The Man Behind the "Ground Zero" Mosque

Everyone -- the public, media and even the President -- has something to say about the controversial proposal to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero.

"It's very surreal," said Sharif el-Gamal, the man who came up with the idea for an Islamic center near Ground Zero. "It is a very surreal experience to be in the middle of this storm."

Sharif el-Gamal, a Manhattan real estate developer, sat down with 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley:

Pelley: Who are you?

El-Gamal: I'm an American, a New Yorker, born in Methodist Hospital Brooklyn, to a Polish Catholic mother and an Egyptian father.

Pelley: 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.

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

Sharif El-Gamal: No Money from Iran, Hamas

Pelley: This facility that is being debated all around the world is universally known as the Ground Zero Mosque. What do you call it?

El-Gamal: It should be universally known as a hub of culture, a hub of coexistence, a hub of bringing people together.

The hub he is talking about - an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory store -- is two blocks from Ground Zero. You can't see the World Trade Center site from here. El-Gamal intends to put in a swimming pool, cooking school, meeting hall and an Islamic prayer room.

Pelley: Did it occur to you when you were putting this together that that was two blocks too close to a place that many, many people feel very strongly about?

El-Gamal: Not at all. It did not even cross my mind once.

Pelley: Why not?

El-Gamal: Because I did not hold myself or my faith accountable for that tragedy.

El-Gamal didn't spring this on the neighborhood. He says it took eight years to negotiate the purchase.

Pelley: You don't have your choice of putting this anywhere you want to. There aren't many spots.

El-Gamal: It's not like you can just walk up - and say, "I want that building or I want that building." This is one of the most competitive marketplaces in the world.

And over the last year he took the proposal to a community board four times. It was approved every time.

Pelley: The President himself has agreed that you have the right. Some people question the wisdom.

El-Gamal: It matched the needs of my community. It matched the needs of my Muslim brothers and sisters, my Christian brothers and sisters, my Jewish brothers and sisters who live and work in lower Manhattan.

Pelley: Do you intend to go ahead with the project? After all of this?

El-Gamal: 100 percent.

  • Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"