NEW YORK – The developer behind a proposal to build an Islamic center near ground zero said Wednesday that the experience has been an "eye-opener" about misperceptions surrounding his faith, but that he is the one ultimately calling the shots on the project and has no plans to move it.
Speaking on NBC's "Today" show, Sharif El-Gamal reiterated his stance that the opposition to the Park51 project was unexpected.
"It's been an eye-opener to see how my country, the United States, is using my religion, Islam," he said. "It's been a humbling moment and it's been a very sad moment for me personally."
The proposed community center and mosque would be two blocks from ground zero. The location has upset some relatives of Sept. 11 victims and led to angry demands that it be moved. Critics say the site of mass murder by Islamic extremists is no place for an Islamic institution.
El-Gamal said the project organizers had engaged with the local community and had gained their support before moving ahead, something he said was not being accurately reflected in coverage of the issue.
He said the project was an opportunity for him to do something for a community that had given him so much.
"As an American, as someone who has prospered in this country, someone who has gotten a lot from the city, this is an opportunity for us to give back," he said.
But the experience has also showed him that there was a lot of work to be done to help people understand who Muslims are, he said.
"There is such a misperception about my faith and my belief system," he said. "We are peace-loving Americans. We want the same things that everybody else wants."
El-Gamal is the manager of a real estate partnership that controls the property on which the Islamic center would be built. He also founded a nonprofit group to raise money for the project.
He said there were no discussions to move the center and that he was in control of that decision.
"I am calling the shots," he said.
But one of the major investors in the real estate partnership, Hisham Elzanaty, has described a slightly different vision for the center than El-Gamal, telling The Associated Press saying he would be willing to sell half the site for private development, while building a mosque on the other half.