Channel 4 Documentary on “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy

On Monday night Channel 4 broadcast The Ground Zero Mosque, a new documentary about last year’s plans to convert a building into a mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero and the controversy that followed. The programme’s blurb outlines the familiar story:

The film follows charismatic property developer Sharif El-Gamal (38) as he gives his account for the first time. Brought up as a church-going Christian named Alexander, El Gamal is the son of a Polish Catholic and an Egyptian Muslim who describes himself as a New Yorker from Brooklyn: “I’m not a community activist, I’m not a community leader…I’m not an Islamic academic. I’m a New Yorker who is a real-estate junkie. That’s who I am.”

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 plan was twofold – to make money from building condominiums on the site but also to provide a place of worship for the local Muslim population.

But later that year, he invited Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (63) an established moderate pro-American cleric to lead the mosque. Imam Feisal proposed the entire site be transformed into a community centre that would act to counter extremism and give a platform to moderate Islam. When El-Gamal agreed, little did he know of the outrage he would ignite…

From the interviews with El-Gamal, it is obvious that he is a thoroughly assimilated and archetypal New Yorker. The site was chosen because it was convenient for his local Muslim community and because suitable properties in the area are hard to come by; any sort of connection to 9/11 never even entered his head, let alone the notion that the building would be a “victory mosque” celebrating the massacre of thousands of Americans.

The programme also explores the rift that emerged between El-Gamal and Rauf; while El-Gamal was coming under hostile media scrutiny, Rauf went abroad for a speaking tour. El-Gamal complains that “it was bizarre… it didn’t make any sense to me”. Also:

Imam Faisal kept referring to this as an interfaith project. And I didn’t understand what an inter-faith project is. That wouldn’t have turned me on. I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a capitalist, and I do good things for my community.

Rauf, for his part, complains that El-Gamal has separated him from his “vision”:

I felt a sense of betrayal. He’s a control freak. He has sought to control that which is not his domain of expertise. We have spoken, but there is a certain nature that is unchangeable.

Either way, it seems that the project now remains a long way off from being realised: El-Gamal has only two student staff members working on it, and by their own account they are struggling with tasks they are neither “qualified nor prepared for”. El-Gamal admits that the project is “out of funds”; we see him at his mosque urging members to donate, but he doesn’t appear to be drumming up much interest.

There’s also a look at the Gainesville sideshow, where Pastor Terry Jones decided to jump on the bandwagon by threatening a public Koran-burning unless the mosque were moved. Jones was dissuaded by Imam Muhammad Musri, who, according to the narrator

led Pastor Jones to understand that Faisal had agreed to move the Ground Zero mosque. This wasn’t true, but the ploy worked.

Musri in fact never had any line to Rauf, and he appears to dislike him; he tells the camera that

Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf was presented to the American mainstream as the genuine mainstream Imam who commands large following. But for the millions of American Muslims, he is not our voice.

Musri does not explain why he thought the ploy was a good idea, and the programme does not discuss the dispute that followed between Jones and Musri.