Inside The Mosque At Ground Zero, On Channel 4

Park51, Inside Ground Zero Mosque, New York

"I just wanted to make a place for my community to pray. Nothing more. Nothing less."

Sharif El-Gamal, the charismatic property developer from Brooklyn behind 'Park 51', gives his account for the first time in a film by Bafta award-winning director Dan Reed (Dispatches: Terror in Mumbai).

Reed's film untangles the hysteria, fury and politics surrounding the 'Mosque at Ground Zero'. His film explores how this proposed mosque and Islamic community centre, two blocks away from the site of the 9/11 attack in lower Manhattan, has thrown into sharp focus the tensions at the core of American democracy regarding the country's Muslim population.

With unique access to the major players in the project and the unfolding events, Inside The Mosque At Ground Zero recounts the press frenzy surrounding the plans. The vitriolic attacks on its high-profile spiritual leader Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf affect his vision for the centre. The film shares heartrending stories of some of the 9/11 families who oppose the building and reveals the driving force behind the mosque. In demand for the centre to be prevented or relocated, Evangelical Pastor Terry Jones gathered media attention to host a Quran burning day.

"I'm not a community activist," said Sharif El-Gamal, "I'm not a community leader... I'm not an Islam academic. I'm a New Yorker who is a real estate junkie. That's who I am." El-Gamal was brought up as a church-going Christian named Alexander, the son of a Polish Catholic and an Egyptian Muslim. After rediscovering Islam in his 30s, he purchased the Burlington Coat Factory in 2009, a disused building that was struck by the undercarriage of the second plane that hit Tower Two. His place was twofold - to make money from building condominiums on the site but also to provide a place of worship for the local Muslim population.

American community leader Imam Feisal propsed the entire site be transformed into a community centre that would act to counter extremism and give a platform to the American Muslim voice. When El-Gamal agreed, little did he know of the outrage he would ignite.

Sharif El-Gamal in suit and tie at Friday prayers at Park 51

"What has my community done? We have done nothing. We have to get our identities back through our actions." - Sharif El-Gamal.

The opposition to the so-called 'mega mosque' caught the attention of Fox News which was at the vanguard of the US media storm. The controversy gathered political mementum and even President Obama felt compelled to take sides and endorse the mosque.

A crucial missing link between both sides of the voices for and against the centre is dialogue. Opposition in the blogosphere escalated after Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer founded 'Stop The Islamization of America', who were both cited as inspiration for the Oslo bomber Anders Breivik in his manifesto. They rallied opposition to the mosque, incorporating the voices of some of those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and coined a concept that would become a decisive weapon in the controversy: 'the victory mosque'.

Reed follows El-Gamal as he battles to garner support and funds for the project he has dubbed 'Park 51'. Run from a back room in his property, the two staff members are students who feel underprepared to delivery El-Gamal's vision.

Of all his challenges, the most sensitive is the hostility towards the project from some of the 9/11 families. Reed films the highly-fraught and emotional meeting between El-Gamal and Lee Hanson who lost his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter on the second plane.

But not all families oppose the mosque; Charlie Wolf lost his wife on the plane that hit the first tower. He says,

"You can't say that we can't have anybody, any Muslims near Ground Zero - that is a bunch of bull. Because as soon as you say they can't be two blocks, then where can they be? Three blocks, five blocks, ten blocks, half a mile, a mile, sixteen miles?"

Ten years on from the events that shaped a nation, this is the story of a derelict building that has become a lightening rod for America's struggles to reconcile its own psyche.

Transmission date: Monday 5th September at 8.00pm on Channel 4.

Image:: Muslimness


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