NBC Names Ground Zero Mosque Developer a ‘Person of the Year’

NBC has announced that it has named the developer of the controversial Islamic prayer center near Ground Zero, Sharif el-Gamal, one of the network’s “People of the Year.” El-Gamal will sit down for an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer on Thanksgiving night.

The prayer center, known as Park51, has sparked outrage and massive protests from people who say that building a mosque so close to the site of the World Trade Center attacks is disrespectful to 9/11 victims and their families.

NBC’s previous coverage of Park51 has sometimes come off as insensitive to the people who object to the prayer center’s construction. Last August, NBC anchor Mika Brzezinski referred to Park51 opponents as people “who don’t care about the Constitution.”

“New York's mayor actually came out pretty clearly on this, as well. And a lot of people are applauding him for his political strength because there are many who don’t care about the Constitution, just want to jump on what will get to people emotionally on this and connect with them,” said Brzezinski on NBC’s “Today Show” on Aug. 14.

Some of the reporters on the network also mocked former Alaska governor Sarah Palin for requesting that “peace-seeking Muslims” “refudiate” the proposed Islamic center.

 “But of course, refudiate isn't an actual word, more like a blend of two words with similar meanings, refute and repudiate,” said reporter Peter Alexander, who quipped later in the segment that Palin “will have plenty of time to coin some new words going forward, Matt [Lauer]. The scheduled groundbreaking on this [Park51] site is still years away.”

While the NBC program with Sharif el-Gamal doesn’t air until Thursday, it will be interesting to see whether Matt Lauer raises some of the concerns of the mosque opponents during the interview.

In a brief excerpt from the interview, which is posted on the NBC site, Lauer grills el-Gamal over whether he initially predicted that the mosque project would be so hurtful to so many people.

“You say when you first envisioned this project, it never crossed your mind that there would be controversy over that,” said Lauer.

El-Gamal shook his head.

“You seem like such a smart guy, I’m surprised that it never crossed your mind,” responded Lauer.

But while el-Gamal may have never imagined that an Islamic prayer center near Ground Zero would spark controversy, other early supporters of the project did – and they even assumed it would turn violent.

In one of the first articles written about the project, the New York Times reported last December that “though the [Park51 organizer] imam [Feisal Abdul Rauf] is adamant about what his intentions for the site are, there is anxiety among those involved or familiar with the project that it could very well become a target for anti-Muslim attacks.”

The short excerpt of the interview also shows that el-Gamal may have an inspiring message for moderate Muslims who are struggling against extremist factions in their religion:

 “I am an American,” said el-Gamal. “I am an American who has a specific belief system. And my belief system – in order to be a good Muslim, you have to be a good Jew, and a good Christian. And in order to be a Muslim you have to believe in pluralism. You do not commit a mass murder.”

But hopefully NBC will buck its earlier trend of ignoring legitimate criticism of the Park51 proposal, and put el-Gamal’s project under more serious scrutiny.