"Ground Zero mosque" imam readies for Gulf mission

Doha// The furore over a planned Islamic centre just blocks from Ground Zero in New York City mounted as the imam behind the proposal readies for a US-backed diplomatic mission to the Gulf.

As Feisal Abdul Rauf prepares to visit Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE on a State Department-sponsored trip, debate is raging in the US about whether he is moderate enough to explain American views of Islam to the world.

“This radical is a terrible choice to be one of the faces of our country overseas,” two Republican Party members of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Peter King of New York, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Mr Rauf’s speaking tour was planned before the proposed Islamic centre controversy erupted. It was organised as part of the President Barack Obama’s effort to improve America’s relations with the Muslim world.

Officials at the US State Department have lauded the imam’s record of moderation, noting that he has participated in two previous diplomatic tours, including one during the administration of George W Bush. PJ Crowley, a State Department spokesman, said Mr Rauf would “discuss Muslim life in America and promote religious tolerance” during the visit. Exact dates and venues have not been announced.

The controversy erupted in May when the proposed $120 million (Dh440.7m) Islamic cultural centre, to be located three blocks from the site of the felled World Trade Center towers, received approval from a local community board. In addition to a domed prayer space, the facility is to include a 500-seat theatre, culinary school, swimming pool, library and art studios.

Opponents of the complex complain that it is a symbolic victory for the September 11 hijackers.

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the US House of Representatives, has compared supporters of the facility to Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League, which says it fights “anti-Semitism and all former of bigotry”, worries the mosque “will cause some [9/11] victims more pain”.

Proponents point out that Mr Rauf, who holds a physics degree from Columbia University, is a follower of the moderate Sufi form of Islam and has a reputation for attempting to build interfaith ties with Christian and Jewish groups. He also set up the Cordoba Initiative in 2004 to improve western relations with the Islamic world.

Calling it a “weapon of mass construction”, talk show host Stephen Colbert lampooned the politically conservative perspective, saying, “Every permit granted to a mosque is one denied to an American house of worship – a mall.”

Mr Rauf, who has been barred by the State Department from using government-funded travel to solicit financial support for the project, has said he sees the planned mosque as a way “to amplify the moderate voices that reject terrorism and seek mutual understanding and respect with all faiths”.

Mr Obama voiced support for the mosque project during the annual White House Ramadan dinner on Aug 11. A week earlier, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered a speech in support of Mr Rauf’s plan.

The president later clarified his comments, suggesting that while Muslims have the right to build a house of worship, it did not mean that building a mosque near Ground Zero was the right thing to do.

Abdulaziz Al Mohannadi, an engineering student at Texas A&M University-Qatar, thought Mr Rauf might be able to provide an answer to a nagging question for many Gulf natives: what do Americans think of Muslims and Islam?

“When we think of America we only get ideas from the media, from news and the movies,” he said. “To have a true Muslim-American come to us and explain how Americans see Muslims, how they interpret us in their country, that would be great.”

originally ran in 19 August 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae

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