Where In The World Is Imam Feisal?
Claudia Rosett, 07.30.10, 6:07 PM ET
Plans for a $100 million high-rise Islamic Center next to New York's Ground Zero are generating lots of controversy, as well as great distress among families of some of the thousands murdered in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. So one might suppose that the Imam spearheading this project in the name of harmony and dialogue would be more than willing to help allay fears by disclosing down to the last penny where he's getting the money. Instead, Feisal Abdul Rauf--Imam Feisal, to his followers and friends--keeps stonewalling. The questions keep multiplying.
One of those questions right now is: Where in the world is Imam Feisal?
Simply locating him this week turned into an intriguing exercise. Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of a tax-exempt foundation called the Cordoba Initiative, which is spearheading the nine-figure project to replace a downtown Manhattan building, damaged in the Sept. 11 attacks, with the planned Islamic Center--to be called Cordoba House. Rauf's Cordoba Initiative has an office in upper Manhattan, from which Rauf and his wife, Daisy Kahn, together with a Manhattan real estate developer, made the Cordoba House pitch approved in May by a Manhattan community board.
But when I phoned the New York offices of the Cordoba Initiative on Thursday morning, seeking answers from Rauf about the money, a staffer told me that Rauf is in an undisclosed location somewhere overseas: "He's traveling; he's out of the country."
Could they provide a phone number abroad where I might reach him? No, I was told. He had apparently gone right off the grid: "He's unavailable at this point. He's not feeling well."
When will Rauf be back in the country? Maybe "the end of August, or early September," said his assistant. It seems that Rauf, having chafed old wounds and touched off quite a debate in the U.S., has checked out of the country for the rest of the summer.
However, on Thursday night I did locate the unavailable and traveling Rauf. The Cordoba Initiative also lists an office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Near midnight New York time, which is late morning in Malaysia, I phoned the Kuala Lumpur number and asked for Imam Feisal. A moment later, Rauf was on the line. About 30 seconds after that, having heard that I had questions about his funding, he was suddenly unavailable again. "I'm in an important meeting right now," he said, "I can't take this call." And he was gone.
At both his New York and Kuala Lumpur offices his assistants, at my request, gave me e-mail addresses to which I sent questions. From both places, I have so far received no answers.
It's good to know that whatever Rauf's health problems, he is hale enough to be holding important meetings in Malaysia. But both Rauf and New York authorities now condoning his Cordoba House, such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, might want to consider that before this project rolls ahead, it would be far healthier all around to establish complete transparency about where exactly the money is coming from, and how Rauf is raising it.
Here are some questions that need answers:
1) Is Rauf's summer trip abroad doubling as a fundraising tour? If it is, and if he is serious about his professed aim of healing American wounds, then surely he shouldn't mind disclosing where exactly he's spending time, whom he's meeting with, and what he's promising as the selling points of his Cordoba House next to where the Twin Towers stood. His proposal to the Manhattan community board was approved in May on grounds that his Islamic Center will include "a 500-seat performing arts center & lecture hall, culinary school, exhibition space, swimming pool, fitness gym, basketball court, restaurant, library, art studios and childcare." Rauf has said in interviews that it will also include a prayer space. One can view that as an Islamic center with a mosque included, or a mosque with a large community center attached. Either way, if Rauf is raising money for this abroad, what's he promising that might persuade foreign donors to lavish millions on such a facility in lower Manhattan? Who's he pitching to? And before he becomes available again in Manhattan, where might his travels over the next month take him?
2) How much money has Rauf actually raised? This is deeply unclear. Some statements emanating from the Cordoba Initiative imply the fundraising has yet to seriously begin; some circumstances suggest it has already begun. What's the real state of play? How much pressure has Rauf put himself under to produce that $100 million to build the center? And that's just for capital investment. What about operating costs? Rauf told the Manhattan community board that his Cordoba House would create 150 full-time and more than 500 part-time jobs. Where and from whom will that money flow?
3) If Rauf is now seeking funding abroad, is his provocative choice of a site just down the block from Ground Zero now helping bring money into his coffers? In other words, is any of his fundraising getting a boost from the high-profile debate and distress generated by his plans? One would hope that Rauf picked the site with the best of intentions. But on the chance that the choice amounts in any way to a cynical fundraising stunt, or even a dangerous appeal to potential donors who have lots of money but no love lost for America, full and regular public disclosure of his backers, prospects, plans and financial books would surely help clarify the situation.
4) Whose show is this, anyway? Rauf's Cordoba Initiative was set up in Colorado in 2004 as a small, tax-exempt foundation. Over the first five years, the Initiative in its U.S. 2008 federal tax return reported receiving donations totaling less than $100,000. Here we are two years later, and the same foundation, hand-in-hand with another hitherto small foundation, the American Society for Muslim Advancement, run by Rauf and his wife out of the same New York office, has hooked up with a real estate developer named Sharif El-Gamal. And, lo! Rauf--currently "unavailable" and huddled in an important meeting in Malaysia--is now the public face of a $100 million project proposing to replace in lower Manhattan some of the "community space" once provided by the vibrant life in and around World Trade Center. Some Americans are left grieving afresh, and many are left guessing, while the mysteries multiply. At least part of the answer lies in such details as where is the money coming from. For that matter, where is Imam Feisal looking for it? And when will he make himself available to tell us all about it?
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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