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The man behind the Manhattan mosque

Businessman Sharif El-Gamal has been undeterred by the furor over his planned Islamic center near the former World Trade Center site.

April 05, 2011|By Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times
  • Sharif El-Gamal, center, wants to build an Islamic center in Manhattan to push back against the image of Muslims as extremists.
Sharif El-Gamal, center, wants to build an Islamic center in Manhattan… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — When protesters flooded Lower Manhattan last Sept. 11 to vent about a planned Islamic cultural and prayer center, few knew the obscure New York businessman behind the project. Squadrons of police had to be deployed to control the angry crowds wielding bullhorns and placards, yet nobody cried out the name of Sharif El-Gamal.

The furor over what opponents call the "ground zero mosque" has receded for now, and plans for the $100-million project continue to move forward. The driving force remains the relentless El-Gamal, a Brooklyn-born college dropout who makes up in tenacity what he lacks in polish.

With light blue eyes and reddish, curly hair, snazzy suits and upwardly mobile ambitions, El-Gamal comes across like a typical New York mashup of cultures and religions. His first real estate partner was a Hasidic Jew, and even now when he's searching for a perfect expression, he's as likely to use Yiddish as Arabic.

On a recent Friday afternoon, El-Gamal, 38, paced around his sunny Manhattan office describing like an excited teenager how he got into wheeling and dealing property.

Suddenly a voice crackled from his computer.

It was a muezzin's call, programmed to remind him to pray five times a day. But instead of dropping to his knees in front of his desk, as he usually does, he headed for his buildings at 45-51 Park Place, now the most controversial prayer space in America.

By the time El-Gamal arrived, hundreds of Muslim men and a handful of women were already shoeless and murmuring prayers on the first floor of the crumbling buildings. After a brief service, almost every congregant offered a swab of saliva: The community is seeking a bone-marrow match for a Pakistani "brother" who has cancer.

"Pretty dangerous stuff," El-Gamal said dryly, before swabbing his own cheek and slipping into a subway train to return to his office.

Every Friday for almost two years, the site has served Muslims who work in nearby government offices, as well as the occasional hot dog vendor or construction worker who drifts over from the former World Trade Center site 2 1/2 blocks away. This went virtually unnoticed even after a story about the planned center, called Park51, appeared on the front page of the New York Times in December 2009.

But last May, after a car bombing attempt in Times Square by a Muslim American, opposition to Park51 began to mushroom, fueled by critics on the Internet and cable news, victims' relatives and conservative politicians. They denounced it as an insult to the memory of the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001, in the name of Islam.

Polls showed that most New Yorkers didn't want a mosque nearby even as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg defended Muslims' right to pray where they choose, saying, "There is no neighborhood in this city off-limits to God's love and mercy."

Although most of the opposition focused on the project's spiritual leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, El-Gamal also gained attention, including a profile on "60 Minutes."

Some labeled him slimy, greedy, arrogant and dishonest.

Pamela Geller, a conservative activist who led opposition through her blog, Atlas Shrugs, said El-Gamal was a "front man" for the money behind the project and for "Islamic supremacists" who believe in the tradition of erecting a mosque near the site of a war victory.

"It's been sold as a mosque of healing when it has the opposite effect," Geller said recently.

Timothy Brown, a firefighter who lost 93 friends on Sept. 11 and is suing to block the project, called El-Gamal a "bad apple."

"For him to keep shoving this down the families' throats, what does it show you about this man?" Brown said.

But El-Gamal has kept going.

He applied for nonprofit status for the project, and sought a $5-million grant from a public agency created to heal the area. He is recruiting Muslim and non-Muslim members for separate boards for the prayer space and community center, and has begun negotiating with banks for financing.

"My brother has always been an aggressive person but always a good person," said Sammy El-Gamal, who recalled how Sharif would win his allowance money during childhood backgammon games, but usually gave it back. "He's just persistent. When he wants something, when he believes in something, he doesn't give up."

When Abdul Rauf signaled in January that he would accept relocating the center farther from the site, El-Gamal nudged him aside.

Even before they parted ways, Abdul Rauf had left most of the responsibilities for the project to El-Gamal while he concentrated on a broader interfaith message. "Sharif did the design concept, the floor plan," Abdul Rauf said. "He pushed it ahead."

Back at his office, El-Gamal's face reddened as he recounted efforts to get him to retreat. At the height of the controversy even Donald Trump chimed in, offering to pay him a bonus to move.

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