The Heated Debate Over New York's Islamic Center

Scott Pelley Looks At The National Debate On The Planned Islamic Center Near Ground Zero

A plan to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero set off a national controversy with anger, passion and more than a little misinformation. Opponents whipped up a fury, calling the project a grotesque mega mosque tied to terrorism.

Now, for the first time, you're going to see the plans for the center and you'll hear from the key players, including the people behind the mosque. Ironically the man who has the biggest stake has been almost completely out of the public eye.


Extra: How Much Will It Cost?
Extra: Imam Speaks on Moderates
Web Extra: Safeguarding the Message


He's the developer who owns the project. He took us to the spot his critics call an affront to the memory of 9/11.

The focus of outrage is a former Burlington Coat Factory store on a dingy block in lower Manhattan. Real estate developer Sharif El-Gamal paid $4.5 million for it.

He told correspondent Scott Pelley he had bought what was previously an "abandoned" piece of real estate in July 2009.

According to El-Gamal, there was nothing in the building. "It had been vacant since 9/11."

Vacant, because part of the landing gear from one of the hijacked planes crashed through the roof. El-Gamal says he will tear this down to create a 16-story Islamic community center.

El-Gamal explained what will be part of the community center: "A restaurant, child care facilities, a pool. A media tech library, a world class auditorium that will seat up to 500 people."

He says membership will be open to all, but around ten percent of the space, two floors below ground, will be devoted to an Islamic prayer room.

El-Gamal is a brash 37-year-old Muslim and lifelong New Yorker who develops apartments and offices. He says he got his idea from a neighborhood center where he was a member, the Jewish Community Center. El-Gamal thought his project would be a step up for a seedy part of downtown and the community enthusiastically agreed.

The plan was endorsed by the mayor, the borough president and the community board. But that was last spring. Today, El-Gamal is described on the Internet as an Islamic supremacist.

"Who are you?" Pelley asked.

"I'm an American, a New Yorker, born in Methodist Hospital Brooklyn, to a Polish Catholic mother, to an Egyptian father," he replied.

"Let me make sure I have this straight. You are a Muslim who married a Christian girl. Your mother is Catholic. And you joined the Jewish Community Center on the West Side of Manhattan?" Pelley asked.

"I did. That's New York, though. That's New York," El-Gamal replied.

If real estate is about location, the question is how close is too close. We started at El-Gamal's building and headed to the World Trade Center. You can't see Ground Zero from there, but, when you make the corner, the World Trade Center is two blocks away.

"In the distance here, you can see the cranes where the new World Trade Center buildings are going up," Pelley remarked.

It took us another two minutes to walk to the edge of what the government officially designates as Ground Zero.

"But what do you say to those people who say that it is painful for them to have the idea of a mosque, even though it is two and a half blocks away?" Pelley asked.

"I was affected by the horrific events that happened that day as well. And I do not hold myself or my faith accountable for what happened during that horrific day," El-Gamal said.

  • CBSNews

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