x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Disputed New York Islamic centre near site of September 11 attacks opens its doors

As controversial Islamic cultural centre near site of World Trade Centre opens, developer agrees biggest mistake was not involving the families of September 11 victims from the start.

NEW YORK // The developer of an Islamic cultural centre near the site of the terrorist attacks that levelled the World Trade Centre says the biggest error in the project was not involving the families of September 11 victims from the start.

People crowded into the centre for its opening late on Wednesday, where a small orchestra played traditional Middle Eastern instruments and a photo exhibit of New York children of different ethnicities lined the walls. The enthusiasm at the opening of the centrebelied its troubled beginnings.

"We made incredible mistakes," Sharif El Gamal said earlier at his Manhattan office.

The building at 51 Park Place, two blocks from the World Trade Centre site, includes a mosque that has been open for two years. Mr El Gamal said the overall centre is modelled after the Jewish Community Centre on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he lives.

"I wanted my daughter to learn how to swim, so I took her to the JCC," said the Brooklyn-born Mr El Gamal. "And when I walked in, I said: 'Wow. This is great.'"

The project has drawn criticism from opponents who say they do not want a Muslim prayer space near the site of the September 11 attacks.

The centre is open to all faiths and will include a 9/11 memorial, Mr El Gamal said. He called opposition to the centre, which prompted one of the most virulent national discussions about Islam and freedom of speech and religion since the September 11 attacks, part of a "campaign against Muslims".

Last year, street clashes in view of the trade centre site pitted supporters against opponents of the Islamic centre.

When the centre was first envisioned, several years ago, the activist Daisy Khan and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, played a major, vocal role. But they soon left the project because of differences with the developer.

Mr El Gamal, 38, confirmed on Wednesday that they parted ways because "we had a different vision". He declined to elaborate.

The couple said they had discussed plans for Park51, as the centre is known, with relatives of September 11 victims, first responders and others, including the possibility that it could become a multi-faith centre focusing on religious conflict. But Mr El Gamal wishes victims' families had been involved earlier, before the centre became a point of contention.

"The biggest mistake we made was not to include 9/11 families," he said, saying that the centre's advisory board now includes at least one September 11 family member.

At first, "we didn't understand that we had a responsibility to discuss our private project with family members that lost loved ones," he said, and they did not "really connect" with community leaders and activists.

But today, "we're very committed to having them involved in our project. We're really listening."