The leader of the "Ground Zero mosque" project in New York, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is commonly portrayed as a moderate and a sincere believer in interfaith dialogue. Typical is a profile in Time that described Rauf and his wife as "the kind of Muslim leaders right-wing commentators fantasize about: modernists and moderates who openly condemn the death cult of al-Qaeda and its adherents." But such descriptions are belied by his record, especially at the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), the non-profit that he founded and chairs along with the Cordoba Initiative, sponsor of the proposed mosque and cultural center in downtown Manhattan.
Rauf is a permanent member of the board of trustees for the Islamic Cultural Center of New York (ICCNY), on Third Avenue between 96th and 97th Streets. According to a 2004 obituary for Rauf's father, Tan Sri Dr. Muhammad Abdul Rauf, an Egyptian who lived in Malaysia but who died in the U.S., Feisal Abdul Rauf is the trustee of land belonging to his father next to ICCNY. When his father died, Rauf first advanced his scheme for an "Islamic and cultural center which will have a mosque, school and a residential tower." The plan then was to site it at the 96th Street location. The choice to site it two blocks from Ground Zero came later.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the "96th Street mosque," as ICCNY is typically known, became notorious for a more outspoken participant in its work. Its imam was another Egyptian, Muhammad Gamei'a. Shortly after 9/11, Gamei'a disappeared, resurfacing in Egypt on October 4, 2001, where he told an Egyptian website, regarding 9/11, "The Jews were behind these ugly acts, while we, the Arabs, were innocent. . . . If it became known to the American people, they would have done to the Jews what Hitler did!"
Gamei'a's successor at the 96th St. mosque, Imam Abu-Namous, told the October 26, 2001 issue of the Forward that "Imam Al-Gamei'a had not been speaking on behalf of the Islamic Cultural Center, which 'will continue to participate' in interfaith dialogue." But he added that "he considered the evidence against Osama bin Laden insufficient, and said he could 'not rule out' any possible perpetrators, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish."
Rauf's own rhetoric has not always been measured. On March 21, 2004, he told the Sydney Morning Herald that the U.S. and the West would have to recognize the damage they have done to Muslims before terrorism can end. The Australian daily reported "Imam Feisal said the West had to understand the terrorists' point of view." The paper also cited Rauf's arguments that "the Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians . . . it was Christians in World War II who bombed civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima."
On June 23, 2004, Rauf told Chris Hedges, then a writer for the New York Times, that, in Hedges's words, "Islamic terrorists do not come from another moral universe--that they arise from oppressive societies that he feels Washington had a hand in creating." More recently, on February 7, 2010, Rauf told the Egyptian daily Almasri Alyaum, "I have been saying since the 1967 war that if there is peace between Israel and Palestine, in time the Palestinians will prevail."
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf did not inadvertently become involved with Islamic groups aligned against America. ASMA, which he founded in 1997, operates a program titled "Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow" (MLT) partly funded by Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal (famous for his offer of a $10 million check, right after 9/11, to Rudy Giuliani, who rejected it). In 2008, Alwaleed donated $125,000 to ASMA for MLT, following a previous gift of $180,000. Alwaleed's beneficence was also extended at that time to the fundamentalist Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
Rauf projects an inclusive attitude. Describing the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow program, ASMA promises that it will include "representation of all religious ideologies & sects: (Shia, Sunni, Ismaili, Sufi, Salafi, secularists, traditionalist etc)." But "Salafi" is just a cover term for "Wahhabi"--the state sect in Saudi Arabia, which spreads around the globe its message of violence against Shias, Sunnis who reject "Salafism," Ismailis, Sufis, secularists, and traditionalists.
Rauf, it is true, has recruited some Muslim dissidents and reformers to MLT, including the Canadian "Muslim refusenik" Irshad Manji and the Danish parliamentarian Naser Khader. Yet the radicals sponsored by MLT far outnumber such moderates. Islamists in the MLT roster include, in the U.S., Debbie Almontaser, the controversial nominee to head an Arabic-language high school in New York, the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Almontaser also took a leading role in a polemical assault on the New York Police Department led by the radical Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
In the Netherlands, ASMA has enrolled Mustafa Hamurcu and Nur Hamurcu from Milli Görüş (National Vision), the anti-Jewish, conspiratorialist movement among Turkish Muslims.
In Britain, Rauf and ASMA have favored two academics, Tufyal Choudhury of Durham University and Hisham Hellyer of Warwick University, whose rhetoric focuses on Islamist grievances, mainly imagined. Choudhury has argued that tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe is inevitable, and that integration of Muslims should be defined as "management of conflict." Hellyer has alleged that security issues caused by Islamist terrorism have imposed restrictions on "housing, health, education" for European Muslims--an absurd charge.
Among British Muslims selected for MLT we also find three of the most assiduous detractors of Muslim moderates in the island. These are Aftab Ahmad Malik, an acolyte of the radical preacher Hamza Yusuf Hanson; Masud Ahmed Khan, who operates a website called deenport.com as a monitor against anti-extremist Muslims, and Fareena Alam. Alam's contributions include a retrospective defense, in a 2007 London Guardian column, of John Walker Lindh, the American captured in 2001 fighting in Taliban ranks and sentenced to prison. Fareena Alam described Lindh as "the focus of a campaign of disinformation" and victim of a "gross miscarriage of justice."
Another citation from Alam eloquently expresses the outlook prevalent among those Feisal Abdul Rauf hopes will be the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow. In mid-July 2010 she was quoted about debates over the headscarf and face coverings among Muslim women in Europe: the issue, she said, "has more to do with Europe's own identity crisis than with the presence of some 'dangerous other'. At a time when post-communist, secular, democratic Europe was supposed to have been ascendant, playing its decisive role at the end of history, Islam came and spoiled the party." So triumphalist a view is hardly conducive to the "mutual recognition and respect" between Islam and the West that is the stated goal of the Ground Zero mosque plan.