When Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahhar threw his support behind the Ground Zero mosque, it became clear that what started as a political controversy is also a national security issue. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says it is wrong to ask where Imam Feisal Rauf is raising money for his project, which suggests that the city’s chief executive has forgotten that in his town last year federal prosecutors seized four mosques and a skyscraper controlled by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Alavi Foundation. So let’s put aside for a moment whether Rauf has the right to build a mosque near what the president of the United States has called hallowed ground (he does), or if it is insensitive to do so (it is). What we want to know is what foreign interests are to be served with the money that Rauf is raising to build his Islamic center.
Many have argued that Rauf’s refusal to call Hamas a terrorist organization is evidence that despite the many testimonies on his behalf, the Tribeca imam is not a “moderate” Muslim cleric and perhaps has extremist tendencies. Maybe that’s the case, but let’s put it in perspective: The White House’s counterterrorism czar John Brennan believes there are moderate elements in Hezbollah and actually has the wherewithal to design a policy of rapprochement with a terrorist organization. Rauf is just an imam—and more importantly, in this context, he is an entrepreneur. Among those from whom he seeks funding are Muslim elites throughout the Middle East, a caste that often supports the anti-Israel “resistance” financially as well as morally. While there are some such elites who may detest Hamas for any number of reasons, few are apt to criticize the outfit publicly, especially in front of outsiders like the Americans. Were Rauf to disown Hamas to gain favor with the Americans, the doors now open to him throughout the Muslim world would be shut, forfeiting both his immediate access to money as well as the much more lucrative long-term opportunities afforded him as bridge between the United States and the Muslim world.
Since 9/11, there has been stiff competition to see who will get to serve as interlocutor between the United States and Islam. While lower Manhattan has now become the main arena for that competition, most of the jockeying has taken place in Washington, including at the White House, where an American president with a Muslim middle name announced that bridging the two worlds was part of his job description.
During the heyday of the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda, Washington became the unofficial world capital of moderate Islam, where former Al-Azhar sheikhs, rehabilitated jihadis, and Saudi dissidents vied for federal money and the prestige that comes from the imprimatur of the U.S. government. A State Department-sponsored tour of the Middle East like the one Imam Feisal Rauf is now enjoying is evidence to the Middle East’s Muslim elite that Rauf has the ear of American policymakers—as is the fact that the Bush State Department was similarly supportive of his travels. His Muslim-world contacts take it for granted that the money they are asked to donate to his mosque will buy them the access that bridges between two cultures are supposed to provide.
Rauf, said State Dept spokesman P.J. Crowley, is a distinguished Muslim cleric who "brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it’s like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States"; however the Kuwaiti-born Egyptian has no natural constituency in the Muslim states. Evidence is his advice to President Obama in the wake of the protests after last June’s Iranian presidential elections. Obama, Rauf wrote on his website, should say that, “his administration respects many of the guiding principles of the 1979 revolution—to establish a government that expresses the will of the people; a just government, based on the idea of Vilayet-i-faqih, that establishes the rule of law.” Leaving aside the apologetics on behalf of a terror-sponsoring regime that tortures, rapes, and murders its own people, this is a curious statement coming from a Sunni like Rauf. Even among Shia religious scholars the concept of vilayet-i-faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, is not widely accepted; in praising the Islamic Republic of Iran, Rauf has taken a position that is problematic, to say the least, for the Sunni faithful.
To be sure, the Arab masses appreciate Iranian-backed resistance to Israel and the United States (while the ruling Arab regimes fear Tehran’s regional ambitions), but that hardly means that they are willing to dispense with their confessional identities and fall in with a specifically Shia and Persian political project. Even the Hamas leadership has to calibrate carefully its relationship with its Iranian patrons lest it ruffle Palestinian Sunni sensibilities. The truly distinguished clerics in the region emphasize the sectarian fault-lines, like Al Jazeera’s tele-preacher Yussef al-Qaradawi whose calumnies against Jews are rivaled only by his anti-Shia invective. Why doesn’t Rauf get it? Perhaps the self-described Sufi is the avant-garde of an Islamic ecumenism. More likely, he is just the iteration of a type, familiar both in the Arabic-speaking Middle East and New York real estate circles—he’s an operator. To be all things to all people is to avoid alienating potential donors—like the Arab elite that supports Hamas, and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s business sectors.
Perhaps this is why the State Department has tapped Rauf as its man in the region—not as an unofficial envoy to spread the good word of American Islam, but to have access to his iPhone, just as Rauf’s contacts suppose he will provide them access the other way around. In any case, it would be a bad idea to allow an asset controlled by American adversaries to be built anywhere in the United States, including lower Manhattan.
Lee Smith is the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.