As reported in the New York Times earlier this week, Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, best-known for his rejected offer of a $10 million check to Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has come out against the Ground Zero mosque. Alwaleed’s Kingdom Foundation has been a financial patron of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the proposed mosque’s “spiritual guide,” donating more than $200,000 to the “Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow” program run by Rauf’s American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA).
But Alwaleed told the Times, “I am not for putting a mosque there”—i.e. at 51 Park Place in lower Manhattan. Alwaleed said he opposed the construction to prevent offense to the families of 9/11 victims. He also noted the proximity of the proposed location to a strip club, which he said would be inappropriate for Muslims on their way to pray.
Alwaleed acknowledged his past support for Rauf and ASMA, and the Times did not appear to have asked whether the Kingdom Foundation would continue assisting them in other endeavors. But, more important, the Saudi prince aligned himself with the substantial sector of global Islamic opinion that rejects the GZM scheme. In recent weeks, the mosque project has remained in limbo, with Rauf and his partner Sharif El-Gamal insisting it will be erected, and its opponents continuing to voice their objections to it. Hisham Elzanaty, an Egyptian-American businessman who put up $4.8 million for purchase of the site by El-Gamal, has repeatedly said he would sell his share in it if he could thereby realize a profit. Elzanaty has indicated interest in developing another mosque, two-thirds of a mile eastward from Park Place, at 30 Cliff Street near the Brooklyn Bridge.
Close observers of Saudi society note that Prince Alwaleed, while donating to Islamic fundamentalist institutions outside the country, has publicly favored modernization and a more open culture inside the kingdom. Last year, his media company, Rotana, unsuccessfully challenged the Saudi morals militia, or mutawiyin, over production of a comedy film and a cinema festival in Jeddah. A move away from Saudi involvement with the GZM hustle could favor moderation among Muslims in Mecca and Medina as well as in Manhattan.
Irfan al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.