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.
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.