Ground Zero Mosque: A Split at the Top?
by Stephen Schwartz
Will the scheme to locate a multi-story megamosque near Ground Zero be doomed by disaffection between Sharif El-Gamal, the head of Soho Properties, Inc., purchaser of the land for the building, and Feisal Abdul Rauf, the "spiritual guide" of the Cordoba Initiative and American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA)?
Asra Q. Nomani, former associate of the murdered American news reporter Daniel Pearl and a prominent Muslim feminist journalist, wrote in The Daily Beast Monday about the disillusioning effect on her, Rauf, and Rauf's wife Daisy Khan of El-Gamal's "rough-and-tumble" business style. She described a history of tax and other legal problems involving El-Gamal, as well as an attempt by El-Gamal to use the nonprofit status of a small group Nomani had established, Muslims for Peace, to raise funds for the Ground Zero edifice. "That didn't feel right to me," Nomani said. She added that while Rauf and Khan had earlier left her enthusiastic about the proposal, she had doubts about the Ground Zero location from the beginning, and that finally she had recused herself from the enterprise. Nomani wrote that Rauf and Khan "were blindsided by the revelations about Sharif, making a partnership unlikely. Moreover, Sharif's domineering personality troubles them because it doesn't fit into the slow, methodical, and even boring work of building a nonprofit. I expect that Rauf and Khan will gracefully bow out of this project near ground zero, [and] lead an interfaith community effort to build an Islamic center elsewhere."
While Nomani described Rauf's resentment of El-Gamal, other credible Muslim sources in New York City describe an opposite discontent: El-Gamal is said to be disgusted with Rauf's egotistical attempts to dominate the effort, and to desire the removal of Rauf from the project.
Rauf is supposed to return to this country from his U.S. government-sponsored tour of the Middle East this week. On August 23, El-Gamal registered a new non-profit corporation, Park51, Inc., in Delaware, and placed it on the roster of New York's charitable agencies on August 25. El-Gamal's stated aim is to establish a recipient organization for donations to the megamosque. Unfortunately, however, as noted in the New York Post Monday, the new nonprofit cannot solicit money until it obtains federal tax-exempt status.
The ill-conceived Ground Zero mosque proposal now involves four different organizations, with two controlled by Rauf and two by El-Gamal. While most attention had previously been focused on Rauf and his "vision" for the " Islamic cultural center," the website of Park51, Inc. describes Rauf's "Cordoba House" as no more than "a center for multifaith dialogue and engagement within Park51's broader range of programs and activities." Rauf has been demoted from the overall effort's public face to "a program manager for Park51 in the interim stage," and member of the board of directors.
What kind of Islamic or interfaith activities would be developed by Rauf, if the project does not collapse under the weight of negative publicity and infighting, remains nebulous in Park51's presentation. The bold advertisement that El-Gamal previously posted on an Islamic website, for a mosque serving 1,000 worshippers two blocks from the former World Trade Center, is absent from El-Gamal's new site. Instead, the Park51 website states "While a mosque will be located in the planned final structure of Park51, it will be a distinct non-profit. . . . The final size and location of the mosque have yet to be determined, but it will only represent a small portion of the final structure." The Park51 website further stipulates that the new entity is separate from the Cordoba Initiative and ASMA, and disclaims any link with the small mosque run by Rauf several blocks northward, Masjid al-Farah at 225 West Broadway.
Rauf's own mosque, according to the Park51 website, could only hold up to 65 people during prayer services. The diminutive size of his congregation, which is affiliated with an American-originated "new-age" Sufi group, the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order, belies the image of Rauf as a major American and global Muslim leader, granted him in mainstream media. But another question remains about Feisal Abdul Rauf: Did he gain the formal religious education that would qualify him as an "imam?" His official biography on the website of the Cordoba Initiative credits him with a bachelor's degree in physics from Columbia University, as does a similar outline of his life on the ASMA site, which describes him as coming from an "Egyptian family steeped in religious scholarship." But where is the evidence of his own religious scholarship? Nowhere has it been stated how he came to be called an "imam." In Muslim countries, an imam must usually have followed a lengthy curriculum of religious studies similar to that pursued by Jewish rabbis and Catholic priests.
Increasing questions about the character and qualifications of the primary figures in "Ground Zero mosque," as well as personal rivalries between them, may have accomplished as much for the mosque's opponents as have protests and disapproving poll results. An offensive concept was presented to Americans by flawed and self-interested individuals; the combination may well guarantee its eventual collapse.