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Ground Zero Mosque: Who's in Charge?

Nina Shea

The proposal to build a mosque two blocks north of Ground Zero has provoked a heated debate in the nation about that quintessential American right, religious freedom, and its limits in this age of Islamist terrorism. That there are limits — that is, beyond the areas in which the law is already clear, including prohibitions against acts of violence, certain types of discrimination, and polygamy — has at last been recognized in recent Obama policies and pronouncements.

In fact, the Obama administration has weighed in with a comment specifically directed to the matter of the Ground Zero mosque. During the Q&A at a daily briefing last week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs stated that America is “not at war with a religion but with an idea that has corrupted a religion.” Without elaborating, he quickly shifted responsibility for the matter of the Ground Zero mosque to local authorities. Delphic in its brevity, the administration’s formulation nevertheless is significant. Unlike the recent National Security Strategy document, it acknowledges that America must defend itself against not only those committing or financing terror in the name of Islam, but also those promoting radical ideas in the context of Islam. This could serve as a useful reference in the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque.

An example of where religious freedom might be limited in the light of the new Islamist challenge was provided in a dramatic way this spring when the administration designated longtime al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki, an American based in Yemen, as someone to be captured or killed. Al-Awlaki apparently crossed the line with his fiery web sermons and religious directives over a period of years that incited at least three men to stage terror attacks in the United States in the last year. More recently, the administration also adopted policies prohibiting other people from giving the radical cleric assistance, including legal representation, unless they obtain a waiver.

In that context, it is important to remember that shutting down a particular religious establishment — or preventing it from being built — does not constitute barring a religion as a whole, as Mayor Bloomberg erroneously suggested. (“If somebody wants to build a religious house of worship, they should do it and we shouldn’t be in the business of picking which religions can and which religions can’t.”) It could all depend on what the building is used for, how it is operated, and now, after the Al-Awlaki determination, what is the impact of the preaching and instruction that takes place there — is it likely to motivate people to plan terrorist attacks?

Much of what we know of the plans for the Ground Zero mosque comes from the man who is most frequently cited in articles written on the subject, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Born in 1948 in Kuwait, of Egyptian descent, the Muslim leader has become known over the past quarter-century as a bridge builder in Manhattan’s interfaith circles through his nonprofit group, the Cordoba Initiative. He also has acquired a reputation for being a master of ambiguity, someone who practices the art of “dialogue” by framing his positions in such a way that they can be understood differently by different people. He seems to make it a practice to utter opposing views in the same breath, and to state different things to different audiences. A good example of the former occurred in a 60 Minutes interview about 9/11. He stated first, “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened,” and then in the next sentence, “But United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.”

As an example of the latter, his latest book has been published under two titles. In the United States, it has the reassuring title What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America. The title for readers abroad, however, sends the disturbing signal that there may be a link between his missionary work (dawa) and Osama bin Laden’s terrorism: A Call to Prayer from the World Trade Center Rubble: Islamic Dawa in the Heart of America Post-9/11. When a radio interviewer this June tried to pin him down on whether he agreed with the State Department’s designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization, he indignantly refused to give a straight answer: “I’m not a politician. I try to avoid the issues. The issue of terrorism is a very complex question. I am a peace builder. . . . I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy.” Giving all sides a little something of what they want to hear seems to be his stock in trade.

This pattern is worth bearing in mind when evaluating his proposal for the Ground Zero complex, which he calls “Cordoba House.” (The term “Cordoba,” which he adopted both for his dialogue organization and for the Ground Zero project, is itself ambiguous; it can symbolize either interfaith harmony or Islamic conquest.) Rauf describes his vision for the proposed building as “about promoting integration, tolerance of difference, and community cohesion through arts and culture.” He elaborates on this: “Cordoba House will provide a place where individuals, regardless of their backgrounds, will find a center of learning, art, and culture; and most importantly, a center guided by Islamic values in their truest form — compassion, generosity, and respect for all.”

In his July 21 article for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, the imam announces, “Our community center is not a mosque.” Instead, he states, it will have a “prayer space for many religions,” as well as “recreational facilities, meeting rooms, an auditorium, [and] banquet facilities,” “other amenities that a community needs to be healthy, vibrant and strong,” and “a public memorial to the victims of 9/11.” He emphasizes: “The center will be open to everyone, not just Muslims. That is our mission — to provide common ground for people of all faiths.”

On his own website, he seems even more emphatic. After reprinting the statement of support for the project by Mayor Bloomberg, who calls it a “house of worship,” Imam Feisal corrects him: “[W]e reiterate our point that the Cordoba House is not intended to be a house of worship, exclusive to Muslims.” The imam then proceeds to describe the project in detail: “The site will contain tremendous amounts of resources that otherwise would not exist in Lower Manhattan; a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores, restaurants — all these services would form a cultural nexus for a region of New York City that, as it continues to grow, requires the sort of hub that Cordoba House will provide.” He makes no mention of a mosque.

What Imam Feisal is describing here seems to be a no-strings-attached gift to lower Manhattan from a group of idealistic Muslims who aim to soothe interfaith tensions at Ground Zero. In describing a “prayer space for many religions,” he seems to paint a picture of a place where Muslims of every stripe (Sunnis, Shiites, Sufis, Ahmadiyyas, Koranists), along with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and even Baha’i (who are viciously persecuted in the Arab world), can all offer prayers together in interfaith services, and where each faith group can pray separately in its own tradition in space designated for it.

The imam compellingly asks: “What could be a better monument to the victims of 9/11 than a community center whose very presence is an affront to extremists everywhere?” This would indeed be anathema to hardliners: One example of the extremist view is a tract published by Riyadh’s Ibn Taymiyya Press and disseminated in the United States that emphatically instructs Muslims: “Be dissociated from the infidels, hate them for their religion, leave them, never rely on them for support, do not admire them, and always oppose them in every way according to Islamic law.” Imam Feisal’s description, in contrast, sounds good.

But, apart from the ambiguity of the imam’s statements generally, there is another problem with relying on his vision for the Ground Zero space. It seems that Imam Feisal, though a partner in the endeavor, is not really in charge. A July 24 interview with the project’s lead developer, Sharif el-Gamal, the CEO of SoHo Properties, discloses that he is the one who actually holds title to the property. And he tells a somewhat different story.

Mr. el-Gamal states that a yet-to-be-created nonprofit will actually be in control of this center, not Imam Feisal, who will be only one of many directors of the board and will be in charge only of that part of the operation dealing with “interfaith programming,” which is what will be called “Cordoba House.” El-Gamal states that he cannot reveal the names of the other 22 directors nor that of the executive director, since they have not yet been selected.

El-Gamal clearly describes his plan for the space to be an Islamic center that will include a mosque, and not any other house of worship. (The imam never specifically writes that there won’t be a mosque at the site, and he may have meant only that the building would include much more than a mosque.) El-Gamal explains that there is a need for such a mosque, pointing out, “There are probably one million Muslims in the tri-state area and several hundred thousand in New York City.” He does not say how many of these the proposed mosque aims to hold. As for non-Muslims, they will be more than welcome to share, if not “common ground,” at least Islamic ground.

El-Gamal affirms that the building, which he refers to as “Park51,” will function essentially as an Islamic community center promoting tolerance and understanding among New Yorkers, loosely modeled on the YMCAs, or on the New York Jewish community’s 92nd Street Y. Apart from the mosque, it will have three types of programs open to all New Yorkers: “arts and culture, education, and recreation.” We might ask, however, whether these programs will be free of proselytizing, and whether they will follow some sharia rules — for example, gender segregation in the pool.

Like Rauf, el-Gamal articulates a broad, noble vision: “We’ll offer all New Yorkers valuable services, world-class facilitie,s and empowering opportunities to learn more about the world around us and about each other.” Though he is not in a position to guarantee it, he avows: “What we do not have room for are extremist views and opinions. Radical and hateful agendas will have no place in our community center or in the mosque.”

Although Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t think so, where the money will be found for this endeavor — estimated at $100 million in building costs, and an unknown amount in annual operating costs — is a pertinent question. And it is one that neither the imam nor el-Gamal has publicly answered. El-Gamal, who is said to be in his late 30s, does not appear to have the money himself. Information about his background is sketchy, but, according to unconfirmed web reports, he is of Egyptian heritage, born in Liberia, and, a few years before becoming a multi-million-dollar real-estate investor, he was waiting tables at New York City restaurants.El-Gamal gives his assurances that he and his colleagues will refuse assistance from potential donors “who are flagged by our security consultants or any government agencies.” This seems to mean that money will not be accepted from designated terrorist charities, but it does not close the door to donations from such fountainheads of Islamic radicalism as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Libya. Claudia Rosett reports that Imam Feisal is about to embark on a month-long State Department–sponsored tour to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf states, and she raises the question of whether he will be doing some fundraising for the mosque during his travels.

As the 2005 study I prepared for Freedom House demonstrated, radical Saudi educational materials have been exported to some of America’s largest mosques, including the Washington Islamic Center in the nation’s capital, which distributed the Ibn Taymiyyah Press tract cited above. This literature calls for Muslims to “spill the blood” of apostates, polytheists (which includes Shiites), homosexuals, and adulterers; declares illegitimate any democratic state governed by “infidel” laws; calls for Muslims to work to establish sharia states in the West through both through aggressive dawa and militant jihad; promotes war to eradicate Israel; and are virulently anti-American.

So far, these radical ideas have been deemed protected under the First Amendment, and none of the mosques or Islamic centers named in the study have been shut down by government authorities (though some foreign imams associated with some of them have been expelled or barred from the country). For example, the Saudi-founded King Fahd Mosque in the west side of Los Angeles, near LAX, remains open. This mosque has distributed radical literature during the past decade, and it was here that two of the Saudi 9/11 hijackers promptly went upon their arrival in America. They made it their base, receiving assistance and friendship while making preparations for the attack on the Twin Towers. The mosque’s imam, Fahad al Thumairy, a well-known Wahhabi extremist and Saudi diplomat, was finally expelled by the U.S. in 2003 for suspected terror connections. The Al Farouq mosque in Brooklyn also has not been shuttered despite its promotion of jihad, both through radical literature on the subject and through sermons by Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheik, who was eventually convicted of seditious conspiracy for planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; another past imam there was a Guyana missionary who is the father of al-Qaeda’s new head of global operations, the American-raised Adnan Shukrijumah. The large Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., constructed with the help of the Saudi embassy, also remains open, although it has a long history of radical connections. Al-Awlaki himself preached there; it hosted some of the 9/11 hijackers; the Fort Hood murderer was associated with it and it may have been partly responsible for his radicalization; and it has distributed radical Saudi educational materials.

Regarding the Ground Zero mosque, based on the information provided by the two partners in the project, we know very little about who will eventually be its directors, or who will fund it. It is the answers to these questions that will determine whether the Ground Zero mosque will be an “affront to extremists everywhere,” or, alternatively, whether it will threaten our homeland security by hindering our war against a dangerous idea that has “corrupted” Islam.

It is not “Islamophobic” or disrespectful to seek answers to these questions. Transparency is one of our best defenses in this ideological war. At the August 5 briefing for the rollout of this year’s Country Reports on Terrorism, the coordinator of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism, Amb. Daniel Benjamin, noted that, in addition to realizing that al-Qaeda has the capacity to strike our homeland, Americans have “learned something else important in the last year.” He went on to explain: “The assumption that Americans have some special immunity to al-Qaeda’s ideology was dispelled. While our overall domestic radicalization problem remains significantly less than in many Western nations, several high-profile cases demonstrate that we must remain vigilant.” This is a warning we would all do well to heed.

The Obama administration has not stated where it intends to draw the line on the continuum of radical Islamist ideology. Such limits will likely emerge on a case-by-case basis. The stream of American Muslims from Minnesota who have been inspired to join Somalia’s terrorist group, for example, could prompt the administration to take further measures in this regard. Ultimately, it will be up to the courts to decide how to balance religious freedom against national and homeland security. In fact, the ACLU is already challenging the administration’s action on al-Awlaki, arguing that the government has disregarded the standard that the violence be “imminent” set by the Supreme Court for limiting speech that incites violence in the landmark 1969 Brandenburg case.

Our Constitution rightly protects the building of houses of worship, even when public sensibilities are offended — unlike, for example, Egypt, which uses just such a standard to limit the building of churches. The possibility that the Islamic center could be a propaganda gift to the enemy by the mere fact of its proximity to Ground Zero (the site was close enough that the building there was damaged in the 9/11 attacks) has been deemed by authorities not to clear the high bar of the First Amendment as a reason to permit its banning. Whether Park51 (or any other American mosque) will become a center of radicalism to an extent warranting its closure for the sake of homeland security — either under the new al-Awlaki standard or under some future standard necessitated by compelling reasons emerging within the ideological war at large — will remain to be seen.

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