Fareed Zakaria Hosts Ground Zero Mosque Developer for Puff-Piece Interview

August 8th, 2011 5:59 PM

CNN's Fareed Zakaria made it quite clear last summer that he supported the construction of the Ground Zero mosque. He was much more neutral in an interview with the mosque's developer Sunday, but was content to let his guest tell his side of the story without any scrutiny from the CNN host.

Although the once-proposed mosque is no longer making headlines, Zakaria decided anyway to feature the mosque's developer Sharif El-Gamal for a soft interview one year after the controversy ignited. El-Gamal received fawning coverage by CBS and NBC last summer for his work.

[Video below the break.]

El-Gamal related to Zakaria how his he and his wife were aghast at the "hate," "fear," and "ignorance" of the opponents of the planned "community center." He bemoaned that "there's so much misconceptions about who we are as Muslims, what our faith, what our practice, what our belief system is."

Zakaria avoided any scrutiny over El-Gamal's arguments and asked simple questions to get him to tell his story and get his message out. Not once did he reference the arguments of families of 9/11 victims who opposed not the mosque itself, but its location.

A transcript of the segment, which aired on August 7 at 1:48 p.m. EDT, is as follows:

FAREED ZAKARIA: And we are back with Sharif El-Gamal, the man who was truly behind the Ground Zero mosque from the beginning and still behind it now. When did you realize that this was turning into a controversy? What was the first inkling?

SHARIF EL-GAMAL, real estate developer, chairman, Park51: Well, in May of last year, we voluntarily – at that point when we finished our road trip with all the local elected officials – decided voluntarily to go into the community board. And we went into the community board voluntarily and shared with them this idea of building a community center. And on that first meeting, 16 people voted unanimously in favor of this project and these are all non-Muslim people, and they were excited that Muslims were going to build a community center in Lower Manhattan to serve all – all New Yorkers and all of Lower Manhattan, which was the intention behind this project.

We then followed that up with another full board meeting of 50. And when we went into that room, you know, at that next community board meeting, I invited my wife down to come. And I got there a few minutes after her and she was just in tears. And when I saw her in tears, I said what happened? And she goes, Sharif, you're not going to believe what's going on in that room. The people thought that I came here to protest against the Muslims, because they didn't realize that she was a Muslim because we don't fit whatever stereotype people have of Muslims. And when –

ZAKARIA: What was going on in that room?

EL-GAMAL: When I walked into that room, there was close to 700 people that were protesting what we were doing, and for the first time in my life – I – I had never seen, I'd never been discriminated against. I'd never seen that hate or that fear or – or – or – or that ignorance. I mean, I've never seen anything like that before in my life, and I was – I was scared. And at that point, we made a commitment – you know, personally, I made a commitment that I would do whatever it took as – as a businessman, as a human being, to make this project a reality.

And, you know, this past year for me has really been about listening, has really been about listening and – and going back to basics and trying to understand that – that there's so much work ahead of us, that there's so much misconceptions about who we are as Muslims, what our faith, what our practice, what our belief system is. Criminals have stolen our identity almost in a way, and they've defaced our – our faith.

ZAKARIA: So you got out – get out of that room with the 700 angry people. And at that point, it just snowballs and it gets latched on to by all kinds of political figures. By – were you – were you prepared for that kind of an onslaught?

EL-GAMAL: No, no. I'm a New Yorker. This is my city, and all we wanted to do was we wanted to build a facility that is based on who we are as Muslims, as Americans, to give back to our city, to create jobs, to create hundreds of construction jobs, to create hundreds of full-time jobs once the facility is open, to create over 500 part-time jobs. We were thinking of a way of revitalizing our neighborhood, creating, stimulating our economy, and providing services to our neighbors.

ZAKARIA: Did you get threatened?

EL-GAMAL: I did. A lot of scary things happened in – in –  a lot of very, very scary things have happened. A lot of very scary things have happened.

ZAKARIA: Did it ever make you think to yourself why do I need this?

EL-GAMAL: Because every time that I would look in my two little daughters, I would say that I don't – I want the world to be a better place for them, and that we have a responsibility that we – we just got subjected into this, but we have a responsibility now to reclaim who we are. Because if people knew who we were and if people knew that every time a mosque or an Islamic facility is built, it cleans up a neighborhood. This is statistically speaking across the 50 states that it becomes a beacon of light. And unfortunately, the – the criminals have - have taken control of the narrative today. And that's what was the - that was the impact of what we had gotten.

ZAKARIA: Will you be able to build the project?

EL-GAMAL: That's going to be a function of the community. This project is going to be as small or as big as ultimately the community decides. We are committed right now to building - one of the buildings we're 100 percent committed to. And it's going to take a shape and a form dependent of what the community comes back to us with.

ZAKARIA: You're not backing down?

EL-GAMAL: From doing the right thing? Backing down from doing the right thing, from providing first and foremost a place for people to pray, for Muslims to pray in Lower Manhattan after they've been displaced, and then going a step further and trying to provide community facilities to a neighborhood that needs community facilities, backing down from doing the right thing?