The New York Times
January 14, 2011
Amid Rift, Imam’s Role in Islam Center Is Sharply Cut
By PAUL VITELLO
Long-simmering tensions between co-founders of the proposed Islamic center and mosque near ground zero led to a parting of the ways on Friday that sharply reduced the role of one: the imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, long the project’s public face.
The break-up sent ripples of uncertainty through a community of religious and political leaders in New York who rallied last summer to the side of Mr. Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, when opponents assailed the plan to build near the site of the 9/11 attacks. Some worried aloud that the curtailed involvement of the couple could cost the project support. Others said the plan would continue to be endorsed by people committed to interfaith dialogue and freedom of religious expression.
The split was announced unilaterally by Mr. Abdul Rauf’s partner in the project, Sharif el-Gamal, the real estate investor who owns the former coat store at 51 Park Place where the 13-story center is planned.
In a statement that took Mr. Abdul Rauf by surprise, according to a spokesman for the imam, Mr. Gamal said the imam and his wife would no longer raise money for or speak on behalf of the project, known as Park51, though Mr. Abdul Rauf would remain on its board.
“While Imam Feisal’s vision has a global scope and his ideals for the Cordoba movement are truly exceptional, our community in Lower Manhattan is local,” said Mr. Gamal, referring to the imam’s longstanding work in promoting interfaith understanding. “Our focus is and must remain the residents of Lower Manhattan and the Muslim American community in the greater New York area.”
The imam’s efforts have taken him on State Department speaking tours in the Middle East. On Saturday, he was to begin a United States speaking tour.
The differences between the imam and Mr. Gamal have been evident on a wide range of issues for many months, said Muzaffar A. Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at the New York University School of Law and a friend of Mrs. Khan and her husband. The two men have differed over the size of the project, its commercial or noncommercial character, and whether it would be primarily a place for Muslims or for people of many faiths, he said.
But the divide was most apparent in the different names each leader has used for the project. The imam has always referred to the proposed Islamic center and mosque as the Cordoba House. To Mr. Gamal, a businessman and real estate developer, it is Park51.
In his announcement, Mr. Gamal said Friday services at the temporary mosque now operating in the building, previously conducted by Mr. Abdul Rauf when he was in town, would now be run by an imam, Abdallah Adhami, who has served another Lower Manhattan mosque for many years.
Julie Menin, chairwoman of Community Board 1, which approved the Muslim center last spring, said Mr. Gamal, as owner of the property, had the right to “do as he wishes” on his project. Whether the reduced roles of Mr. Abdul Rauf and Ms. Khan would affect support, Ms. Menin said, “It’s too soon to know.”
Mr. Chishti, however, suggested that the prospects for raising the estimated $100 million it might cost to build the center would be diminished. “The groundswell of support we saw over the summer for this project was not a wave of support for a developer’s rights,” Mr. Chishti said. “It was support for a vision that was articulated by Imam Feisal.”
Neither Mr. Abdul Rauf nor Mr. Gamal would agree to an interview on Friday, but each had someone speak on his behalf.
Larry Kopp, a spokesman for Mr. Gamal, said the imam would stay on the Park51 board, which now has four members including Mr. Gamal. Mr. Kopp said the board would expand to about 15 members this year.
Leyla Turkkan, a spokesman for Mr. Abdul Rauf, said the imam and his wife would “continue their leadership work in creating the Cordoba House,” and their efforts “to help build broader connection and understanding among people of all faiths.”
By most accounts, both Mr. Abdul Rauf and Mr. Gamal were surprised over the summer when their project drew such emotionally charged opposition, despite receiving the approval of Community Board 1 and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Mr. Abdul Rauf has said the decision to present the plans to both panels while the two men were still hammering out their own differences was in part an effort to begin building public support. When the hearings instead touched off a nationwide controversy, the two found themselves ill-prepared: The board of directors still has no prominent leaders, and the project has raised little money.
“When events started outpacing them, they had not really ironed out the basic elements of their plan,” Mr. Chishti said. “In the glare of attention, they couldn’t back down from their positions. It’s not surprising they weren’t able to come to terms.”
Pamela Geller, a blogger who marshaled much of the opposition to what she termed “the ground zero victory mosque,” said the pushing aside of Mr. Abdul Rauf would not change much.
“It doesn’t matter whose face is out front,” she said. “We’re still against it.”