Q: What are the facts about the proposed cultural center and mosque near New York’s former World Trade Center?
A: We answer questions we’ve been asked most often by readers about the controversial project.
A clearly divisive issue has been brewing in America as well as the headlines, concerning the creation of a mosque/community center (relatively) near the site of the September 11 tragedy, ground zero. The facts have been obscured by all sides and replaced by emotional scare tactics and slippery-sloping, in argument for and against. I was hoping FactCheck.org would be able to shed light on the issue in an article with particulars, such as the individuals and organizations involved, the actual location, and the truths and lies presented by public figures concerning the case.
With so much being said and written about the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque to be built in New York’s Lower Manhattan, our inbox is full of questions from readers. They’ve asked us to sort fact from fiction as it relates to what the center’s sponsors call the Park51 project, and what detractors refer to somewhat inaccurately as the "Ground Zero Mosque." So, here we’ll answer some of the main questions we’ve been asked about the controversial center.
We take no position as to whether or not the Park51 project should go forward. One key consideration in particular — whether the project offends the sensitivities of families of those who died at the World Trade Center site — is a matter of emotion on which opinions differ, and on which facts have little bearing. But to the extent that facts matter, they shouldn’t be twisted or misrepresented.
Is it a mosque, or a cultural center?
It would be a cultural center with a mosque inside. The "Ground Zero Mosque" label is not entirely accurate, although it has been commonly used to describe the planned $100 million project. First, the proposed location is not immediately adjacent to ground zero (which we’ll get to in a minute). And while the facility would include a mosque, or a space for Muslim prayer services, the project’s organizers say that the mosque will only be part of a much larger "world-class community center" that will offer a variety of activities and resources, and will welcome all, without regard to religion:
Park51 website: While a mosque will be located in the planned final structure of Park51, it will be a distinct non-profit. Neither Park51 nor the mosque, which hasn’t been named yet, will tolerate any kind of illegal or un-American activity or rhetoric. The final size and location of the mosque have yet to be determined, but it will only represent a small portion of the final structure.
The mosque portion of the project certainly fits the general definition of a mosque, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "a Muslim place of worship" with "an area reserved for communal prayers." For anyone worried about a mosque edifice looming over New York, it won’t look like the typical image of a mosque. The concept drawing released by the organizers lacks any domes or minarets.
Politico reported that the project currently doesn’t have a blueprint, an architect or an engineer. But plans do call for the proposed structure to include fitness facilities, a 500-seat auditorium, a restaurant and culinary school, a library, and art studios, as well as a Sept. 11 memorial. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, one of the leaders of the Park51 project, said that the center would be modeled after the 92nd Street Y and the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, and would be open to all New Yorkers.
How far away from ground zero will the proposed center be?
About one-tenth of a mile. The current plan is to build the center at 45-51 Park Place, between West Broadway and Church Street. It would be constructed in the same spot now occupied by a vacant Burlington Coat Factory and former substation of Consolidated Edison, a New York utility company. (Below is a map outlining the shortest distance between the two locations. "A" is the northern side of the former World Trade Center site at the intersection of West Broadway and Vesey Street, and "B" is 45-51 Park Place.)
It’s approximately one-tenth of a mile, or about a two-minute walk, from Park51 to the northern side of the World Trade Center site. Matt Sledge of the Huffington Post has posted a video demonstration of the walk between the two spots. (Skip to about the 0:30 mark to view in real time.)
Are there other mosques near ground zero?
Yes. The New York Times profiled two mosques that have been in existence for years not far from ground zero. Masjid Manhattan, founded in 1970, is four blocks away from the World Trade Center site, on Warren Street, and Masjid al-Farah, which used to be on Mercer Street, is 12 blocks away on West Broadway. Prayer services have actually been held at the 45 Park Place location since the latter part of 2009. According to the Park51 website, one of the main reasons for including a mosque in the new center is that the previously existing ones aren’t large enough:
Park51 website: Prior to purchasing our current facility at 45 Park Place, there were two mosques in lower Manhattan, although Park51 is not affiliated with either of these mosques. One was Masjid al-Farah, which could fit a maximum of approximately 65 people, and had to hold three or four separate prayer services on Fridays just to fit the crowds. The second mosque, at Warren Street, accommodated about 1,500 worshippers during Friday prayers – people had been praying on sidewalks because they had no room. They lost their space around May 2009. We made the move to buy 45 Park Place in July 2009 in part to offset the loss of this space. Currently, our space at 45 Park Place accommodates around 450 people every Friday.
Is the center scheduled to open on Sept. 11, 2011?
Organizers say no. As best we can determine, the idea that the cultural center and mosque would open that day is unfounded speculation. Project organizers say that no official date has been set for the opening of the proposed center. Imam Rauf told Newsday back in May that it could take anywhere from 18 months to three years to raise the money to complete the project, and added that the center wouldn’t open on the anniversary of Sept. 11. Project organizers took to the social networking site Twitter as recently as Aug. 20 to knock down the claim, saying: "Reports that we will open on 9/11 or begin construction on 9/11 are false and inflammatory. Our timeline to build is 18 – 38 months."
The idea that the center and mosque would open on Sept. 11, 2011 — the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks in 2001 — has been bandied about on blogs and discussion boards. The American Freedom Defense Initiative sponsored advertisements that may have also contributed to that thought. The initiative’s ads appeared on New York City buses and asked, "Why There?," with an image of a plane flying into a burning World Trade Center, next to a rendering of the proposed building with the words "September 11, 2011, WTC Mega Mosque."
Is Imam Rauf an anti-American radical?
We see no evidence of that. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has a long history of cooperation with the U.S. government, beginning during the Bush administration. In February and March 2003, he led cultural awareness training for FBI employees in the bureau’s New York field office, New York division officials told us. In 2007 and twice in 2010, he traveled to the Middle East to talk about religious tolerance and Islam in America as part of a speaker program organized by the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.
Philip Crowley, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said of the imam: "His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it’s like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States." Rauf’s most recent trip, which is in progress as we publish, garnered objections from people who feared he would try to raise money for the Park51 project during his trip, but the State Department said those concerns were unfounded.
Rauf is an adherent of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that has itself been targeted by extremists. A 2007 report by the nonpartisan RAND Corporation suggested that Sufis could be potential partners against radical Islamism. "Because of their victimization by [extremist sects] Salafis and Wahhabis, traditionalists and Sufis are natural allies of the West to the extent that common ground can be found with them," the RAND study concluded. Indeed, Rauf has often spoken out against extremism, including recently as part of a Washington Post discussion about the Park51 project, then called the Cordoba Institute:
Rauf, July 21: We are not the extremists. We are that vast majority of Muslims who stand up against extremism and provide a voice in response to the radical rhetoric. Our mission is to interweave America’s Muslim population into mainstream society. We are a Muslim-American force for promoting the universal values of justice and peaceful coexistence in which all good people believe.
Critics point to some of Rauf’s comments that they say show him to be neither a moderate nor a bridge-builder, as he has been called. Appearing on NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Aug. 22, former New York Rep. Rick Lazio, a Republican, said the imam is not a "good" Muslim:
Lazio, Aug. 22: Well, first of all I would say, David, there are millions of peace-loving, good Muslims in America. This Imam Rauf is not one of them. He’s not a bridge builder. This is a man, the very same month that people were burying their loved ones that were lost in 9/11, he said that America was an accessory to the crime of 9/11. He said that Osama bin Laden was created in the USA. He refuses, only months ago, to, to distance himself from Hamas, in fact, protecting him — protecting them, and only recently one of the developers said that they would consider taking money from Iran.
It’s true that in the past Rauf has said that U.S. policy was an "accessory" to the 9/11 attacks, and that he recently declined to express an opinion about whether or not Hamas is a "terrorist" organization.
The "accessory" remark is from a 2001 interview on CBS’ "60 Minutes," in which Rauf said:
Rauf, Sept. 30, 2001: I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.
Correspondent Ed Bradley: OK. You say that we’re an accessory?
Rauf: Because we have been an accessory to a lot of — of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, it — in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.
That was a reference to U.S. support for bin Laden when he was fighting Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan, as CBS’ Bradley made clear in the sequence that immediately followed Rauf’s remark:
CBS’ Ed Bradley, Sept. 30, 2001: Bin Laden and his supporters were, in fact, recruited and paid nearly $4 billion by the CIA and the government of Saudi Arabia in the 1980s to fight with the Mujahedeen rebels against the former Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan. After the Soviets pulled out, the Saudis, our best friends in the Arab world, our staunchest ally during the Gulf War, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the newly formed Taliban regime until 1999.
Also, on ABC’s "This Week" with Christiane Amanpour, Rauf’s wife Daisy Khan recently stated:
Khan, Aug. 22, 2010: [H]e talked about the CIA support specifically to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. And…
Amanpour: You mean that…
Khan: Yes, in the ’80s.
Amanpour: … against the Soviet Union.
Khan: The Soviet Union. And how this was, you know, in CIA terms, a blowback of that. That’s what he meant.
In the "60 Minutes" interview, Rauf also said that "fanaticism and terrorism have no place in Islam," and that "there is no justification" for the attacks from an Islamic perspective.
Lazio also said that Rauf "refused to distance himself" from Hamas. That refers to a June New York Post report, in which Rauf ducked a question about whether he agreed with the State Department’s assessment of Hamas as a terrorist organization:
New York Post, June 19: "The issue of terrorism is a very complex question," [Rauf] told interviewer Aaron Klein. "There was an attempt in the ’90s to have the UN define what terrorism is and say who was a terrorist. There was no ability to get agreement on that." Asked again for his opinion on Hamas, an exasperated Rauf wouldn’t budge. "I am a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy," Rauf said, insisting that he wants to see peace in Israel between Jews and Arabs.
Rauf’s detractors continue to mine elements of his statements for evidence that he is insufficiently pro-American or overly sympathetic to fellow Muslims overseas. Most recently, the Investigative Project on Terrorism took issue with statements from Rauf’s 2005 lecture and discussion at the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Center in South Australia. IPT was founded by controversial journalist Steven Emerson, who once suggested that contemporary Islam "sanctions genocide, planned genocide, as part of its religious doctrine."
We find that IPT (and others who echoed its criticism) take Rauf’s words out of context.
IPT claimed that Rauf’s statements "reveal radicalism" and "would make anyone who is not concerned about the mosque at the Ground Zero site rethink their support for the man." Its prime example is Rauf’s comment that "the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida has on its hands of innocent non Muslims," which he backed up by saying that "US-led sanctions against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children."
It’s true that the 500,000 deaths figure is highly controversial, and probably inflated. But it came from the United Nations, which Rauf correctly cited as the source. And rightly or wrongly, it has been repeated and accepted by plenty of people who aren’t radical Islamists — including reporter Lesley Stahl of CBS’ "60 Minutes."
In context, here’s what Rauf said in his 2005 remarks:
Rauf, 2005: You may remember that the US led sanction against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations. And when Madeleine Albright, who has become a friend of mine over the last couple of years, when she was secretary of state and was asked whether this was worth it, said it was worth it.
Rauf’s reference to Albright comes from a "60 Minutes" program that aired May 12, 1996. Albright actually was U.S. ambassador to the UN at the time, and only later became secretary of state.
CBS’ Stahl, May 12, 1996: We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died when–wh–in–in Hiroshima. And–and, you know, is the price worth it?
Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.
Albright later wrote in her memoir that she "must have been crazy" to answer Stahl’s "loaded question" that way. But her answer was widely interpreted at the time as giving support to the 500,000 figure.
IPT claimed that a "report by the British government" put the number of deaths at no more than 50,000, but IPT didn’t provide a citation. Rauf was citing a 1996 World Health Organization study that found that child mortality in Iraq had doubled in the five years after sanctions were imposed, and a later United Nations Children’s Fund report from 1999. Both have been disputed. In 1999 Columbia University Professor Richard Garfield estimated the total of excess deaths in children under 5 at between a "conservative" 106,106 and a "most likely" figure of 227,713. Furthermore, according to Canada’s National Post, Garfield laid most of the blame on Saddam Hussein’s government and not directly on the sanctions.
IPT also claimed that Rauf was "justifying acts of terrorism by blaming the United States for the oppression of Islamic regimes." It quotes Rauf — accurately — as saying that “after 50 years of, in many cases, oppression, of US support of authoritarian regimes that have violated human rights in the most heinous of ways, how else do people get attention?” But IPT omitted what Rauf said next: ”I’m just providing you with the arguments that are happening intra-Islamically by those who feel the emotional pain.”
Where is the money to build the center and mosque coming from?
That has yet to be determined. Little is currently known of how the estimated $100 million project will be funded. Project organizers say that they have not actually begun their fundraising drive, and are still in the initial planning process. According to the project’s website, "Park51 will incorporate as a non-profit and seek federal tax-exempt status" as a 501 (c)(3) organization. And while those behind the project say they intend to raise the necessary funds for the project domestically, ABC News reported that Oz Sultan, spokesman for the Park51 project, declined to rule out accepting donations from foreign nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Project representatives explained via Twitter on Aug. 17 that once fundraising begins, "[w]e will disclose funding of the project in compliance with State and Federal law as well as vet investors with the [Department of ] Treasury." That point was echoed by Daisy Khan, Rauf’s wife and one of the leaders of the Park51 project, during her recent interview on ABC’s "This Week" with Christiane Amanpour:
Amanpour, Aug. 22, 2010: How much money has been raised and are you prepared to discuss the issue of foreign funding? Let’s say there was foreign funding. How would you be able to know exactly where that money was coming from, what other projects elsewhere that they may have given money to?
Khan: Well, this is where my counselor on my right is helping us, because our funding is going to be pretty much follow the same way that [Jewish Community Center] got its fund-raising. First, we have to develop a board. Then the board is going to have a financial committee, fund-raising committee that will be in charge of the fund-raising. And we have promised that we will work with the Charities Bureau, that we will adhere to the highest and the strictest guidelines set forth by the Treasury Department, because there is so much angst about this. But we will follow the lead from Rabbi Joy Levitt.
As we said at the outset, none of what we have written here should be taken as an endorsement of the Park51 project. We are neutral on the highly politicized and emotional question of whether or not it should be built at the site proposed. Our purpose here is to set the record straight where facts have been misrepresented or presented out of context.
–D’Angelo Gore and Jess Henig
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