, across from the St. Paul's cemetery. The space is filled with trinkets that help pay for the planned memorial—mugs, T-shirts, caps, keychains—along with wrenching exhibits and videos. On Thursday, a man in standard summer tourist gear—shorts and a backpack—burst out the museum's door and stepped between two parked cars. He pulled off his glasses and stood squeezing his eyes, shoulders heaving. A couple of minutes later, John Camilleri, 43, of Toronto, recovered. "I never cry," he said. "It's just so damn awful." He'd heard about the mosque debate. "You know, every Muslim's not a terrorist," he said, "but it seems awfully close. What I really want," he added, before walking away to catch up with his family, "is just to get the one who did this, that Osama."