A Landmarks Preservation Commission decision to allow a new $100 million Islamic cultural center and mosque to be built just two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City has triggered a lawsuit and calls for an investigation into the center's shadowy funding.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an organization founded by religious broadcaster the Rev. Pat Robertson, filed suit Wednesday urging the New York Supreme Court to toss the commission's ruling for not following its own regulations and precedents.
In appealing the commission's finding that the building fails to qualify for historic preservation, Sekulow pointed out that the landing gear from the first airliner to slam into the trade center plummeted to earth and crashed through the roof of the very structure now scheduled to be demolished for construction of the "ground zero mosque."
Video: Former New York Gov. George Pataki on the Ground Zero Mosque (Story continues below).
"That should have been enough to have it deemed landmark status," Sekulow tells Newsmax. "Instead, and this is what is so unusual about this, months ago the Landmark Commission approved the idea of having a mosque there.
"That's not their job. Their job's not to approve whether it’s a mosque or not.
Their job is to determine whether the building has landmark significance . . . they've thwarted their own policies in order to do a politically correct thing here by approving this mosque at ground zero."
Sekulow likens putting a mosque and cultural center at the site to "putting a monument to kamikaze pilots at the Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor," and says he has questions about "where is this money coming from and who is behind it?"
The 9/11 first responders he represents are "outraged and shocked at the same time," he says.
"The shock is the idea that this mosque would go up at the same site," Sekulow says. "The outrage is that the government is allowing it, and not only allowing it but is complaisant in it. The irony of this is quite unbelievable."
Critics say the funding sources for the 13-story project, initially called the Cordoba House but now more commonly referred to by its proponents as "Park51," are very murky.
The Cordoba Initiative, which describes its objective on its website as "steering the world back to the course of mutual recognition and respect and away from heightened tensions," is led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan. The organization lists scores of "supporters" on its home page, including 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, the American Jewish Committee, the Interfaith Center of New York, St. Bartholomew's Church, and the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
The site does not specify, however, whether any of those organizations has contributed financially to the cultural center project.
The organization's website solicits donations by directing donors to a PayPal account, and does not require disclosure of identity other than payment information and an e-mail address.
"If this project were what it was represented to be, which is an exercise in building bridges and a more ecumenical kind of Islam, then there shouldn't be any shroud whatsoever over who is behind it," Andrew C. McCarthy, the former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, and author of "The Grand Jihad," tells Newsmax. "The fact that there is an obvious reluctance about saying who is behind it would lead a rational person to think it isn't what it's represented to be."
New York GOP gubernatorial hopeful Rick Lazio has called for an investigation into the proposed project, including its funding. But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who applauded the commission's ruling Tuesday, blasted any probe into the finances of Imam Feisal's organizations as “out of character for what this nation stands for and the way we conduct ourselves.”
Bloomberg recently told NY 1: "I don't think we're going to go and start investigating funding sources for religious organizations or vetting people who preach or pray in religious organizations.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., also has called for an investigation.
"It's a house of worship, but we are at war with al-Qaida," King told The Associated Press last month. "I think the 9/11 families have a right to know where the funding comes from. I think there are significant questions."
Former New York Gov. George Pataki tells Newsmax.TV that Bloomberg is "dead wrong on this. The mosque does not belong anywhere near ground zero, and it's not a matter of tolerance."
Pataki questioned the financing of the project.
"This isn't the local community corner mosque," he said. "This is a $100 million, 13-story facility. Where are the funds coming from? We as Americans have a right to know where are the funds coming from? Are they coming from foreign governments? Foreign governments don't have the right, I don't believe, to come and build a facility like this.
"Are they coming from people who have backed terrorists in the past? You know Sept. 11 was not just some random attack. It was a planned assault on New York America by Islamic terrorists. And we have every right to stand up and say we need to know where the funds are coming from," Pataki said.
Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, the Muslim president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, a group seeking to discourage Islamic extremism, tells Newsmax that construction of an Islamic prayer area overlooking ground zero will be seen in the Muslim world as "a victory for political Islam."
Jasser, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant, has said Muslim youths must be taught American liberty and freedom are preferable to the harsh regime of Islamic laws known as Shariah. Islamic experts say that in extreme cases Shariah has led to stonings after alleged infidelity, and profound discrimination against women.
Asked who is paying for the religious facility, Jasser replied, "That's what I want to know. I don't know. Nobody knows. The organization certainly has not said that they will not take foreign funding. They have had some funding that they [have] gotten, I believe, from a Qatari foundation. So they do take foreign moneys by their previous example. But they haven't answered the question."
Among the concerns raised about Abdul Rauf and the proposed Islamic center:
- Jasser says Abdul Rauf has refused to condemn Hamas or Hezbollah out of concern for alienating some Muslims. "It's just absurd that he can't identify groups that use terrorism as a means as corrupt and unIslamic," Jasser says. "So this is why the money is very important."
- Abdul Rauf recently wrote a commentary published on HuffingtonPost.com that compared Shariah with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. "He is completely misrepresenting what Shariah really is," Jasser warns. "We are not a theocracy, canon law is not part of Western society, and our laws are based on a separation of powers and an Establishment clause that could never be interpreted the way Shariah law is [as] simply the domain of clerics. I think it's very deceptive for him to say that and it shows that he's really not a reformist, but an apologist."
- The New York Post has reported that Abdul Rauf is a "prominent member" of the Malaysian-based Perdana Global Peace Organization. That is the single largest donor to the Free Gaza Movement, which in turn played a key role in organizing the violence-marred flotilla that tried to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Deborah Burlingame, sister of an American Airlines pilot who died on 9/11, told the Post: "I think it goes to show he is not the man he represents himself to be. We have two Imam Raufs."
- The Anti-Defamation League caught many civil rights groups by surprise when it came out against the ground zero mosque. ADL leader Abe Foxman told NPR Tuesday that if Cordoba's leaders sincere in their desire to encourage inter-faith harmony and understanding, the best way to accomplish that objective would be to move the facility to a less controversial location.
- Even the name Cordoba is controversial. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has written that the name derives from "a city in Spain where a conquering Muslim army replaced a church with a mosque. This name is a very direct historical indication that the ground zero mosque is all about conquest and thus an assertion of Islamist triumphalism which we should not tolerate."
- Shortly after 9/11, Abdul Rauf strongly denounced the attacks, saying on "60 Minutes" that "Fanaticism and terrorism have no place in Islam." But he also remarked: "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened."
Jasser says the financing is important because the ideas and teachings of a mosque can be greatly influenced by those who are footing the bill.
Abdul Rauf has been a voice of reason within the Muslim community at times. Shortly after the Fort Hood shootings in Texas, for example, he decried the violence as a "senseless act."
"What this unfortunate Army major did was against the laws of Islam," Abdul Rauf wrote on his site's blog. "He obviously was violating his faith when he undertook this act. Killing is as much a sin in Islam as it is in Christianity, Judaism and all the major religions. Taking the law into one's own hands is against Islamic teachings."
Imam Feisal is a Sufi Muslim, which has been described as more centered on spiritual pursuits than on strict rituals. The FBI has officially credited Imam Feisal with helping the agency to reach out to Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. He founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement in 1997, a group aimed at bringing Muslims and non-Muslims together through academic and cultural programs. His biography states he holds a B.S. in physics from Columbia University. His wife has won several awards for promoting interfaith understanding.
Jasser credits Abdul Rauf with being "very nonviolent."
"He has condemned terrorism as a tactic, and he's pretty smooth when it comes to these things," Jasser tells Newsmax. "But yet he's an apologist for political Islam and Shariah. You can't help but think he's part of the same Islamist ideas of wanting to spread Islam in an evangelical way globally, and probably establish an Islamic state."
Newsmax contacted Abdul Rauf's office seeking his comment on the lawsuit and the financing. His assistant replied via e-mail: "Imam Feisal is still out of town and will not be available for an interview."
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