It was August 2010, coming up on the ninth anniversary of the Sept 11 attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report was six years into history. There would be an observance of the date of the terrible attacks–there always would be and will be going forward. But the tenth anniversary looming in 2011 would be viewed as a more resonant milestone, as the twentieth anniversary this Saturday certainly is.
The highest-profile news story with a 9/11 connection at that time was the intention of a Muslim cleric to build a mosque and cultural center very near to what would be forever known as Ground Zero. It was dubbed the Ground Zero Mosque by conservatives and others who adamantly did not want the project approved.
To be clear, opponents of the mosque were not objecting to the right of any religious denomination to build a house of worship. It was about the location, only a few steps away from soil many felt was consecrated by American blood. Inescapable was the fact that individuals who carried out the attacks were members of the Islamic faith.
Then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was quite outspoken about his objection to the mosque location. In segment after segment, he made the case that the idea of a Ground Zero place of worship for Muslims was simply not appropriate, making clear that he had no objection to a mosque in Lower Manhattan, but that out of a compelling sense of propriety, the proponents of the project should take their plans elsewhere.
As was often the case, when O’Reilly took up an issue, it gained traction. It became a cause across conservative media, to stop the Ground Zero Mosque. I took up that cause in my capacity as a local conservative journalist, publishing “A Mosque Too Far” in the Oregonian.
This excerpt from the piece illustrates how the proposed mosque had become a hot-button issue:
Former House Speaker Newt Gringrich spoke for many Americans when he told Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren, “We have to recognize this is a fundamental choice here, and the radical Islamists, not Muslims who want to live their own lives and coexist with Christians and Jews, [but] the radical Muslims who are triumphalists who want to dominate the rest of us need to be confronted by us. This mosque is an illustration of what they’re trying to do.”
My essay gained some attention locally, with the left-wing website Blue Oregon calling me out by name, and holding me up as an example of retrograde nationalist xenophobia. (The website is defunct, no link available.) Oregon’s paper of record had published another opinion piece—with a different take—about the mosque two weeks before mine appeared.
The next shoe to drop was news that the imam of the Ground Zero Mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf was scheduled to arrive in Portland and speak to a civic group. Opposition, or at least a show of protest, against Rauf was quickly mobilized by local conservative activists. I heard about the protest through the grapevine, and on an overcast Saturday afternoon made my way downtown to the building where Rauf was scheduled to speak.
No newsflash, Portland is about the most un-conservative city on the map. So, when a handful of protestors did convene with signage to send the message that even in Blue Portland there were people who opposed Rauf’s plan for a Ground Zero Mosque, there was some resistance to our presence. Several carloads of people drove past the protest, jeering with appalled expressions on their faces. In one passing vehicle, a man with a video camera was capturing all of us—to what end is open to conjecture.
One leftist who was leading a group toward the entrance to the building looked right at me and said to his cohort, “Republicans are evil.”
My response to his young associates, “Read The Looming Tower.”
There was real vehemence displayed toward the Ground Zero Mosque imam opposition that day. As if those countering the protest didn’t understand that the protest was not against law-abiding citizens of the Islamic faith, but about an insensitive plan for a celebration of Islam at the very spot where so many people—including Muslims—had lost their lives that morning twenty years ago this week.
Over the ensuing weeks, O’Reilly and other conservative commentators continued to beat the drum against the slated $100 million, 13-story mosque and cultural center. Ultimately, O’Reilly’s opposition, and the opposition of Newt Gingrich and millions of American citizens, did not prevail. The sense of impropriety engendered by the location of the mosque was real, but not enough to carry the day.
In September 2011, two blocks from Ground Zero, which was still a gash on the landscape, a modest place of worship innocuously named Park 51 “opened to all faiths.”
From the Christian Science Monitor report:
The space had been cleared out and the walls painted a stark white for the exhibit. The renovations were funded with $70,000 raised on the website Kickstarter. The modest first-floor space is intended to function as a temporary center until groundbreaking on an entirely new building.
El-Gamal told the AP that fundraising is under way to complete a 15-story building that will also include an auditorium, educational programs, a pool, a restaurant and culinary school, child care services, a sports facility, a wellness center and artist studios.
But that is not the end of the story. There are far too many real estate permutations to recount here, but the bottom line is that the grand plans for the Ground Zero Mosque never quite came to fruition.
This 2015 report from The Awl website explains what would eventually rise at the location:
Last week, Soho Properties released details of the project to Bloomberg Businessweek: a seventy-story, ultra-luxury condominium tower, including at least fifteen full-floor units to be marketed at prices higher than three thousand dollars per square foot. There will be a fifty-foot swimming pool in the basement and concierge service. A public plaza will connect the condos to the (much reduced) Islamic Museum and prayer space at the site. Above three hundred feet, all of the apartments will be full-floor units with private elevators and twelve-foot floor-to-ceiling windows offering unobstructed views of Midtown, the Hudson River, and the Statue of Liberty.