Sharif El-Gamal: “I Am Going to Do Everything Humanly Possible to Make this Project Happen”
September 27, 2011, 8:25 pm ET
El-Gamal is the chairman and CEO of Soho Properties, a Manhattan-based real estate firm that purchased property in lower Manhattan where he intends to build a mosque and community center. He tells FRONTLINE he embarked on the project — dubbed Park51 — to help his community, but admits he made “a lot of mistakes” throughout the process, including not communicating a clear vision. In this extended interview, he describes how he came to purchase the property, his frustrations with his community, his relationship with Imam Feisal Rauf and why he believes the project should move forward.
What’s it like being Sharif El-Gamal right now?
Right now, very challenging, very challenging. I’m all over the place. I’m not focused.
I have this keen ability to be able to multitask and to be able to switch on and off switches, so I know that I have the internal focus within me, or I’m able to jump into different situations without losing speed or losing a form of momentum.
But right now, you know [how] a shark eats little seals, right? That’s what I’m used to doing well. I’m used to setting myself up for 300 meetings a year, for having a very focused methodology to my real estate business. So I’m not being a shark right now, so it’s a little confusing for me right now.
What had actually happened?
“I made a promise to God and I made a promise to myself that I was going to help this community with whatever skills I have… It’s really, really hard to really put your foot down for something that you believe in. You think maybe you’re five years too early.”
I am working on the most challenging project of my life, and one of the biggest challenges is my community. It’s seeing how dysfunctional and disorganized my community is, and how afraid they are.
But I also had the fear when I started getting into business for myself, so I do in a way understand it.
When you say “fear”?
Well, there’s this fear that you’re different. There’s this fear that you’re different because the public has framed us in a specific light.
And subconsciously what I see has happened to my community is that my community has bought into that stereotype. They’re not proud of who they are. They’re not proud of their identities, and they’re afraid to make a change.
So that’s one of the biggest challenges that I’m dealing with right now, but I’m also seeing that my community is just all over the place.
How does it manifest itself in your day-to-day business?
Well, this is not my daily business. My day-to-day business is real estate, but right now I’m getting involved in community activism. I’m getting involved in understanding and working with my community.
And it’s challenging. What we went through [was] first and foremost for our Creator, standing there and doing it because it was the right thing to do.
Secondly, I did it for my family. My whole motivation behind doing all of this was to build a place where I could instill my values as an American and as a Muslim in my children. I did it for my two little girls. … I want them to have an identity. I want them to be proud of who they are. I want them to be confident. I did it for my wife, and I did it for my brother’s wife. I did it for my partner’s daughter.
I’m doing it for that next generation. That was one of the driving things through this whole process, that I was thinking about the generation that’s coming. They have to be proud and assertive and confident, and a lot of those things right now are lacking within our community, and it’s very frustrating.
At the same time I have to hold myself accountable. I have to hold myself accountable for making a lot of mistakes through this process and not having a clear message of what we’re doing.
So I think we should start there before I start pointing the blame on others. I think it’s very important that I realize the mistakes that we made as a group, as a team. And we made a tremendous amount of mistakes, so I think that’s the starting point.
The starting point is that we didn’t communicate a clear message; we did not communicate a clear vision. … We weren’t prepared for the tsunami that we got hit with. We didn’t anticipate the tsunami that we experienced, and we’ve been reactive. We’ve just been playing extreme defense of trying not to get pushed off of the cliff.
So it’s been a major defensive struggle, and also, we didn’t do the proper outreach to the community first, and that was a mistake.
We did incredible outreach to the community at large, but we didn’t go down to our community and go and do a grassroots outreach, understanding, well, who are the key players here? Who are the activists? Who are the civic leaders? Who are the imams? Who are the guys that are volunteering in community boards? Who are the next round of guys that have been lawyers? We didn’t do all the work. We didn’t do our work.
Again, my fault. I blame myself for it, because we felt that we had the right individuals involved with the project [and] had that covered.
Originally me coming into this project, it was just from a real estate aspect. I never even wanted to be speaking to somebody like you’re on camera today. That’s not what I was looking for. I’ve always been an anonymous person who just was always a behind-the-scenes person, but well known in my industry, the real estate industry. That’s all that I wanted, and there is mistakes made throughout that process.
How did you end up buying Park Place?
That was one of the biggest tests of my life from a real estate perspective. It was one of the most challenging transactions that I had ever been involved with.
And it’s a complex real estate transaction. There were many different layers to it. One of the things that I’ll [preface this] by saying is that the Manhattan real estate market is one of the most competitive in the world. And to play in this market you are truly swimming with sharks. You have the shrewdest businessmen, you have the most sophisticated operators, and it’s a very hard real estate market to penetrate. … In Manhattan you can sell anything. There’s always a buyer that will buy a building in Manhattan, and when you go out and buy a building, I inherently believe that you don’t get to pick the buildings, that the buildings end up picking you because it’s such a competitive marketplace.
This journey started for me personally after Sept. 11. After Sept. 11 there was a change brewing within the individual. I had a very rebellious teenage and early manhood stage of my life, and I was coming to an end of that stage internally of discovering who I am. … When I was born, my first name was Alexander, and I used to go to church. My mother, God rest her soul, was Polish Catholic. Two immigrants meet in New York from opposite sides of the world, you know? Egypt, Muslim; Polish, Catholic — New York. Plop! …
And after 9/11, I always had a seed of my religion and my identity planted very firmly inside of me, but I was just a Muslim by name. I would call myself a Muslim, but what does that really mean?
It’s a religion of actions. It’s a complete way of life, and the more that I learn about it every day, the hungrier that I am to learn more about [it]. It’s an incredible path that is a complete way of life. …
After 9/11, at the time I was living and working in Lower Manhattan, and I lived on Canal Street, Canal and Broadway, and I started going to a mosque on Warren Street. We have our congregation prayers on Friday, which are the equivalent of a Sabbath for Jews on Saturday or a Christian mass or sermon on Sunday. … Sometimes it felt that God was talking to me directly.
… Some incredible scholars would come into that venue, and it was packed. There were several thousand people during [Friday] prayers, and if you got there late, you were praying down [on] the sidewalk or on the stairs. … We were packed like sardines, and it didn’t feel right that, one, that it’s so crowded. And you know, I was in the real estate business, and I almost made an immediate commitment. I made a promise to God and I made a promise to myself that I was going to help this community with whatever skills I have.
… I’ve had an incredibly privileged upbringing, and I’ve seen the world. I thank my father for that, for the sacrifices that he made to show me everything at a young age. And I’ve walked into some incredible mosques.
And here I am in this city in the capital of the world, and my faith is represented in — it’s not representation of my faith. I didn’t feel proud of this mosque.
So I started by getting the courage [to] stand next to the guys asking people to put a dollar into the box. And I would just stand next to the elder guys, and I would yell with them. I’d say, “Guys, put in a dollar,” and I just started by getting involved that way and trying to help out in any way, shape or form.
And at the same time, I felt the brotherhood. You felt this unconditional love, no judgments. You felt a camaraderie, and you saw this is your identity, and that was the thing that you all looked for. We all as human beings are looking for community. We’re pack people. I don’t even know what that’s called, but we need to be together. … I said: “Guys, we need to own a building here.” And then I started realizing that so many others before me had come and had tried to work with this group of elders to help them buy a building.
And they started opening up to me, and I saw for the past 15 years that they had been trying, but they had never put it together. And I saw it as a challenge, and I saw it as an incredible opportunity to get involved, and I just wanted to help. I wanted to help my community.
Then my journey started. I made an intention that any buildings that I would find or that I would find or look at within the Tribeca Lower Manhattan submarket, that this is for my community, that I wouldn’t look at it from a profit perspective. I started finding buildings, and I started presenting them and coming up with strategies — how do we make this work, how do we buy this etc., etc. — and my efforts started building. It helped wake them up a little bit almost in a way.
So I did that for a couple of years, and I got nowhere. Every time that we would get close to something, it just wouldn’t work out. They would be afraid to pull the trigger. They would be afraid to make a decision. And I continued.
I’d get a little discouraged, but then I’d just get right back up, pick up the pieces and start moving again. And then I met my business partner, Nour [Mousa]. So Nour joins my team and jumps right away and becomes part of the project of finding a mosque for our community. …
Kind of a turning point was I found this incredible building on Broadway, 267 Broadway, OK, right across the street from City Hall, just an incredible real estate asset. … You’re looking for a jewel at the end of the day, and it’s not easy, but I found this building on Broadway, and from an unsophisticated seller, facing City Hall, facing the park. I was like, “Wow, how incredible would this be for us to build a mosque right here?”
I found this building, and it was so below market, and I presented it. I started working on it, and I was like: “We have to do this. You guys have to trust me. Even [if] we just hold onto it, we could help double the purse that we have in such a big way, just from an investment perspective.”
And we lost the deal, and I got so frustrated at that point with these guys. I got so frustrated.
Why? Because they wouldn’t pull the trigger?
Wouldn’t pull the trigger, and somebody else jumped in and snatched it up. These things don’t sit around idle. You’re in shark-infested waters in the city, and there’s typical[ly], you know, 10 to 15 guys chasing the same seal, and somebody else snatched it up.
Got incredibly frustrated, and this was in 2005. So fast-forward now. I’ve been exerting all this efforts for about four years consistently, and kind of late 2005 — and now there’s a pivot in my life that happens. I meet this incredible woman, right, who I stopped on the corner of 23rd and 6th that [I] asked out to dinner. Eight months later she’s my wife.
And I remember one day we were walking on 57th Street, and we walked into the Sharper Image store — you know that store that has the comfortable sofas — and played with all these cool gadgets. We walked into the Sharper Image store, and I see this kid selling chairs who’s this young, young kid. … I remember I saw him the week before on this TV show — bearing in mind I never really watch TV — called The Greatest American Inventor!, and I was really blown away by the passion that this kid had. And I watched the show because I wanted to see what this kid was going to do. And there he was right in front of me, and I was like, “Wow, I’ve got to recruit this kid.” … So two weeks later, that kid was working for me. … I bring in this young man, and I get the map of Lower Manhattan, and I mark out a grid, and I tell him, “Your job specifically is to help find a building so that we can build a mosque.” That was his job. … And in early 2006, about a month of him working for me now at this point, he comes running up to me, and he says, “I got one!” … He says, “There’s this building on Park Place between West Broadway and Church.” I go, “Wow, that’s interesting. That’s a good building; that’s a nice floor plan.” I didn’t understand what the specifics [were] or anything.
And he said, “I just got off the phone [with] the owner, and he said that his son is going to be showing the building this afternoon,” and I said to him, “Great, let’s go.” And then I said to the young man that was working for me, “So are you ready to meet a bunch of Muslims?,” I said to him, “because the boys are going to come out because I want them to see this building with us.”
I call the imam, and I tell him: “Let’s come down. I think I’ve found it this time, and I really need everybody to come down. I don’t want to waste any time. We can’t let what happened on Broadway happen. We’ve got to stay focused here.” … I love looking at real estate, so I got really excited right away. I walked into this abandoned building, and my God, I must have walked by it so many times. And that’s the incredible thing about Manhattan is that if you look at things or if you walk down streets or look at buildings, you’ll see things that you haven’t seen before. … The guys all got excited and go: “Sharif, this is a big building. What are we doing here?” I said: “Don’t worry. Forget about the size. Let’s just look at the real estate. Let’s understand what we have here.”
And that’s the other concept that my community doesn’t get, that a big number, a small number, you know, anything is possible. If you put your mind to it and if you have the right intentions and the right planning, anything is possible, especially in this country. … So I remember walking out, looking at Melvin [Pomerantz, whose family owned the property], and I look him square in the eyes, and I say, “Mel, we’re buying these buildings.” He smiled back at me, and he said, “Good luck.” Little did I know what I was in store for at that point. …
[How did Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf become involved?]
One of my mentors and friends one day comes up to me and says, “You know, there’s this mosque on West Broadway and White Street. …. They do the Jumu’ah [Friday] prayers there, and you need to come.” And I was again like, how don’t I know about this place? This is my neighborhood.
And I remember walking in and being blown away by the khutba, by the message [or sermon]. I had never experienced such a spiritual khutba. And it was so articulate, so intelligent. It was like a college professor was speaking to me about my faith.
And I think by the third khutba I just had to go up. And I’m not a shy person. I introduced myself, and I looked at him, and I said, “It’s not fair that 70 people, because this is such a small little place, that [only] 70 people get to listen to this message.”
And I developed a relationship with him at that point. I’m starting to come to this mosque, and I’m hungry for this one at this point. Now bear in mind also at that point, I’m starting to know the other mosques in New York as well. …
And Imam Feisal [Rauf] now started introducing me to another side of Islam. Bear in mind that it’s an incredible side to my religion. And I started now seeing the differences and started seeing the different flavors that existed within my religion, and I started seeing that it’s like an ocean almost in a way — I started seeing all this beauty in my religion and in my faith.
In the past you’ve fallen foul of the law sometimes. Tell me about that period of your life when things were going wrong for you.
I’m a runner, and I was running in the wrong direction. And I was not comfortable in my skin. I was running away from myself.
I had a lot of fun doing it. I got into a little bit of trouble, and it’s nothing that I’m proud of. And it’s nothing that I would run away from, but it is something that has shaped me into the man that I am and has shaped me.
We’re talking about things that happened 20 years ago, so it’s not like it’s been made to be portrayed in this manufactured media, … that it happened yesterday. You know, I’m 38 years old, and 20 years [ago I was] in my teens, and in my early 20s I was a different person. I was a single guy in New York City with freedom, and freedom without bounds can be destructive.
What kind of trouble would you get into?
Nothing salacious or really significant. Stupid stuff — punching somebody. I have a little bit of a temper that I’m learning how to control every single day. Disorderly conduct. Nothing salacious or uncommon for a rebellious young man or a rebellious teenager.
Nothing uncommon, nothing that I’m proud of. I wish I could go back in time and change things, but I’m not a Monday[-morning] quarterback.
I thank God for everything. I thank God for all my experiences, and I believe that every single step of my life has prepared me for what’s next.
So you’ve begun to attend the Tribeca mosque, and you’ve been blown away by the professorial manner [of Imam Rauf]? And you’re now thinking, well, those guys over at Masjid Manhattan, they haven’t taken the opportunity — are you thinking maybe this guy’s the one?
No, no, no, no.
So I started coming up with the concept of how to put this project together and started understanding the real estate opportunity, and I saw an immediate opportunity where we could do this, where even though that this was a larger deal than anything that we have looked at, this is something that we could definitely do.
There’s essentially two buildings that we’ve acquired, and the one building where we are conducting our prayers right now would be a mosque in a smaller community center, and on the rest of it, I would build residential condos. I saw an opportunity and came up with a formula to put that together.
At that point there was no dialogue at all with Imam Feisal, as a matter of fact. Him and his wife [Daisy Khan] would approach me and say, “We would like to get involved in a building,” because they knew that I was in the real estate business.
To be quite frank with you, I didn’t want to waste my time anymore. I had become seasoned. My skin had become a little thicker, and I didn’t want to get involved again with a not-for-profit, realizing the challenges and what have you.
So I continued on, dividing my time equally between the two mosques and going to other mosques as well. At this point, I’m diving into the ocean of my religion, and I’m loving it. I’m loving all the things that I’m learning and the things that I’m experiencing. …
You said you don’t choose buildings; buildings choose you.
This project had nothing to do with Ground Zero. It had nothing to do with 9/11. This project had to do with a community that had been in Lower Manhattan for close to four decades that was bursting at the seams, and ultimately, when I found the building in early 2006, it had nothing to do with the World Trade Center.
The one thing that I always thought [was] that the value of the real estate would be more valuable as the World Trade Center got built.
I’m a believer in this city, and I’m a New Yorker, and I felt that as soon as they’d finished the World Trade Center that Lower Manhattan is going to become the epicenter again. …
Why was [this building] vacant?
It used to be occupied by the Burlington Coat Factory, and also at one point Burlington used to own the building and used to be partners with this family. Then they split up their partnership, and the Pomerantz family ended up with the real estate, and Burlington ended up with Burlington, or whatever ended up happening with them.
But right after 9/11, or on 9/11, a piece of the fuselage from one of the planes fell through the building. And that was now the most interesting thing for me as a real estate developer and as a Muslim, because I also saw now an opportunity for me to, as a New Yorker, to take ownership in helping rebuild my city after the devastating attack. So there was that subconscious thing and that also interesting factor, that one day I could be proud and say, “I helped rebuild Lower Manhattan after 9/11,” because this building was affected by this, and as a Muslim, I want to [show] this is my city. I got affected by what happened. …
So you buy a building that happens to be close to Ground Zero. Tell me the story of the whole community board.
I think before we talk about the community board, I should tell you how we ended up in the community board.
… I remember it was me, Imam Feisal, Nour. His wife was there. There was another member of our community. My brother Sammy was there. We were all sitting down, and it was a late night.
The thing with Imam Feisal, sitting with him is beautiful. You can have great conversations that just keep going. So this was a very late night, turning into a late night, and he said, “Sharif, what if we were to build the whole thing as a community center, all the real estate, and build a whole community center?”
I started thinking, and it wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about that. I’m a member of this incredible facility on the Upper West Side — the JCC [Jewish Community Center] — and [it is] incredible warmth that I’ve experienced.
And that was something that I’ve always thought about: Why don’t we have a community center? Why don’t we have a place that our children can identify with their roots and [provides] nourishment for their mind, body and soul? And as Americans, where is our stake in providing services? How do you, being an American, give back? Part of the success of this country is that you give back, and that’s the same thing in Islam, is that you give back.
One of our pillars is zakat, is where you give 2.5 percent of your wealth to the needy and to the poor. That’s a mandatory thing that we do. So it’s, again, a very American thing; it’s a very Islamic thing to give back. So at that point I said, “Fine,” went back, and we started talking and thinking internally, and I said, “All right, let’s do some numbers on it.”
And we started doing some preliminary numbers on it, and we saw that, in order to do this right, from a total project cost, that the number was going to be somewhere between $120 to $150 million … really to build a real facility that will be a self-sustaining facility. … We looked at it as a real estate component, but we also looked at it a little bit as a business component as well. …
And Imam Feisal, we ended up coming back and sitting down, and we said, “You know, this number is going to be significant.” And I said: “I don’t know how to do a not-for-profit project for this type of a number. If it’s a for-profit project, we could put that together.” At that point he said: “You know what? Next week the ex-prime minister of Malaysia is going to be in town. Put together a pitch, a case [for] this, and let’s present it. Let’s see what he says.”
I got pretty excited. I’ve never met a prime minister before. We put together the case. I was a little nervous and gave the pitch, and the prime minister looked and said: “This is a good thing for Islam. This is a good thing, and I would support something like this.”
I think of myself as a smart man. At that point I turned around, looked at Nour, and I said: “Let’s really roll up our sleeves on this. Let’s really roll up our sleeves and try to understand it.” The market at that point is flat.
I can’t get a construction loan to do the condo project immediately. I figure, what’s the risk of really exploring this idea, which is what it was at that point. What’s the risk? We were [already] moving forward with the smaller project, right? We [already] made a commitment that the smaller project we were doing.
The mosque component?
The mosque component and the smaller community center, you know. … What’s the risk? … [Laughs] … What is the risk of exploring this idea?
Now, bear in mind I’m not fully integrated into my community at this point. I’m a private citizen who prays, who has this incredible curiosity with my religion, this wealth of knowledge, but I do not know my community. I do not know how intricate it is. I know that it is dysfunctional and that there are issues. If I could go back and do things differently I would have first spoken to my community, because we put the whole community through a gamut, and that was not the intention. We didn’t plan any of this. We didn’t think about any of this. We were not looking to stir anything up at all.
… The imam’s wife had a relationship with the executive director of the Jewish Community Center, and she poked her head in one of our meetings and said: “I know the executive director of the JCC. Why don’t you come, and I’ll make an introduction?” She was very helpful in making that introduction to the executive director.
But when she made the introduction to the executive director — I’m a businessman; I really wanted to understand how this place operated. A lot of their revenue statements — all not-for-profits is public information. But [what] I really wanted to understand is, how does this work? How do these community centers work? So when I got with the executive director, my whole intention was I need to see who the CFO is, who’s the numbers guy, because, at the end of the day, I’m a numbers guy, and I want to see what the numbers are.
So I met this guy, incredibly beautiful, pious human being. His name is Hillel Hyman. At first Hillel was a little like, “I don’t know if I can really work with you.” And I said, “I live on the Upper West Side. Why don’t we just get a bagel one morning, and my treat, and let’s just talk?”
After that bagel I won him over. He came to my office. I sealed the deal, and then we brought him in, and he started explaining to us the process, and I said: “Well, how did this get financed? Who provides the financing? How do you generate revenue?”
And he said that we got financed from the Economic Development Corp. of Manhattan. And I was like, bing! A big light bulb went off. And at that point I said: “You got financed from the city? They financed you?” He goes: “Yeah. All community centers get finance from their local municipalities, from their cities. There’s all this money that is used. You’re stimulating the economy; you’re creating jobs. That’s what the public sector is all about.” And I’m a private-sector guy. I don’t even know what the public sector does.
At that point I came back, and after we had a bunch of meetings, I said: “You know what? I want to feel the temperature of some politicians. I want to see what politicians are going to say, because I know that public-sector money gets ultimately approved by politicians.”
There’s this one congressman that I know, and his name is Anthony Weiner. … So I knew this congressman, and I knew him as a real New York Jew as well. And now I’m a minority. My community is a minority community, and I want to see what the people in New York are going to say about this.
As I got to know Anthony, I read about him, and he’s got his pulse on Brooklyn, on New York. He’s got his pulse on the community. He’s a player. He’s a player, and he’s going to be bigger and bigger, and I know that about him. And he’s a congressman, and he’s a true public servant. He’s somebody who does the right thing.
So I called up Anthony, and the couple of encounters that I had with him, I enjoyed myself. I had good conversation. I call up Anthony, and my intention at that point is I want to get the temperature of what’s this first person going to say.
So I call up the imam, and I say, “Listen, I want to invite you to a lunch with Anthony Weiner, and let’s talk to him about what we’re thinking about,” because it’s just a big idea at this point. We end up going to that lunch; we set up the lunch. He was very gracious and generous and came, and we sat down and had lunch, and I said to him — now, I had spoken to him before about the problem in our community — but I know that I told him that we finally got control of the site on Park Place and that we want to build an Islamic community center.
One of the problems through this process and one of the mistakes, one of the biggest mistakes that I made in this journey — and I made a lot of mistakes — is that Imam Feisal kept referring to this as an interfaith project. And I didn’t understand what an interfaith project is. I still — I don’t understand what it is. I understand that there is interfaith work and stuff like that, and there’s dialogue, and there’s these bridges that we have to build within different communities. But an interfaith project just didn’t make sense to me.
And that was something that we never fully got resolved. And also this is one of my elders, and there’s this hesitation to step out of your bounds. It’s something that you learn as a Muslim.
What did Congressman Weiner say?
Weiner said, “This is a good thing for New York. I like it.” He said, “I think you’re going to cause some noise.”
And we started now, at this point, as I’m talking to people, they go: “Wow! Do you realize how close you are to the World Trade Center?” I never really thought about that. I just thought about how valuable the real estate would be once everything is built. But I never associated my faith or Islam with the horrific events of 9/11. …
When Weiner said there might be a bit of noise, looking back, was this a warning?
No, we were just asking him for his advice and thoughts, and he said: “I think you guys are going to cause a little bit of noise, but it’s good. This is a good thing.” He said: “This is going to be a good thing for New York. It’s going to send the right message to the world of what New York is.”
… When I found out from Hillel how they financed the JCC, my immediate thought was, how do we go out and get public funding to do this?
I forgot about the Malaysian guy at this point, because I would rather do things the way that other communities do things. Why am I not entitled to do things the same way? We’re taxpayers, we’re citizens, and if this is how these projects are built, then I wanted to fully understand that and now feel out the temperature of everybody.
And I also wanted to do an awareness campaign. Part of developing anything is that you go out and you do a proper temperature read on everybody. You don’t just go and do something that was part of the planning. And I’m very blessed that I have an incredible team that works with me, and we did proper planning and what have you.
So at that point I decided to retain an attorney, … this expensive attorney, and we start going on a road trip, a very strategic road trip.
The imam started by mentioning this to Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg, and the mayor said: “Is it legal? If it’s legal, you can do whatever you want to do.”
Our mayor is by the book, but that was an interest. That was a good sign, and it was an encouraging sign. Then we met with the borough president and his staff, Scott Stringer.
Scott Stringer is an incredible, incredible politician, and we met with him and his staff, and we proposed this idea. Now it’s taking more shape, and we’re spending more time on the different elements and on the story, and we propose it to Scott Stringer and his staff. We have three or four meetings with different people in his office and planning teams. This is what you do when you go out to talk about a project. These are the resources that we have as citizens, as real estate developers, to go out and gauge what is the public going to say about something.
Then we set up a meeting with the Landmarks [Preservation] Commission because we wanted to say, “What are your intentions really regarding this building, because this is what we would like to do?” Then Landmarks told us: “We’re going to have to have a hearing if you want to accelerate whatever happens here. We have to have a hearing. There’s no way around it.” We said, “OK.”
So there were several meetings with Landmarks. We met with the newly elected city councilwoman, Margaret Chin. We started talking. I met with State Sen. Daniel Squadron, a newly elected state senator, spoke to Jerry Nadler’s office about it, another congressman. And all these elected officials were supportive, excited: “This is exactly what Lower Manhattan wants. This is what should happen in Lower Manhattan. And let us know how our offices can help you in your plan to make this happen.” And it was, again, such a warm and exciting feeling to see that you’re getting positivity, no negativity at all, none whatsoever. And that’s your barometer, right?
I mean, that’s a barometer that you’ll go out to evaluate whether you do something or you don’t. So we went through that road trip, and then what we decided to do at that point is we decided to go to the community board. We ultimately wanted to build a community center, that even though it’s going to be Islamic with Muslim values and heritage, but it’s going to be 100 percent pluralistic. It’s going to be open for all people. It’s going to be a community center.
It’s almost going to be secular when you think about it, because this is not a religious organization. But these community centers have different flavors, reminding the people of what community is responsible for building this structure.
When I go to the Jewish Community Center, it’s not like they’re preaching Judaism, but there are so many different opportunities for me to learn about the Jewish heritage and about Jewish poetry and about Jewish culture and the tragedy that happened in the Holocaust. There’s opportunities for me to go and learn and have those things. So we’d be doing the same thing almost, in a way, but celebrating our culture and our heritage and our values. And if you want to partake in it, partake. And if you don’t, you don’t. And then you just partake in whatever it is that you’re coming to do from whatever aspect it is.
So you decide you’re going to build a community center, so you go to the community board.
So we go to the community board, and we really want to gauge now, because that’s going to be your core audience. …
We prep. We finally get a date, and we decide to go to the Financial District Committee of the community board. Now bear in mind the community board is a board of 50, and it’s broken up into different committees within the community board at large. And we decided to go into the Financial District Committee of CB1, Community Board 1. We chose that because that’s where essentially the location of the project is, and we wanted to see what that advisory group would say. Bear in mind we’re doing all of this voluntarily. There’s no restrictions to what we can do. There’s no prohibitions; we don’t need anybody’s permission to do what we’re about to embark on.
And [we] did a little bit of planning, and that weekend some hypocrite [Faisal Shahzad] decided that he wanted to put a bomb in Times Square, some criminal and some hypocrite who is not a Muslim. That is not an Islamic action.
… And who caught him? A Muslim street vendor. A Muslim street vendor caught him and reported him to the cops. I don’t know how many people know that, because how much time does that really get in the media?
It was the weekend of that, … and we were presenting on a Monday. So I’m sweating bullets at this point. … We walk in, and we make our presentation. I’m nervous. We’re all nervous, because right now the news is just talking about this [plot in Times Square], and again, they’re making that big association that we’re all collectively responsible for this criminal act. We make the presentation. The community board starts talking. An incredible thing happens. They vote unanimously in support of the project. …
I walked out. I hugged my lawyer; I hugged the imam; I hugged my partners. I walked out, and I just started crying. It was just this beautiful feeling of trying to do something good and working hard, not taking shortcuts and getting the right result. First person I call is my wife, and she’s so happy.
And that’s when the press hit. Now bear in mind that in December, we had been using now the place, the facility, getting temporary public assembly permits to provide a prayer space to people that have been evicted, that are praying on the street, renting pingpong halls. They’re calling it a mosque — underneath a bar with urine coming down the walls right now. [It's] just sad, like you wanted to cry. This is how people are worshipping? So now we’re providing — and it was incredible how we closed the building, and the last Friday of Ramadan we opened. It was just so incredible how that opening happened, and people found a place to pray. …
And the mistake that I made at that point was that we didn’t have our message down to a science.
You were caught unawares?
Caught completely off-guard. Completely off-guard, because who prepares now for this interest from all the media?
And it got to a point where, on May 19 now, somebody called Mark Williams and the Tea Party, which is this new movement, comes out and says that we worship a monkey god. … At this point I started getting nervous. I said, “What have we started right now?” I was like: “Who is this guy? Why are they saying this about my faith?”
I got nervous, and I didn’t feel comfortable. I remember I called my father, and I had a long conversation with him, and I was like, “What did we get ourselves into?”
And then I woke up in the morning, and I got a phone call from my lawyer at 7:00 in the morning. My lawyer says, “Listen, you’re not going to believe this, but the borough president of Manhattan, Scott Stringer, wants to do a press conference in front of your building, and they’re going to have all the elected officials come down and let this Mark Williams character know that hate and bigotry have no place in our city.”
And the thing that I remembered at that point is that the borough president did this incredible press conference as an announcement of what this city and what the elected officials and what the community of Manhattan feels about this project. And he said that “We are standing with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and this has to get built here,” is essentially what the borough president said. …
Now, we had a full community board hearing on May 25, and I remembered the last hearing there were random people that were sitting down, and it was just like a town hall meeting, open to all. So I remember the night before the meeting I was like: “Listen, Rebekah [El-Gamal's wife], I want you to bring Sarah; I want you to come; I want Jennah to come. Bring your camera. I want you to witness this.”
I want to show her why I’m in the office till 11:00, 12:00 every night and I don’t spent any time with them and I’m not doing my responsibilities as a husband, as a father, because I’m very focused on this task that’s in front of me, and I don’t want to fail.
I told her to get there a little bit early because I figured that the turnout was going to be large. And I got there; she got there 30 minutes before me.
Neither me nor my wife nor my kids fit the stereotype of what a Muslim is supposed to look like. Like, there is this stereotype of what we’re supposed to look like, which is another thing that just pisses me off, because this isn’t about a look. You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But my wife gets there, and I get there, and she’s just bawling, in tears.
She says to me: “This is disgusting. I can’t stay here. These people thought that I came here to protest the project, and they started pulling me aside and telling me where to sit and trying to sign and started talking about our religion and what have you.” And I looked at her, and I got nervous at that point. I didn’t know what I was walking into.
And then, in the next like, 15 minutes, there was like, 30 news crews everywhere. There was big news trucks everywhere. I didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.
… I gave [my wife] a kiss and a hug, and I said, “Listen, I’ll be home later tonight.” I said, “Please, when you make your prayers tonight, pray that this is easy for us and that we stay focused.”
And what I saw for the next four hours was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I had never seen what I saw for the next four or five hours. I had never seen so much hatred, so much ignorance, so much hostility. And there was police officers everywhere. If there was [not] police, I’m sure something would have gotten physical at this point. This was like a bloodthirsty mob, and there was hundreds of them.
And something about it did not seem right, because we maybe invited 20 people to come, and there’s hundreds of people coming against this project, just against my religion. And something did not seem right at some point in that process. But it was also very scary.
I remember sweating through my suit. My shirt — I was just purely nervous. I didn’t know what I was getting into. And as these people were coming up one by one and talking and saying how dare we build a victory monument for our conquest of Ground Zero, it was like they had been programmed and trained.
And then I saw this woman and this man — I’m not even going to say their names [Pam Geller and Robert Spencer] — that were orchestrating this.
And I remember looking at Imam Feisal throughout this process, and I said: “We don’t have a choice. We have to build this project.” I remember clearly that we do not have a choice.
Why do you say that?
Because these people had already executed us as Muslims, all of us, and they don’t know anything about us. They know nothing about who we are.
But not only were they the judges, the jury, they’d executed us already. We’ve been executed. It’s past the point of judgment. They’ve already decided that execution needs to happen. And that’s part of that — the past 10 years of a hard right-wing movement that is using our religion for something, just this force of evil. And that’s the result. And me sitting in that community board, that’s the result of that.
And the problem is that, just like the borough president did that press statement and it got zero coverage, there are thousands of pious, loud, vocal Muslim leaders around the country and around the world, but they get zero time. Their voices aren’t heard.
What are they saying?
They’re saying who we are. They’re denouncing these random criminal acts that are happening around the world. They’re denouncing them loudly. But they’re not being heard because we live in a society today that loves to celebrate failure, and we’ve been lumped up into that category. …
Going back to that meeting –
I’ve never, ever seen anything like this before in my life. I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life. This must have been like a Ku Klux Klan rally. I’ve never seen anything like that.
I’ve never sweat through my suit before. I’m a pretty brave guy. My suit was wet. I’ve never seen anything like that before. And I was trying to maintain my composure throughout the whole time. Every time that they were coming up, every time that they were speaking, they were just trying to provoke us. It was like they were looking for a street fight with an angry mob.
Were there any critics of the project with whom you had any compassion at all?
There was, because I tried to do a lot of listening, and there was people there that genuinely didn’t come for hate. They genuinely lost somebody, and those are the people that we have a responsibility toward. Those are the people that, as a member of that community and as a Muslim, I hold no grudges with those people.
I’m so sorry for their loss as a human being to another human being. I’m so sorry for their loss, but I had nothing to do with it. My community did not have anything to do with their [loss].
Did you realize that that’s why there was some kind of fundamental misunderstanding?
Yes, yes. And I felt that fundamental misunderstanding. There were people that were sincere, that lost loved ones. Their anger was justified, but not at me or my religion or our project. It’s not justified.
What did you do afterward, after the meeting?
It was the most contentious environment that I’ve ever been in, and through four or five hours of one person after another coming up and little kids, little Muslim kids crying, little, 11-, 12-year-old kids, because other people did what I wanted to do — they invited their family. They invited their younger kids to come and speak at this open forum.
… And at one point I just pulled my lawyer aside, and I said to him, “What the hell are we doing here? This is voluntary. I don’t even have to talk to these people. What am I paying you for?” And he just told me, “Relax.” And I maintained my composure throughout the whole night, but deep down inside my heartbeat was beating a little bit faster, and I was nervous throughout the whole process. I thought that there is no way that there’s going to be any form of positive outcome for me or for what we’re trying to do. I didn’t think it was possible.
… And members of the community board were also coming up to me, reassuring me, saying: “We don’t even know who these people are. They don’t live in this community. These are not our neighbors or residents of Lower Manhattan. We can assure you of this.”
And as the night started progressing, I started realizing also that this was almost in a way like a little bit of a traveling circus. But that wasn’t the initial read. As the night progressed and as I’m looking at the faces, it looked like even some of these people were paid to be there. It almost felt like that, and the community board ended up voting, and 29 voted in favor, one person voted against, and 10 other people abstained from voting.
And it was another landslide. And I could not believe it.
And how were you feeling at the end of the day?
At the end of the night? Exhausted. Exhilarated. Scared. Not knowing what I got myself into but realizing that at that point there was no turning back, that I had to try to do whatever I had to do as a human being to make this happen, and that this was a test and an opportunity and a blessing and a curse and a burden and a responsibility, but that I had no choice in what was put in front of me at that point and that I had to do everything humanly possible now to go to the next step.
The bit of the story where you hooked up with Imam Rauf, were you clear about what you were getting into, because you know Feisal is very interfaith?
Right. Well, I didn’t understand that.
Tell me what you didn’t understand.
I knew Imam Feisal as a Muslim imam, and what I had envisioned was a Muslim version of the JCC or the YMCA.
When we invited Imam Feisal into the project, the project was first that we were going to build a mosque in a smaller community center, a smaller community facility. And when we started talking about building something like the JCC, logically what we thought is that we were going to build a Muslim community center.
I’m a Muslim, and so is he. … I hold myself at fault for not completely making sure that we had a meeting of the minds and what we’re planning on building.
And then when did the interfaith thing crop up?
… From an Islamic perspective, we believe in all the prophets. We believe in all the prophets from the prophet Adam to the prophet Moses to the prophet Jesus to John the Baptist to all of them. I believe that there is a total of 144,000 prophets that we believe in.
So for me, this interfaith concept is something that we believe in as Muslims, but at the end of the day, what we have always set out to do was to build an Islamic community center and Islamic institution.
So when did you realize that it was interfaith, was something different?
I still don’t realize it. I understand that there is interfaith work between the different faiths, but this was going to be an Islamic center and an Islamic institution.
The split between you and Imam Feisal Rauf, it wasn’t just personalities. There was an actual difference of direction?
What led to the parting of ways?
Well, there isn’t a parting of the ways. Imam Feisal is still on the board of Park51.
I don’t want to talk about this. This isn’t something that I feel like talking about.
… I wouldn’t really call it a parting of ways. I think it’s the start of a new — with a clear clarity of what we are embarking upon.
And Imam Feisal will always have a seat at this table, and he still has a seat at the table, so there hasn’t been really any parting of the ways.
So that was a misperception in the press.
Well, Imam Feisal is a respected imam in our community and is a dear brother and friend to me and somebody who I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for. And he decided that he wanted to pursue a speaking engagement promoting himself and promoting his interfaith work, and that’s not what this project is about. This project is about building the first Islamic community center and establishing a much-needed prayer space or mosque or whatever you want to call it in Lower Manhattan.
That’s what this project is about. Imam Feisal chose to go out and start speaking about himself and about the work that he is incredibly respected for. And he’s a leader and a pioneer in what he’s doing.
So after the community board –
It was incredibly interesting to deal with. It was exciting; it was exhilarating; it was scary. But we were not prepared for this explosion of interest. That’s really what it is. We had not retained a PR team at that point.
So we had all these media requests and interviews, and part of the problem that, again, I hold myself accountable for is that there wasn’t a full meeting of the minds with Imam Feisal, and there was also a lack of preparation.
As an organization, as a methodology of my team members and myself is that I like to plan, plan, plan, plan and prepare before you embark on something. And we went out, and we made Imam Feisal a spokesperson for this project, and then his wife, Daisy, also just inserted herself into the dynamic. And there wasn’t the proper preparation from a messaging standpoint. We added to the problem as well, because we weren’t staying consistent on our message, and we weren’t using the opportunities that were presented to us as an organization for the maximum efforts. …
How did you feel you were treated by the media? Was it negative or positive for you?
Negative or positive? It was a manufactured hype, man. It was a manufactured hype.
This was a well-funded campaign of misinformation on every single level that was being fed over and over and over and over and over and over, and miseducating the whole public about what we were trying to do.
Even about the people involved in the project — how dare they categorize me or Imam Feisal or his wife or anybody affiliated with this project with the absurdities that came out, that we’re radical, that we’re extreme, that we have that we have ties to — there was a bunch of garbage.
Today I’m still trying to figure out how to clean my name on the Internet.
From somebody who is an unknown today on the Internet, I’ve been framed in a specific manner. And this is a well-organized, well-funded campaign that’s been doing this to my community, and it’s been doing this to my community for the last 10 years. It’s been taking good people and smearing their names.
After 9/11, this wave of public resentment against Muslims, do you feel that it has got more [widespread], particularly since the crisis of Park51?
I think that we were a reason for them to come out again. We gave them the perfect piece of whatever they needed to come out. Really, they’ve been practicing for the last 10 years, and they’ve perfected what they’ve been doing from a misinformation standpoint. … Practice makes perfect. Just imagine if you are working on a message for 10 years, working on misinformation for 10 years, and we gave them the platform now for them to show a perfected understanding of how to continue spreading what I would call, in very simple terms, the big lie.
There is a big lie that our project, this project of good, of bringing people together, of trying to promote pluralism, of trying to provide a much-needed service to a group, first and foremost to the Muslim community, to a group of people that got displaced from praying, to then embarking on a bigger vision of building a community center, to realizing that Lower Manhattan had sprouted into a residential neighborhood, and there wasn’t a proper community center, providing a place for children, for adults, for seniors, to have much-needed programming — all these good things were manipulated, fabricated, and now we had given them a platform to perfect for this force of evil — to finish their big lie.
So people who oppose the project are evil?
No. No. not everyone who opposes this project is evil. Absolutely not.
And who am I? What gives me any right to judge anyone? I’m not here to judge anyone based on what’s good or what’s evil, but there is a force of evil that has waged a campaign of misinformation. And exploiting different groups of people, different pockets of these people who have experienced tremendous hurt and tragedy, these 9/11 families who are being exploited, there is this force of evil. And yes, there are some individuals that are inherently evil, but at the same time, it’s not my place to judge anyone.
And there are, unfortunately, good people who have been caught in this storm.
What attempts have you made to heal the rift with the 9/11 families?
We haven’t done enough, but it also — again, we did nothing to these families. We’re not responsible.
Anybody involved in this project does not owe them an apology; we didn’t do anything to them. But as compassionate human beings and as Americans, we were all affected by those events. Every single one of us involved in this project in one way, shape or form was affected by those horrific events on a personal level.
I got a very small taste — a very small taste. There’s no way, shape or form that I could tell you that I was personally affected as somebody that lost a son or somebody that lost a daughter … or somebody lost a wife or somebody lost a husband or somebody lost a child or a mother or a father or a grandfather or a grandmother. No, I can’t look you in the eye and even for one remote minute begin to understand the pain and the grief that they’re going through, but I saw a glimpse of that hell. I saw a glimpse of that hell. …
One of the things that we’ve decided, in this project, and another promise that we have made to each other is that we are going to have a 9/11 memorial to honor all the people that [were] lost. We want to give back to our community. And it’s not about being apologetic; it’s that this is a part of that community of Lower Manhattan.
There is a group today called the 9/11 Families. And since we’re building a community center, what better way to include that group than to give a memorial? And that’s a promise that we have made in this project, that there is going to be a final product of a memorial and a quiet reflection space; that we are going to reach out, and it’s going to take time.
… It’s going to be a process, and it’s a process that if anybody has good intentions, we want them to be a part of this project. If anybody has sincere questions or wants to understand our motivations or what our objectives are, or what our end goal is, we welcome them to be a part of this process. Our doors are open. We have nothing to hide.
And part of giving back, and part of this project, is this memorial that we want to put together for the families.
I had a small window into those horrific events, and I remember them very vividly. … This is my home. I’m a New Yorker. … I’m like God, I’ve got to get down there [at the police barricades on Canal Street]. I just wanted to help. I wanted to be involved. And the officers were like no. And I’m an excellent communicator; I couldn’t communicate my way through this. Then I saw a group of reservists come by, and they said, “We’re here to go to Stuyvesant High School, and … we don’t know how to get there.”
I overheard that, so I just jumped up immediately, and I said to the officer: “I know how to get down to Stuyvesant High School. Can I escort them?” And he looked at me, and he said, “Wow, you’re a pretty persistent person.” And he said: “Go ahead. Go for it. Escort them down there.”
So then I escorted the reservists down to Stuyvesant High School, and also at that point, I saw Tower 7 come down from Hudson Street. That was the one that I saw come down. That blew me away when I was — because I saw that tower come down, and I escorted them to Stuyvesant High School.
I was at Ground Zero. Stuyvesant High School was Ground Zero. That was the base where everything was being shuttled in and out of. And that was what was I believe Ground Zero; it wasn’t the World Trade Center.
I was kind of scoping around, and then I heard [then-Mayor] Rudy Giuliani give his speech. … I saw bottles of water, and I just started grabbing cases of water and shuffling them back, summoning up the courage now at this point, and just running around and passing water out to the firefighters. I was just running around, giving waters to the firefighters. At one point I stopped, and I became part of a rescue group, looking for bodies.
They took me on as a volunteer. I was a little unprepared. I only had a little mask on my face, and my eyes were completely exposed. I ended up handing out water and would get the courage to go deeper every time into the wreckage.
And it must have been a day and a half that I did this for straight, being a part of it and just trying to help… I saw it. I saw it firsthand. And I was so angry. I was so angry throughout the process.
I said: “Who could do something like this? What kind of a coward could do something like this?” And that was the whole thing that was going, and I was really sad for my city. I was really sad that this happened in my city, and it didn’t make any sense, because they started saying things about Osama bin Laden. There was all this stuff — Muslims [being] responsible for this. Did it resonate any logic to me? These are not Muslims. This is not religion. You can’t lump this up into religion, or take a religion and identify with it.
So I stayed through that night, and I kept going into another night. I went from one night to another night, and then I got exhausted, and I had to stop, and I ended up going home, and when I went home, I opened my eyes, and I couldn’t open my eyes. I couldn’t see. And what ended up happening to my eyes was that the shard of all the metal had scarred the inside of my eyes, and I had to go to the hospital.
… I had to put a bandage and just sit in bed without doing anything for another day. And that was my little glimpse into the hell of 9/11. That was my own personal journey, and it’s not even a drop in an ocean of what these families must be going through.
So tell me about the meetings with the 9/11 families.
I have a very close relationship with lots of them from different groups, but I haven’t had enough. I want to meet with the families that are really against this project. I want to meet with them.
How many meetings have you had with the families?
Maybe half a dozen with groups. I’ve met with groups, and there’s been people for and against. I’ve developed some camaraderie with a bunch of them, and they’re all good people. …
Imam Feisal was quoted in The New York Times, saying the location is iconic.
Imam Feisal had nothing to do with picking the location. And that goes to the root of the problem. There wasn’t any media training. He was thrust into something that he was not prepared for.
He had nothing to do with the location. I shared with you the story of how this came together. …
It was accidental in the beginning. You had no idea what was going to happen?
You had no idea it was going to happen, the world media attention was going to hit you?
No, I didn’t.
… There’s today a tremendous burden and a responsibility that we have because of this location and because of why it’s become so symbolic. … Just imagine what the ramifications would have been for us, in the United States of America, if we decided to move this project, what would have been the ramifications that we were going to be responsible. New York is a symbol for the rest of the country. People follow what you do in New York. If we were to move this project, it would have repercussions across the rest of the country.
Would it make some people feel safer?
Safer from what? From their fellow citizens who care just as much as they do about the security of the country? Safer from what? From Muslim cops? From Muslim firefighters? From Muslim teachers? From Muslim sanitation workers? Safer from what? Safer from Muslim construction workers that are building the towers right now as we speak, with the highest standards of excellence, because before anything, a Muslim is accountable to the one Creator, and know that we hold ourselves to higher principles and mores? Safer from what?
So you think that if you moved that it would be the thin edge of the wedge?
It would be the wrong thing. I would only move closer.
And it’s funny, because what ended up happening at this point is that the pressure that I started getting was incredible. The pressure that started happening at this point in June, July, August and September, the pressure and the experiences.
As an individual, I came so close to my breaking point as a man. And part of the process now at this point was that we wanted to expedite the process with landmarks. So landmarks turned around and instructed us to go to the landmark committee of the community board, and I am just like: “Oh, God, we can’t do this again. I don’t want to go into that room again.” I’m not here to solve the world’s problems. I’m a businessman. … I’m not a community activist; I am not a community leader. This isn’t something that I’ve been studying. I am not an academic; I am not an Islamic academic. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a New Yorker who is a real estate junkie. …
We won with another landslide vote in favor of this building not being landmarked. Also at that point, Imam Feisal turns around and says: “I’m going to go on a trip. I’m going to go on a speaking tour sponsored by the State Department, and I’m going to go to Malaysia.”
And to myself I’m thinking, you’re the guy who’s talking on behalf of this project right now. It’s bizarre, man. It was just bizarre. We’re in the middle of this thing that is being spoken about night and day, and I felt in the pit of my gut we were going to go get this wave that was going to come at us, and that we were going to get this wave after Landmarks.
I felt in my gut that New York was going to do the right thing in respect of this overall project, because we got the temperature of New York, and the temperature was go; do not stop. Just go and do this. That was the temperature of New York all around. From the local elected officials to the politicians to the community leaders to the community board, that was the temperature. The light was green. There was no red; there was no yellow. The light, the temperature was green, go.
So when [Imam Rauf] said this to me, obviously I got extremely frustrated, because now this was the person who had been associated with this project. There was a lot of fumbles that were happening in the media, and at that point, I had really been behind the scenes. I had not been accepting any interview requests. I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t accepting any interview requests or anything. And my phone is ringing a lot. I’m getting a lot of requests. I’m not answering them; I’m just shelving them.
I wasn’t looking for the limelight. I had no interest in it. I just wanted to finish, focus on the work. The one thing that I understand, as a businessperson and as a businessman, is that people don’t judge you by what you start; they judge you by what you finish.
And I just wanted to understand, how do we put this together and how do we finish it, because it had gotten so much attention. …
So we go to the Landmarks hearing now, and that is on Aug. 3. We start the fast of Ramadan at that point, and I remember going into that hearing. I prepared three sentences that I was going to read. I wanted to craft a little statement letting people know that we are Americans, that we are the guys driving the cabs, that we are the guys protecting, that we are cops, that we’re firefighters. That was the only thing I wanted to say. And I prepared this statement, and there was a swarm of cameras. I mean, it literally was like 100 cameras in my face. At the end of this community board, at the end of the Landmarks Commission, when the commission voted against landmarking the building, and that’s when my life forever changed, at that moment, when I decided to utter that little phrase about what this was.
And I remember the first person that I called was I called Imam Feisal, and I said: “We’re out of Landmarks. This building is not landmarked, and we can do whatever we want to do.”
And I was angry with him. I was like: “Why did you leave at this point? Why would you leave me in the middle of this? I knew that this was going to happen.”
I go back to my office, and that day my phone rang like it never rang before. And it was scary, because I had been getting media requests, but at this point, I started getting incredible media requests in the hundreds. I mean, I was getting hundreds of media requests to come out and talk about this, and I didn’t want to go out and talk about it, because I didn’t want to turn into a talking head.
I didn’t understand why everybody was so interested about this. Didn’t make any sense to me. It was just a community center that we’re trying to build in Lower Manhattan, and I happened to be a Muslim. I didn’t understand what this curiosity or this fascination or this association with 9/11 or the World Trade Center was. It still doesn’t make sense to me. …
Were you ever tempted to move?
No, not once. Not once, not even with all the offers that I got. Not once.
… I’m trying to navigate now political decisions. Right now I’m trying [to] keep quiet on everything. I made that little statement. At this point I have some high-level media consultants that are kind of coaching me. They’re saying, “Sharif, you need to just stay off the radar, and don’t talk about this.” And I’m following them. They said, “There is no way that you getting into this right now or speaking about it is going to have any positive impact or what have you.”
And the mayor that day, on Aug. 3, went out and gave a speech at Ellis Island. One of the greatest mayors that New York has ever had, and it’s going to go down in speech, in history, alongside George Washington’s speeches, Clinton, Lincoln’s speeches. It’s going to go down in history as a speech for Ellis Island forever, and that was kind of the concept that Muslims are a fabric of this society, that Muslims are a part of this country. And that was the emphasis of this speech. …
I’m sitting on the train, and I get a call from the reporter Anne Barnard in The New York Times. She said, “Sharif, I know that you probably already heard about this.” I didn’t. And she goes, “President Obama tonight is going to be talking about your project at a White House dinner that he’s holding for Muslim Americans during their iftar [the evening meal that breaks the day's fast during Ramadan].” And she said, “I’m going to send it to you, and I want you to give me the first reaction.” And this was a lady that I’d built a relationship with and who was honest and still had integrity in reporting the news.
So she sent me this thing, and I’m looking at it on my Blackberry, this press release, and I just start crying. I can’t believe that President Obama decided to weigh in on this and just do the right thing, and to do it no less at the White House, at an iftar dinner with other Muslims, and he was talking about our project, our work, that it had gotten the recognition of President Obama. … I couldn’t believe it. I called up my father, and I was crying, and I was like, “President Obama made a comment on my project.” And it was just exhilarating. The president of the United States of America stood by us right now. …
What about Obama’s second statement?
I was disappointed with that, but I knew that he was playing politics. I knew that at the end of the day, I knew that what he said he said from the heart the night before, and that the next day he was playing politics, but he got a lot of flak for it, and also on Tuesday. On Friday I was so happy that he made that statement. On Tuesday I was saying, “Why the hell did he open his mouth?,” because my world, at that point, went upside down. I really became front and center.
When did the attention begin to lessen?
The attention became — it’s been more controlled. It hasn’t lessened. But we have at this point retained a proper PR team that has the relationships with the media; our messaging got straight. …
I did some very specific things that would get me the right audience in the right messaging, and that was an integral part of the strategy. …
And it was good old-fashioned meeting with every reporter at every station, letting them know: “Stop. What you guys are doing is crazy and wrong. We’ll give you access, and we’ll give you the truth, and we’ll give you the background.” And that was all part of the process. And we started getting control of our message.
But there is a saying that you get one chance to make a first impression, so it’s so much harder doing the cleanup of getting the truth out there. But there was this one reporter who was on a mission to just destroy me. He was just on a mission to uncover, like there was some hidden [agenda].
… And there were other people that were just trying to link me — somebody linked me to Libya, to Muammar Qaddafi. Somebody said that I was part of a Liberian cell because I went to grade school when I was 4 years old in Liberia; that I was part of some Islamic liberation cell, just bizarre stuff. There is this wacky guy in Florida who is a private detective who’s looking to just defame my community, and I fell into the realm of his sphere.
Fifteen years ago, I was waiting tables and bartending and working in the restaurant business, and there was no mention of how I achieved whatever I achieved, whatever success I achieved, whatever accomplishments I achieved within my industry. …
Tell me about Park51 and the finance, the money side of things. Does Park51 have finance?
Today, no, we don’t. It’s an incredible idea. And we are just starting our campaign, and there is phases to it, and there is deadlines, and there is an incredible amount of pressure that we are in right now.
Tell me about it, and tell me why you don’t have any money.
This was an idea. This community center was all an idea that was not the intention. We’ve acquired two pieces of real estate that are contiguous to each other and one parcel I was going to build condos on. And the other building we were going to give to the community to build a mosque in a smaller community center.
… For the past year I’ve been coming up with the formula of how to make this work. We’ve been planning. In addition to planning, while my community is afraid of getting involved, there is an inherent fear right now within Muslims.
A fear. Mohammed is called Mo. Khalid is called Carl. Kareem calls himself Ken. There is an identity theft that has not only affected non-Muslims in a specific stereotype of Muslims, but it’s affected Muslims in inherently who their identity is.
… We’re not as proud as we should be. We’re not as vocal as we should be. We’re not integrating in our societies the way that we should be at the speed that we should be.
And that’s the problem, and I hold myself also personally accountable for that. And that’s what we experienced from this project looking back… And why we got this pushback and why we got this negativity is because we’re not doing our jobs as Muslims. We have to hold ourselves accountable. We’re not being vocal enough. …
Where is the Muslim community?
Afraid. They’re afraid. They’re afraid of themselves.
You don’t have any backing from the Muslim community.
Obviously we’ve made mistakes throughout the process. We have made mistakes of not engaging the community the right way.
They are there. They’ve been supportive. They’ve been behind us, right, but we’re not talking. We’re talking [to] the leaders of mosques, organizations, but [when] I am saying, “Where is the Muslim community?,” where are the students? Where are the young professionals? Where are the people that are like me?
I’m going to stand up there, and there are people that are working, but it’s a minority. It’s almost like it’s 5 or 10 percent. Today I would expect that we have a line out the door of volunteers, of people saying: “Thank you. Thank you for standing up for us. Thank you. Thank you for not backing down. Thank you.” We don’t have that. We have people judging. …
… It’s disappointing. Our community needs to wake up. They need to wake up and realize that if they take for granted the rights that we have as Muslims in this country — all of them, they need to get their kids involved. They can’t just be engineers and doctors. You can’t be pumping out just engineers and doctors. We need writers; we need journalists; we need media people; we need imams.
Today we don’t have the right imams. We don’t have enough imams.
It’s interesting, because what critics of this project and people who look at it from the outside think is this is a Ground Zero mega-mosque with the might of the united community pushing behind it, pouring money, pouring volunteers, the sort of mass troops of the Muslim complex, and the reality is one guy, his partners, four people in an office and no money. Have I got that right?
I am going to do everything humanly possible to make this project happen, but at the end I also have limits as a human being. We can’t carry the basket on our own.
Either our community is going to step up and carry this basket with us and realize that this is an incredible gift from God for us to reclaim our identity two blocks from where we lost it, and that this door is open to the whole community to get involved, or this window of opportunity is going to disappear, and this project isn’t going to happen.
And there will be a small project, God willing. We are committed to the smaller project, and that’s happening, Insha’Allah, God willing. …
How do you think they see you, Sharif?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
You said it yourself: You don’t look like a typical Muslim. You are in the center of this huge firestorm of media. Your resources are limited. What do you think the community makes of this?
I don’t know. I don’t know, and it’s really hard. It’s really, really hard to really put your foot down for something that you believe in. You think maybe you’re five years too early; maybe you’re five years too early; that they don’t understand; that they don’t support people when they run for politics; that they feel that if they walk by the building and hide their identity. It’s just bizarre. …
You know, I am like, where are my people? Where are they? Don’t they understand? Don’t they see what we can potentially do here?
And that hurts. That is also a pain point for me personally.
Because you have really taken a lot of flak for being a Muslim, and you could have backed away.
I could have backed away from this, and I could have made a fortune, backed away and been a sellout. But I couldn’t ever have done that, because that is not in my character. It’s not.
God willing I will be remembered as a man of integrity and as a person that said something and did it, a man of true character, which is what I strive for every single day.
You could you have made a lot more money by not doing Park51.
Absolutely. I still can. Listen, I am not going to lose financially on this. But if I build for Park51, sure, I am going to lose a tremendous amount of profit, me and all the investors and partners.
… I have phases. I can’t keep running at this speed. I have a life to live, and I will do everything that I can. … By the end of the year there is another phase, and if we don’t hit the milestones that we set out, then this project isn’t going to happen. … It was never meant to turn into a 3.7 trillion media impressions on the Internet, the number one story of 2010. That was not a plan. We did not plan that.
And this idea today — this is the most prolific project in the history of projects in decades — has no funds. But what we’ve done is we’ve come up with a self-sustaining method of building this project with phases from a business aspect, and that’s what we’ve put together.
And we’re just getting started on the real work. … We have a plan, and we know how to get to the top of that mountain, but that’s going to only happen if our community completely steps in and helps us make this happen.
We need funding. Money does not grow on trees last I looked.
How much funding do you have for Park51 right now?
Very little. I’m at a deficit. I am running — it doesn’t work. If I was to sit here and look at you, from a business perspective, it doesn’t work.
I don’t even know how we’ve gotten this far. I truly don’t know, except that this is all part of God’s master plan, and we have to humble ourselves, and I have to continuously remember what I am: I am just a little axle in the wheel, and this wheel will work with me or without me. But our community needs to step up to the plate and not take this for granted, because there is a very specific window of opportunity, and it’s closing.
Who’s paying the bills at Park51 at the moment?
You’re looking at him.
You’re funding the cost, the bills, the overheads?
The majority of them, yes. And there are some champions that are part of the project as well. There are champions. There are people.
I notice when you are praying, tears come to your eyes, and you break down in tears sometimes.
Standing in front of God, how would you feel if you knew without a shadow of a doubt that you were standing in front of your Creator and that you knew that your Creator was listening to every single syllable, every single thought, every single thought that you’re not even thinking coming from your heart. Wouldn’t you be in tears?
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