The leader of the “Ground Zero mosque” project in New York, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is commonly portrayed as a moderate and a sincere believer in interfaith dialogue. Typical is a profile in Time that described Rauf and his wife as "the kind of Muslim leaders right-wing commentators fantasize about: modernists and moderates who openly condemn the death cult of al-Qaeda and its adherents." But such descriptions are belied by his record, especially at the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), the non-profit that he founded and chairs along with the Cordoba Initiative, sponsor of the proposed mosque and cultural center in downtown Manhattan.
Rauf is a permanent member of the board of trustees for the Islamic Cultural Center of New York (ICCNY), on Third Avenue between 96th and 97th Streets. According to a 2004 obituary for Rauf’s father, Tan Sri Dr. Muhammad Abdul Rauf, an Egyptian who lived in Malaysia but who died in the U.S., Feisal Abdul Rauf is the trustee of land belonging to his father next to ICCNY. When his father died, Rauf first advanced his scheme for an “Islamic and cultural center which will have a mosque, school and a residential tower.” The plan then was to site it at the 96th Street location. The choice to site it two blocks from Ground Zero came later.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the “96th Street mosque,” as ICCNY is typically known, became notorious for a more outspoken participant in its work. Its imam was another Egyptian, Muhammad Gamei’a. Shortly after 9/11, Gamei'a disappeared, resurfacing in Egypt on October 4, 2001, where he told an Egyptian website, regarding 9/11, “The Jews were behind these ugly acts, while we, the Arabs, were innocent. . . . If it became known to the American people, they would have done to the Jews what Hitler did!”
Gamei'a's successor at the 96th St. mosque, Imam Abu-Namous, told the October 26, 2001 issue of the Forward that "Imam Al-Gamei'a had not been speaking on behalf of the Islamic Cultural Center, which 'will continue to participate' in interfaith dialogue.” But he added that "he considered the evidence against Osama bin Laden insufficient, and said he could 'not rule out' any possible perpetrators, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish."
Rauf’s own rhetoric has not always been measured. On March 21, 2004, he told the Sydney Morning Herald that the U.S. and the West would have to recognize the damage they have done to Muslims before terrorism can end. The Australian daily reported “Imam Feisal said the West had to understand the terrorists’ point of view.” The paper also cited Rauf’s arguments that “the Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians . . . it was Christians in World War II who bombed civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima.”
On June 23, 2004, Rauf told Chris Hedges, then a writer for the New York Times, that, in Hedges’s words, “Islamic terrorists do not come from another moral universe--that they arise from oppressive societies that he feels Washington had a hand in creating.” More recently, on February 7, 2010, Rauf told the Egyptian daily Almasri Alyaum, “I have been saying since the 1967 war that if there is peace between Israel and Palestine, in time the Palestinians will prevail.”
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf did not inadvertently become involved with Islamic groups aligned against America. ASMA, which he founded in 1997, operates a program titled “Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow” (MLT) partly funded by Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal (famous for his offer of a $10 million check, right after 9/11, to Rudy Giuliani, who rejected it). In 2008, Alwaleed donated $125,000 to ASMA for MLT, following a previous gift of $180,000. Alwaleed’s beneficence was also extended at that time to the fundamentalist Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).