(Aug. 20) -- The Muslim cleric behind the planned "Ground Zero" Islamic center is in the Middle East, sent by the State Department on a trip intended to smooth relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world while adding to the uproar back home.A few observations:
A day after arriving in Bahrain, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told The Associated Press today that he hopes his tour would draw attention to the need for America and the Middle East to battle fundamentalism together.
"This issue of extremism is something that has been a national security issue -- not only for the United States but also for many countries and nations in the Muslim world," he said after leading Friday prayers at a mosque in Bahrain's capital Manama. "This is why this particular trip has a great importance, because all countries in the Muslim world -- as well as the Western world -- are facing this ... major security challenge."
Hasan Jamali, AP
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, greets worshippers inside a Muharraq, Bahrain, mosque. Rauf, the imam leading plans for an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York, is on a U.S.-funded outreach tour to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to talk about religious tolerance in America.
Rauf also plans stops in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Details about the imam's plans in each country have not been released by the State Department, although spokesman P.J. Crowley said Rauf would be giving a series of lectures on religious co-existence and life as a Muslim in America. He added that the imam might also discuss the Islamic cultural center that the cleric's organization, the Cordoba Initiative, plans to build in lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he talks about the ongoing debate within the United States, as an example of our emphasis on religious tolerance and resolving questions that come up within the rule of law," Crowley said.
Rauf's government-funded trip has come in for intense criticism from opponents of the so-called Ground Zero mosque. Earlier this week, Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Peter King of New York expressed outrage that the State Department was funding a figure they consider to be a radical. (Rauf has been criticized for refusing to openly condemn the Palestinian extremist movement Hamas).
"It is unacceptable that U.S. taxpayers are being forced to fund Feisal Abdul Rauf's trip to the Middle East," their statement read. "The U.S. should be using public diplomacy programs to combat extremism, not endorse it."
However, this isn't the imam's first government-sponsored tour of the region. He traveled twice to the Middle East during the George W. Bush administration and once earlier this year. "This [trip] was scheduled before the issue of the religious center in New York came up," Crowley said. "He obviously volunteered to participate in this program. We value his participation."
In an attempt to curb further controversy, only local media will be allowed to meet with the imam throughout the trip, The New York Times reported. "I think they are worried that whatever he says will be taken out of context," said Mansoor Al-Jamri, editor of the Bahraini daily Al-Wasat, which is scheduled to interview the cleric during his four-day stay on the island kingdom.
However, that move could backfire, as it appears to undermine the message of openness and tolerance the imam is preaching.
The State Department also tried to dismiss concerns that Rauf might use the tour to raise funds for the mosque. "This is what we tell anyone who participates in one of our expert trips: They're there to provide perspective on behalf of the United States, and they're not to engage in personal business as part of the program that they're participating in," said Crowley. "He has agreed to that."
1. The US Government has endorsed censorship and subverted the principle of freedom of speech with the restriction that "only local media will be allowed to meet with the imam throughout the trip." The US taxpayer has paid for the imam's work, and the US public has a right--IMHO a duty--to keep an eye on what he says. The announced media guidelines reported by AOL are on their face undemocratic and un-American.
2. Whether or not Rauf asks directly for money, his trip certainly promotes construction of the mosque. The timing and destinations speak for themselves. There is an appearance of impropriety, despite State Department denials. Actions speak louder than words. How dumb do the people the the US State Department think American citizens are?
3. The reported budget for the trip, $16,000, sounds quite high. Is the imam flying First or Business Class? Is he staying in four or five star hotels? Eating at expensive restaurants? If so, the American taxpayer has a right to know. Why is an imam on a government trip not getting a US government rate on airfare and lodging? I'd be interested to see the budget and expense vouchers, as well as per diem accounts (is he keeping any of it for himself?)
4. The State Department has reportedly not released details of the imam's schedule. On what possible grounds? My interpretation is embarrassment, shame, and cowardice. Heck of a way to win hearts and minds!
5. Other sites note that this imam is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has some sort of connection to the Aspen Institute. Eugene Robinson said on the PBS Newshour that he also works for the Washington Post. The photo in this post was taken at the Davos World Economic Forum, the "billionaire's club." Given that these are "establishment" institutions, it is highly likely that this trip was planned with the blessing of top officials in the US State Department (indeed, signs indicate that Rauf may be working as an unofficial "rent-an-imam"). Did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sign off on the imam's visit? If not, as she no doubt used to ask about President Nixon during Watergate days: "What did she know, and when did she know it?"
IMHO, the State Department should have postponed the imam's trip when the Bloomberg Ground Zero Mosque controversy reached the Presidential level. This trip won't help US-Islamic relations, won't help Secretary of State Clinton, won't help President Obama, and won't help the people of the United States of America.