The Magazine

A Mosque Grows Near Brooklyn

The dubious financing of ‘Cordoba House’ deserves scrutiny.

Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Since a proposal to construct a 15-story mosque and community center two blocks from Ground Zero was announced last year, the project has been a focus of widening protests. To be named Cordoba House, the project would require demolition of two buildings at 45-47 Park Place and Broadway that were damaged on 9/11. They would be replaced by a glass and steel 100,000-square-foot structure with a new address, 45-51 Park Place. 

A Mosque Grows Near Brooklyn

According to its sponsors, the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society of Muslim Advancement (ASMA), the structure would cost $100 million and would include “a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores, restaurants,” and an area for Islamic prayer. The Cordoba Initiative and ASMA were created by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Kuwait-born cleric of Egyptian background.

Every inch the professional moderate, Rauf has the imprimatur of the State Department, which sent him on an international bridge-building tour earlier this year. And he has cloaked the Cordoba effort in the rhetoric of reconciliation, describing himself and his colleagues as “the anti-terrorists.” But he deflects inquiries about its financing. On July 7, New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio called on state attorney general Andrew Cuomo, who is also Lazio’s Democratic opponent in the coming election, to “conduct a thorough investigation” of three aspects of the project:

- Rauf’s refusal to acknowledge that Hamas is a terrorist organization;

- Rauf’s leading role in the Perdana Global Peace Organization, “a principal partner,” in its own words, of the Turkish-launched flotilla that tried to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza; 

- and the project’s questionable sources of funding.

Lazio has been supported in this demand by New York Republican congressman Peter King. 

Many who object to construction of an Islamic facility so close to the site of the World Trade Center feel that a large, if not dominating Muslim presence there would be at best insensitive and at worst a symbol of the very Islamist supremacy that is the goal of al Qaeda and other jihadist killers. Such sentiments are hardly the last word in a question of public policy. But the background support and financing for this ambitious undertaking are matters that deserve to be addressed. 

Non-Muslim defenders of Rauf—including Cuomo and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg—have rejected demands for investigation of the ideological and financial underpinnings of the Ground Zero mosque. They have argued that such an inquiry would violate the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion. But faith should not serve as a pretext for extremist or potentially criminal activities.

Rauf’s ASMA website lists mainstream philanthropic donors, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, three Rockefeller charities, the Danny Kaye & Sylvia Fine Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, three feminist-oriented groups, and six other funders. New York Muslims, however, are well aware that the Rauf scheme is also associated with financing and support from other doubtful individuals and entities in addition to Perdana, which is led by the notorious Jew-baiter Mahathir bin Mohamad, former prime minister of Malaysia.

The idea of building an Islamic peace memorial in lower Manhattan was circulating as early as 2003. Its early proponents were two Iranian brothers, M. Jafar “Amir” Mahallati, who served as ambassador of the Iranian Islamic Republic to the United Nations from 1987 to 1989, and M. Hossein Mahallati. Amir Mahallati had served with Rauf in the leadership of an obscure nonprofit, the Interfaith Center of New York, for which Rauf was a vice chair and Mahallati a board member. The two had also participated in a 2006 radio program, “From Turmoil to Tourism: Following the Path of Abraham.” 

Hossein Mahallati had experience of his own in the intersecting New York worlds of charitable giving and property management. He was director from 1983 to 1992 of the Alavi Foundation, set up in 1973 by the government of the shah of Iran as the Pahlavi Foundation, but taken over and renamed after the Khomeini revolution. The Alavi Foundation is currently the subject of a federal civil action seeking forfeiture of assets, including an office building at 650 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and four Shia mosques and schools in New York, California, Maryland, and Texas.

While U.S. sanctions on the Alavi Foundation, announced in 2009, received little notice, the government’s charges are disturbing. They include control of Alavi by the Tehran dictatorship through its diplomats at the United Nations, and transfer of income from the office building at 650 Fifth Avenue to Bank Melli, the Iranian national financial institution. Bank Melli had been designated a “Weapons of Mass Destruction proliferator” by the U.S. Treasury Department. Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey noted, “The international community has recognized the proliferation risks posed by Iran’s Bank Melli.” In late 2009, the Alavi Foundation’s last head, Farshid Jahedi, pled guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice for destroying documents about the Alavi-Melli relationship that had been subpoenaed in the investigation, which continues. Jahedi was sentenced on April 29 to three months’ imprisonment, six months’ supervised release, and a $3,000 fine.

Hossein Mahallati was the subject of an unsuccessful federal inquiry in 1992 regarding an alleged conspiracy to export biological warfare materials to Iran. His predecessor as Alavi director, Manoucher Shafie, who managed the foundation’s transition from serving the shah’s government to that of Ayatollah Khomeini, was charged with conspiring to export prohibited U.S. technology to Iran. Neither was prosecuted.

Hossein Mahallati remains an enthusiastic supporter of Rauf’s Ground Zero enterprise, especially since an Egyptian property developer, Sharif El-Gamal, who appears to be the real leader of the effort, using Rauf as his public face, put up $4.85 million in cash to purchase the location. El-Gamal is chief executive officer of Soho Properties, Inc., a commercial real estate investment firm he founded in 2003. His partner is Nour Mousa, another guiding figure in the Ground Zero mosque effort and the nephew of Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League. Amr Moussa was the first major Arab leader to go to Gaza and affirm support for Hamas, in mid-June, after the recent blockade-running assault. 

El-Gamal has kept a low profile in the dispute over the appearance of an Islamic institution near Ground Zero, although last week he appeared before a hearing of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to announce that Cordoba House will now be known as Park51. He and Rauf have both taken to downplaying the religious character of the proposal, preferring that the building be called a “community center.”

So far, then, the Ground Zero Islamic facility rests on a support network linked to the anti-Jewish Mahathir and the Perdana-supported Gaza raiders, some notable servants of the Iranian clerical dictatorship, and an Egyptian property developer associated with the pro-Hamas chief of the Arab League.

But the questionable aspects of the Ground Zero Islamic project do not end there. Feisal Abdul Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, executive director of ASMA, has been one of the most assiduous promoters of the lower Manhattan mega-mosque. She spoke on July 6 to the Chautauqua Institution, celebrating the double heritage she claims: “The first, the American faith-based social activism, a legacy that included the abolitionists, women’s suffrage movement, and the civil rights movement. Second, I have inherited the tradition of my faith, a faith that has inspired positive social change for over 1,400 years.” 

Rauf’s wife failed to mention another feature of her background: She is the niece of Dr. Farooq Khan, formerly a leader of the Westbury Mosque on Long Island, which is a center for Islamic radicals and links on its website to the paramilitary Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the front on American soil for the Pakistani jihadist Jamaat e-Islami.

Lazio and King are right, and Cuomo and Bloomberg are wrong. Aside from the matter of sensitivity to the families of the 9/11 victims and other Manhattanites who live near Ground Zero, if the friends and fans of Feisal Abdul Rauf believe his mosque plan is entirely above board, they should be the first to encourage full public disclosure of its backing and finances.

Stephen Schwartz, a frequent contributor, is the author of The Two Faces of Islam.


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