The developer of an Islamic cultural center near ground zero says the “biggest mistake” on the project was not involving the families of Sept. 11 victims from the start.
“We made incredible mistakes,” Sharif El-Gamal, founder of Park51, told reporters Wednesday evening at the opening of the Islamic Community Center at 51 Park Place, just two blocks from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan.
El-Gamal, 38, said he wished the victims’ families had been involved earlier — before the center became a point of contention.
“The biggest mistake we made was not to include 9/11 families,” he said, noting that the center’s advisory board now includes at least one 9/11 family member.
The overall center is modeled after the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he lives, El-Gamal said.
El-Gamal, who also owns the land for the project, said the development plan prompted one of the most virulent national discussions about Islam and freedom of speech and religion since the terrorist attacks.
Though it was intended to bring people together by enhancing multifaith dialogue, the Islamic center — which includes a mosque, a swimming pool, a preschool and a 9/11 memorial — became the center of a heated national debate.
Last year, street clashes in view of the trade center site pitted supporters against opponents of the center. Protests were sparked by a campaign launched by conservative bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, founders of the group “Stop Islamization of America,” who dubbed the project the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and a national controversy ensued.
Now, however, the mood appears to have changed.
Instead of protesters who attempted to shut down the Park51 Center, spectators milled about the center and viewed the photographic exhibition there.
“It’s time to start demystifying what we’re trying to do,” said El-Gamal, “We got hundreds of tourists who congregated in front of the building. They wanted to see what the Muslims are doing.”
“It is a huge step forward,” Katerina Lucas, Park51’s chief of staff, told reporters. “I hope it shows we are about inclusion, not exclusion.”
“Islam is not about extremism,” said Lucas, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 2009. “We can have a meaningful dialogue across religions.”
The opening coincided with the United Nations’ International Day of Peace.
Hundreds of invited guests attended Wednesday night’s first event and viewed “NYChildren,” a photographic tribute to New York City’s diversity, which includes snapshots of the city’s children. The photos represent 160 ethnicities from around the world and represents New York’s diversity through images of children, including Muslims.
The exhibit included photos of children living in New York with origins from 169 countries around the globe.
The photographs were compiled by a 44-year-old Jewish photographer from Brooklyn, Danny Goldfield.
Goldfield said he got the idea for the project after he came across flowers, candles and a makeshift memorial in front of a gas station in Mesa, Arizona.
“I met the owner of the gas station, Rana Sodh.” He said his brother, Balbir, His brother Balbir was killed in a retaliatory hate crime four days after Sept. 11. Sodhi was mistaken for someone from the Middle East due to his uncut beard and turban, part the articles of his Sikh faith, although he was an immigrant from India.
Sodhi made the trip to New York for the opening and wore a tie decorated with heart-shaped American flags. He still runs the gas station where his brother was killed.
“My heart is so warm when I heard Danny is doing this exhibition in Park51,” Sodhi said.
Goldfield said Sodhi’s efforts to fight prejudice in the wake of the crime inspired Goldfield’s project, the two men attended the event together.
Sodhi, who spoke haltingly, but emotionally, said it was appropriate for Park51 to open so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks, replacing the hatred of that day with a message of tolerance.
“We are together here today at Park51 to show the world we are still united and we respect each other,” Sodhi said.
Those who live in the area say they see the center as a complement to lower Manhattan’s revival 10 years after the attacks.
“You have to open it up if we want to be a free country,” said Joe Marino, 50. “You can’t suspect everyone in the world because of how they look or because of their background.”
Mery Mugo, 33, said it will be beneficial for both the neighborhood’s spirits and its business.
“It’s a good idea, it will bring people together,” she said.
Janel Tongay, 60, a New Jersey resident, said she was initially concerned about Park51’s lack of outreach to 9/11 family members, some of whom opposed the project. She told reporters it was important for the center’s leaders to open the space and demonstrate their intentions.
“Everyone has the right to follow their own religious beliefs in a peaceful way,” she said.
In addition to Goldfield’s exhibit, which runs through mid-December, Park51 will also host interfaith discussions, film screenings, author readings and children’s yoga classes in the temporary ground-floor space, which will eventually be demolished to make way for the much larger community center El-Gamal originally envisioned.
El-Gamal told the AP that fundraising is under way to complete a 15-story building that will also include an auditorium, educational programs, a pool, a restaurant and culinary school, child care services, a sports facility, a wellness center and artist studios.
The mosque is especially needed in lower Manhattan, he said, because thousands of Muslims either work or live in the neighborhood, “and in our religion, we must pray five times a day.”