Feisal Abdul Rauf's Repellent Record as a Property Developer
by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz
Feisal Abdul Rauf, "spiritual guide" of the Ground Zero mosque scheme, a/k/a "Cordoba House," came back to the U.S. from Malaysia and the Persian Gulf last week. His partner, Sharif El-Gamal, presented as the pragmatic property developer in the project, who changed the name of the intended structure to "Park51," has fallen away from the center of attention. Since his return here, Rauf has again displayed the evasive manner widely discussed in the controversy over the proposed 13-15 storey "Islamic center."
In the past, Rauf was coyly ambiguous about terrorism, while now he is teasingly vague regarding calls to move the proposed megamosque to another site, declaring in a September 8 CNN interview, "Nothing is off the table." Paraphrasing, in a Monday event at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, he said "all options are on the table," while dismissing arguments that Ground Zero is hallowed ground, as the area includes "a strip joint around the corner, with betting parlors."
But Monday, September 13, was important for Rauf and his efforts in another way. The municipal authorities of Union City, NJ, filed a complaint against Sage Development, LLC, and Rauf, the sole officer/director/member of the corporation, for abuses at a 16-unit residential building he owns. According to the city, the suffering inflicted on Rauf's tenants include lack of lighting in hallways, non-functioning smoke detectors, a non-functioning central fire alarm, and failure to provide gas and hot water, all because of nonpayment of utility bills. Further, there are bedbugs in two units, requiring extermination services throughout the building, dirty hallways and garbage storage issues, debris on fire escapes, lack of fire extinguishers, and a rotting floor on one fire escape.
In sum, Sage Development and Rauf are "clearly not operating the Premises in a fiscally, socially, and legally responsible manner." In 2005, Sage's corporate status was revoked by the state of New Jersey for failure to file mandatory annual reports. Union City officials have asked for the appointment of a custodial receiver to collect rents, pay utility bills, resolve state and local code violations, and provide a fire watch at the property. The complaint adds, "Without the appointment of a Custodial Receiver for the Property, the Property will continue to pose a threat to the welfare of its tenants and the citizens of Union City."
The contrast between Rauf's continuing sleek performances at high-level venues like CFR, and the squalor present in his New Jersey rental properties, merely adds to the distasteful portrait of his character offered by the widely-acknowledged insensitivity of the Ground Zero Mosque concept, his ambivalence about Islamist radicalism, his admiration for the Iranian clerical dictatorship, and his lack of transparency about the presumptive financial sources for erection of Cordoba House/Park51. His "alternate" role as an oppressive and unresponsive rental proprietor was first revealed by shoe-leather reporters at such print newspapers in New Jersey as the Bergen Record, which first got the story at the end of August, and the Newark Star-Ledger. When their stories broke in New Jersey, Rauf was still away from the U.S., and his wife, Daisy Khan, told the Record his problems with tenants had "'no relevance to the Park51 project. The Imam does not get paid for his spiritual work or work as an Imam,' she wrote. 'He invests in real estate, much as someone would invest in stocks, bonds or other assets to secure one's future and provide an income stream. He has dedicated his life to helping others working as an Imam.'" She went on to claim that tenant problems were fixed as soon as they were brought to Rauf's attention, but Union City's complaint says otherwise.
Rauf's fundraising activities, which have been presumed to center in the Persian Gulf states and Southeast Asia, have also been prolific and, for him, rewarding in New Jersey. The Bergen Record described how, from the 1970s to the early 1990s, Rauf purchased five apartment buildings in Union City, Bergen, and Palisades Park. He then raised $2.4 million in local and state housing rehabilitation money by schmoozing, among others, then-mayor of Union City, now U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D) and another local official, Robert C. Janiszewski. Menendez has granted political support to the Ground Zero Mosque. But all the Rauf properties designated for refurbishment have been plagued by financial and management problems.
While New York mayor Michael Bloomberg had praised Rauf for "promoting America and American values," Union City mayor Brian Stack describes him less benevolently. "He's a slumlord," Stack said, as noted by Bergen Record writer Mike Kelly. In addition, Kelly reported that on September 10, utilities were restored to Rauf's building in Union City, but the fire alarms still failed to work – yet another among a myriad of violations of city codes. Since then, Kelly wrote, "a Union City police officer has been assigned to sit in a car outside Rauf's building so he can pound on tenants' doors and guide them to safety in case a fire breaks out."
Ultimately, Rauf appears as a residential property owner who, unlike El-Gamal, has cleverly used his tainted real-estate income to finance his second career as a prospective intermediary between American Muslims and non-Muslims. Former associates of Rauf in both "his" Masjid Al-Farah ("Mosque of Divine Ease,," in Arabic), at 245 West Broadway in Manhattan – as he has insistently said, only 12 blocks from Ground Zero – and the "New-Age" Sufi group associated with it, have come forward to provide more repellent details from Rauf's biography. Some who have known him intimately, and for decades, confirm a description of him as a man very distant from spiritual concerns. Although they understandably request not to be identified, these former associates of Rauf in the latter's role as a religious leader offer similarly damning aspects of his behavior, all now confirmed by the Union City complaint.
Two among the former congregants at Masjid al-Farah have disclosed that when Rauf first showed up there, he was associated with a group of Egyptian, Afghan, and Pakistani visitors who tried to steer the small mosque away from Sufi spirituality to Islamic fundamentalism. One informant described being sent by Rauf to work on the properties in New Jersey in the late 1980s. Rauf, the informant said, complained that he received nothing but rent from the buildings and was dissatisfied that he could not increase their value. But he showed little enthusiasm, according to the informant, in basic amenities for tenants.
One building was badly infested with rats, and the informant confronted Rauf in the Sufi mosque, asking if the latter would let his own daughters live in such an environment. Rauf allegedly replied, "there are not so many rats." An exterminator from India was hired but said the same thing, according to the informant. The informant told Rauf he would debate him in the mosque about the contradiction between the spirituality he preached and the abuses in his rental properties and Rauf allegedly said, "you are not a businessman."
Can a man who will not abate rats in an apartment building he owns be trusted to exclude radical adherents from a massive and intrusive religious facility in a place he scorns to honor?