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Frontline: “The Man Behind The Mosque”

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More than two weeks after the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, Frontline is still doing stories that touch on the events of that day and how it's shaped our recent history. Most of tonight's episode was devoted to Sharif El-Gamal, a real estate developer who, after 9/11, reconnected with what he refers to as his "father's religion," and the story of how his efforts to carve out a space in lower Manhattan where Muslims could worship put him at the center of last year's most overblown media firestorm. The rest of the episode is filled out with NPR reporter Adam Davidson's report on another idealistic developer, Lionel Pressoir, who hopes to turn a depressed area in Haiti into a tourist center; it's a wry little yarn that provides some much-needed comic relief after the first part of the show. Let me repeat that: The story about a guy engaged in a doomed effort to help the flat-lining economy in post-earthquake Haiti provides the comic relief in this hour.


Of these two guys, Al-Gamal has the story that, to his deep and lasting regret, you're probably more likely to have heard of. After the usual quest for the holy grail that is the search for prime Manhattan real estate, Al-Gamal found his property at what he thought was just the former site of the Burlington Coat Factory. That was before blogger and 100-proof nightmare fuel Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, co-founders of the group Stop Islamization of America, got a hold of the story and lit a fuse that exploded all over Fox News. The site was two blocks away from Ground Zero, or as the project's opponents invariably refer to it, "hallowed ground"; Geller and her fellow professional hysterics on the cable news shows took to "explaining" that it was customary for Muslims to construct "victory mosques" wherever they have perpetrated acts of war and other atrocities, and that allowing a mosque to be built a stone's throw from where the Twin Towers had stood would amount to an act of desecration.

At its simplest, the Frontline report offers a brisk refresher course on last year's "Ground Zero Mosque" craziness, with brief glimpses of all the most high-profile charmers who managed to milk the situation for a little attention: There's Glenn Beck babbling away while playing with his blackboards and Pastor Terry Jones and his porn star facial hair, talking about the salutary effects of book burning. You also get to see Geller, her eyes lit up like Chernobyl, taking a break from railing about how it's the location of Al-Gamal's project that's so disgusting to drive out to Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and tell a cheering mob there that they don't need any damn mosques in their neighborhood, either. There's way too many of 'em in the country already.


The contrast between all this hyperventilating from so many professional stirrers of shit and Al-Gamal, quietly and often wistfully trying to explain to the Frontline interviewer what he wanted to accomplish, is very striking. Sadly, it's more striking than anything Al-Gamal actually has to say, but then, he's never styled himself as a public figure. He comes across, very convincingly, as an unexciting but decent guy who just buys properties and develops them and had no way of anticipating the perfect storm of opportunistic hatefulness that was about to engulf him. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a popular figure in the New York interfaith community who had worked with George W. Bush's State Department on improving relations with the United States and Muslim societies overseas, was supposed to serve as the public face of the Park51 project, but after he got badly burned by the news coverage (he was portrayed as an Islamic radical and terrorist sympathizer by some commentators, who relied on the specialized journalistic method of making up crap), the Imam detached himself and went on the road, and soon Fox News reporters in need of someone to torture were running Al-Gamal down as if they were chasing rabbits on a dirt bike. To see some jackal with a microphone hassling Al-Gamal as he stomps down the street looking as if he just threw something on to go in search of his first caffeine of the morning is to see that rarest and most wondrous of things, someone trying to get something done in New York City who clearly does not want to be on camera.

Al-Gamal, who has his property but is trying to get something done with it in the face of a fundraising drought and universal hostility from an Islamic community that doesn't want to be seen associating with him, comes across as a pretty sad man. He's not the saddest man on view here, though. That title goes to Lee Hanson, a grandfatherly-looking gentleman who lost his family on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. We get to see him pay a visit to Al-Gamal in his offices, and, again, the contrast between Hanson and the screaming meemies who exploited the case couldn't be greater. Hanson is shrouded in the dignity that comes from being sentenced to a life dominated by grieving, and he treats his host respectfully. It's only if you think about what he actually says that you realize that he isn't respectful at all.


Instead of calling Al-Gamal a monster who wants to defile the place where his children died, Hanson tells him that he'd like to believe that he has the makings of a hero in him, and that a true hero would walk away from this wicked project, just take the financial hit, and prove that there can be such a thing as a good Muslim, by doing what all those people who think Islam is an evil religion want him to do. Al-Gamal tries to explain how the situation looks from his side; what once was a commercial enterprise has turned into a last stand, and if he folds, then he'll be handing an unacceptable victory to those people who've slandered both him and the faith of his own family. Hanson doesn't even pretend to care about listening to him. As they part ways, Al-Gamal says something about how he'd like it if Hanson could meet his wife and kids, and Hanson mutters that he'd love to, "once this issue is settled."

The actual issues involved in the Park51 case aren't that complicated; they boil down to whether you believe that, if some nut does something unspeakable in the name of his religion, that taints the religion to such a degree that it can't be practiced in good faith by anyone ever again. And the emotional issues wouldn't be that hard to reconcile if it only pitted people like Al-Gamal against people like Geller and Spencer. It only feels more complicated because of people like Lee Hanson, because it feels as if only a monster would want to do anything to add to that man's pain. The problem is that, at the same time that he's arguing for what he thinks the memory of his lost family demands, Hanson is also a representative of all the Americans who won't accept that an issue has been settled until it's been settled their way.


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