In 2010, a Muslim developer initiated a bitter controversy when he sought to build a Muslim community center and mosque on the site of one of the buildings that had been struck by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Those plans divided New Yorkers and people of faith as those who rightly asserted that this was, at best, an insensitive gesture were assailed as bigots who were part of a post 9/11 backlash against Muslims. As it turned out the entire dustup was all for nothing since the developer, Sharif El-Gamal, was all hot air and construction of the planned $100 million center and mosque at 45-51 Park Place never materialized. But though the money to build the center was a figment of El-Gamal’s imagination, he’s not finished trying to have a say about the Ground Zero area. As the New York Times reported today, he’s back with another, albeit more modest plan to build a Muslim institution at the site:
Sharif El-Gamal, the developer, said through a spokesman that instead of a $100 million, 15-story community center and prayer space, he now planned a smaller, three-story museum “dedicated to exploring the faith of Islam and its arts and culture.” The building would also include a sanctuary for prayer services and community programs.
To make the plan more attractive to neighbors, he said in a statement, he had commissioned a French architect, Jean Nouvel, winner of the 2008 Prizker Prize, to design the building at 45-51 Park Place, about two blocks from the former World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, and had included plans for a public green space.
It is entirely possible that El-Gamal is once again blowing smoke about this scheme since he may not have the funds needed to build this building anymore than he did of the previous plan. No timetable for construction exists and El-Gamal has yet to take down the existing building that was damaged by the debris from the Trade Center attack. But though the Times, which was a major editorial supporter of the center/mosque plan, takes it as a given that there will be less opposition to this plan, it is just as deserving of criticism.
Let’s specify that, as with the earlier project, there is nothing wrong with building another mosque in Manhattan or in the creation of a museum devoted to Islam. New York City has countless houses of worship and nearly as many institutions devoted to the arts and history and one more would probably be welcome. But the same objections that greeted the Ground Zero mosque plan apply here.
Why, we must ask, is it necessary to build such a museum in the shadow of the footprint of the 9/11 attacks? Is there no other place in New York with a vacant lot to be procured for this project?
The obvious answer to these questions is that the purpose of both projects was to alter the why Americans thought about 9/11. The goal is to shift it from being seen as a murderous attack on America motivated by variant of Islam to one that sought to disassociate the religion from this act of mass murder. In its place would be a different and false narrative that depicted American Muslims as the primary victims of the event because they were subjected to a post 9/11 backlash against Muslims.
As I wrote in the fall of 2010 when the mosque plan was first debated, the notion of a post-9/11 backlash is a myth. No credible study or set of statistics has ever been produced to back up this idea, which was been promoted by extremist Muslim groups and recycled by a credulous mainstream media. Far from victimizing American Muslims, both the U.S. government and the institutions of popular culture have gone out of their way to avoid not only falsely blaming innocent Muslims for 9/11 but have backed up the notion that Islam should not be tied to al-Qaeda. American Muslims were left in peace and spared, as they should have been, from any repercussions from this crime.
While the original mosque was put forward as a monument to tolerance, it was not clear for whom tolerance was being sought. The interfaith group supporting the plan seemed to be telling us that the real point of remembering 9/11 wasn’t so much to memorialize the victims of this act of Islamist terror but to stand as a warning to Americans not to think ill of any Muslims, including the substantial group that cheered the attack abroad.
We heard an echo of that sentiment last week when the group of interfaith clergy that supported the mosque rose up in protest against the soon-to-be opened National September 11 Memorial and Museum because of a film to be shown there about the rise of al-Qaeda that mentioned Islamists and the role of jihad in the attacks. No doubt those same clergy will be heard again praising the new plans for planting a Muslim institution in the Ground Zero neighborhood.
But there should be no mistake about what this is all about. Those seeking to impose a Muslim institution in this specific area are not interested in memorializing 9/11 or even providing New York with one more museum or mosque. They seek to alter the narrative of an unambiguous meaning of an unambiguous event. They wish to paint the United States and the American people as the perpetrators of a great wrong and to cast Muslims as the true victims.
No one should deny the right of Muslims to build a mosque or a museum but the campaign to impose one in the Ground Zero neighborhood is as insensitive as it is motivated by motives that have little to do with the needs of the community or genuine tolerance. Honoring the memory of the victims or business activity that shows that al-Qaeda failed to beat America is the only proper purpose of building in this area. The new plan is just as much of an insult to the families of the 9/11 victims, the people of New York, and the United States as the previous effort.