There’s nowhere for an infidel to hide in Park51, the site two blocks from Ground Zero where developer Sharif El-Gamal plans to build his infamous “mega-mosque.” Last year it was one of those issues the media—and people who think Islam is a synonym for “terrorism”—couldn’t stop yakking about. Then, earlier this year, the entire world was roiled by protest, and everyone seemed to forget about the controversy surrounding the “prayer space.” In November, I decided to visit Park51; specifically a cavernous room that will serve as a humble prayer space until Gamal’s $100 million, 15-story Muslim community center is fully realized (Gamal refused comment for this piece). There are only eight people inside, yet I still stick out like a piece of bacon. My face is incapable of growing anything past peach fuzz, and given the outrage directed toward the project, its members are wary of curious strangers. I sit Indian-style, facing toward Mecca, while Park51 member Mohamed Nabeel lectures on how to stay out of the hellfire. Nabeel looks like Bernard the Elf from The Santa Clause and preaches about the Prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him—in a Jew-y, Larry David cadence. Unsurprisingly, Park51 isn’t the Al-Qaeda “victory mosque” it’s been cracked up to be. Its ceilings are low, its carpet duct-taped together.
It’s a far cry from Gamal’s vision, originally dubbed the Cordoba House, which includes a pool, culinary school, and bookstore. It also makes me think its detractors are largely full of shit, with fringe group Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) perhaps the worst offender. Less than a month after the Lower Manhattan Community Board 1 approved the community center, it was primarily SOIA and opportunistic politicians who turned the “Ground Zero Mosque” into a prime-time-television target for half-witted talking heads. SIOA cofounder Pamela Geller explained her position to me via email: “This would be a triumphal mosque, like the Dome of the Rock and others that mark jihad victories.” Park51, she fretted, is engaged in nonviolent “stealth jihad,” helping Muslims gain “special treatment” from government and spread Islamic law in the US. Sitting in a circle with these Muslims, as they nibble on soft chocolate-chip cookies and try not to glance at their blinking BlackBerrys, makes me fairly certain that Geller is a hyperbolic clown. These people—some black, some Arab, and one Asian—aren’t trying to push Islam on anyone; they’re trying to maintain their religious identity while being immersed in American culture. That Geller’s delusions found an audience suggests that Islamophobia still haunts this country, ten years and two wars after the Twin Towers were destroyed. By the end of the summer, a CNN opinion poll found that 70 percent of Americans opposed the mosque. On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the issue reached its tipping point when thousands of protesters, both supporting and opposing the mosque, converged on Lower Manhattan, but the issue fell to the political periphery after the 2010 midterm elections. Fast-forward to this year’s tenth anniversary of 9/11: The “Ground Zero Mosque” was barely mentioned. But Hajer Naili, a Tunisian reporter who prays at Park51, thinks the calm won’t last for long. “Unfortunately, there are many ignorant people who have wrong ideas about Islam. People have been quiet about Park51 lately. But it’s not over. The time is going to come again when we will have to discuss what this Islamic center is going to look like. Then we will have more issues to deal with.”
Photo by Noah Rabinowitz.