Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cashing In On Ground Zero

By Claudia Rosett, 08.24.10, 12:01 AM ET

Among the prime planners of a $100 million Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero, it's not just Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf who is visiting the Middle East this summer at U.S. taxpayer expense. The State Department is also about to send Rauf's wife and Cordoba Initiative fellow director, Daisy Khan, on her own taxpayer-funded "public diplomacy" trip to the United Arab Emirates. Khan (pictured at right) is scheduled to visit the UAE from Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, overlapping there with Rauf, for whom it will be the final leg of a three-country trip including Bahrain and Qatar.

The U.S. Embassy in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi has posted on its website an announcement of the impending visit by this husband-wife team. Rauf and Khan will be there, the announcement says, "to engage foreign audiences and build people-to-people ties" and to "discuss their experiences as Muslims living and working in the United States."

What might their discussions entail? Rauf, since his Cordoba Initiative's Ground Zero mosque project triggered a national uproar, has spent the summer as an enigma. Before embarking on his State-sponsored tour, he walled himself off for weeks in Malaysia, where he has longstanding ties and keeps an office. His Cordoba website now features a note that Rauf could not be available (apparently not even by phone) to explain himself to the people of New York because "he travels the world in his life-long endeavor to bring the message of moderation, peace and understanding to both Western and Islamic countries."

In Rauf's absence, Daisy Khan has been speaking prolifically from New York about the Cordoba House mega-mosque project (which the developer recently re-dubbed Park 51, and the Cordoba House is now describing as a "community center"). Her message, like the name of the project, has been morphing at speed. When Rauf and Khan won approval for their 15-story mosque-topped Cordoba House from a Manhattan community board this spring, they advertised their project as all about doing their part for harmony and healing near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks.

When it turned out that a majority of New Yorkers, and Americans generally, think this project is more like rubbing salt in a wound, Khan shifted focus. She's now talking about the Cordoba project as a test of American religious tolerance. If a majority of Americans--cognizant that the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by Muslims, in the name of Islam--think it's inappropriate to stage that test near the edge of Ground Zero, Khan's retort is that they must be bigots. In an interview last week with the Washington Post's Sally Quinn, she lamented: "When will Muslims be accepted as plain old Americans?"

On Sunday, interviewed on ABC TV's This Week by Christiane Amanpour, Khan ratcheted up her complaints. Amanpour asked, "Is America Islamophobic?"

Khan replied, "It's not even Islamophobia, it's beyond Islamophobia. It's hate of Muslims."

For the State Department to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars sending someone with those views on a "public diplomacy" trip to the Middle East is a curious exercise. Rauf's trip is costing $16,000. Khan's will cost $12,000. If Khan will be collecting the same $496 per diem that Rauf will be getting in Abu Dhabi, this will include a joint $982 per day for creature comforts, as Khan spreads her opinions about Muslim life in America--and builds people-to-people ties in an Islamic state loaded with billions in oil wealth. State has told Rauf and Khan to refrain from conducting "personal business" while rubbing shoulders on the taxpayer dime, but how they follow up on any of those ties is presumably up to them.

A broader issue here is why Daisy Khan, self-proclaimed healer and bridge-builder of Ground Zero, is now styling herself as an aggrieved victim. America has delivered to both Rauf and Khan a life in which they have freely practiced their religion and been free to convert others--including a sister-in-law of their real-estate partner, Sharif El-Gamal. Both arrived in this country as immigrants, and had conferred upon them the full panoply of American rights and freedoms.

Rauf is of Egyptian descent, born in Kuwait. Khan hails from India's Islamist hotbed of Kashmir. Rauf by his own account has held forth for more than 20 years at the Al-Farah mosque in lower Manhattan (there has been no outcry for the removal of mosques already extant in the area on Sept. 11; the issue is their plan to build a new one, provocatively close to the site of the destroyed Twin Towers). Rauf sits on the board of trustees of the Islamic Center of New York, a large facility established on Manhattan's Upper East Side by his father, who also ran a big Islamic center in Washington. Rauf serves as an advisor to the Interfaith Center of New York, and, like Khan, has been welcomed to spread his messages by a long list of foundations and institutions, including Jewish centers, churches and schools. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, Rauf has been tapped for three previous taxpayer-funded "outreach" jaunts to the Middle East, two in 2007 and a third earlier this year.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, far from being shunned as Muslims, Rauf and Khan have enjoyed a boom business in "outreach." Their lifestyle includes at least two homes in the U.S. and one in Malaysia, fancy cars and pricey clothes. Last October, in an article headlined "High Five With Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf," Forbes chronicled the imam's pleasure in driving a Lexus GS400. Rauf also detailed how he enjoys Armani and Brioni suits, his wife likes her cashmere scarves, and he mentioned his fondness for handcrafted Persian rugs, especially those woven of silk. He added that he owns about 15 carpets dispersed between his homes in New Jersey and New York, and another 15 carpets "at my home in Malaysia."

As for bigotry in America, the FBI in its most recent report on "Hate Crime Statistics," released in 2008, does point to a group more victimized than any other, targets of 65.7% of all reported religious hate crimes. Those people are not Muslims, but Jews, victims of almost eight times as many hate crimes.

For Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan, Ground Zero has become a bonanza. Since their plans hit the headlines this spring, they have achieved celebrity status on a scale that millions in advertising, or less abrasive "outreach" efforts, could not buy. Their names are all over the news. Their project has become a fixture on the summer talk shows. In the escalating furor, along with the criticisms , they have received de facto endorsements from such prominent folks as New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama (whose supportive remarks about their project, delivered at an Aug. 13 Iftar dinner at the White House, are now featured on U.S. embassy websites worldwide; but whose later waffling is not). Their real-estate partner, El-Gamal, has told the press, "This might become the most famous community center in the world." Whatever comes of this, Rauf, Khan and El-Gamal are likely to dine out on it--and well--for a long time.

And make no mistake. While the Cordoba Initiative is now implying on its website that the mosque and Islamic center is mainly about serving a neighborhood, and "is not located at Ground Zero," Rauf himself told a very different tale to the New York Times last December. Back then, Rauf said the location's chief attraction was its proximity to Ground Zero--so close that it is, as he noted, "Where a piece of the wreckage fell." In Rauf's view, that made for an ideal venue to make "the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11."

A majority of Americans then dared to disagree with this particular prescription of the self-described "Founder and Visionary" of the Cordoba Initiative. And now, the televised statement reverberating from Khan--on the eve of her $12,000 taxpayer-funded trip to join Rauf in the marble halls of Abu Dhabi and Dubai--is a denunciation of America as a Muslim-hating place, "beyond Islamophobia."

What's going on here is not a gauge of American religious tolerance. It has become a test of the extent to which Rauf, Khan, and their partners and donors, seen or unseen, are willing for their own aggrandizement to cash in on the agonies of Ground Zero. In this scheme, the thousands of Americans murdered on Sept. 11 in the name of Islam have by now become a backdrop for Daisy Khan's claim that she is the victim of a Muslim-hating America. There's an old name for this kind of stunt, and it isn't bridge-building. It's carpet-bagging.

- Claudia Rosett, a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.

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