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Limits of Con: An Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan

by Richard Kostelanetz (November 2012)


When I read recently in the Brooklyn Rail (September 2012), a monthly to which I occasionally contribute both music reviews and fiction, about two Muslim-Americans trying to revive the “Ground Zero Mosque” that received so much press attention two summers ago, I was reminded that I drafted then the following for another monthly magazine whose contributing editor I’d been, Liberty. However, it stopped printing paper without anybody telling me. By the time I’d retrieved it, others had published about the subject, albeit insufficiently. So this essay went into the file for my next book of political criticism, tentatively titled Further, Deeper, and Behind. Those three words have also become the standards for my political criticism.

 Here’s what I wrote in 2010:

The audacious proposal to build a 13-story, 100-million dollar Islamic center called Park51, a few hundred feet away from Ground Zero, the still-empty site of the lost World Trade Center, struck me from the beginning as a provocation intended to garner publicity, stir controversy, and embarrass American politicians, even if they need not have opened their mouths. As some of the world’s biggest lens lice swallowed his “news” feed, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf initially succeeded.

This is quite a surprising achievement for a Kuwaiti-American, born in 1948, who took a degree in physics from Columbia University—not from its prestigious College (from which Prez Obama, say, graduated) but its School of Engineering and Applied Science. Since 1983 Rauf has been the Imam at a modest storefront loft, on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, aka “Tribeca,” at 245 West Broadway, to be exact, sandwiched between two watering holes serving liquids forbidden to devout Muslims. (For a memorable image, see Google maps.)

The New York Post reported on 2 September 2010 that in 1998 the American Sufi Muslim Association obtained from the IRS for Rauf’s Upper West Side apartment “church status,” which thus legally exempted it from real estate taxes. The application claimed that a few hundred worshippers routinely showed up for prayers in a space with less than one thousand square feet. Believe that, if you will, and I will sell you cheap a restaurant in Shanghai. (Since February 1998, the ASMA claimed an address at 475 Riverside Drive, an interfaith center with plenty of surplus interior space.)

Reporters at the Post later revealed Rauf (as the sole proprietor of Sage Development, LLC) to be a negligent landlord on two small apartment buildings nearby in Newark, New Jersey. A newsman at the suburban Bergen Record reported that Rauf received more than $2 million in public money to renovate low-income apartments owned by Sage in suburban Hudson County, Union City to be precise. “According to the city, the suffering inflicted on Rauf's tenants include lack of lighting in hallways, non-functioning smoke detectors, a non-functioning central fire alarm, and failure to provide gas and hot water, all because of nonpayment of utility bills. Further, there are bedbugs in two units, requiring extermination services throughout the building, dirty hallways and garbage storage issues, debris on fire escapes, lack of fire extinguishers, and a rotting floor on one fire escape.” Wow. This immigrant landlord knows how to skate across very thin American ice.

One reason why the Imam’s current Tribeca operation is so modest, and why his proposed bigger mosque might not succeed, is that few Muslims reside in Lower Manhattan. Indeed, as every New Yorker knows (though outsiders might not), residents of any faith are so scarce around Wall Street recently that the only large religious buildings so far downtown—think of Trinity Church and St. Paul’s chapel--were constructed not decades but centuries ago! By contrast, the new Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side, which Rauf’s coconspirator, a prosperous Muslim developer, patronizes and regards as a model for the proposed Islamic center, has succeeded because many Jews, among others, reside nearby.

So, even if their proposed downtown Islamic center were built, filling its facilities would become so problematic that the owners would probably look for other tenants with other uses. Indeed, in vetting prospective tenants, they wouldn’t be choosey. Remember the first three prerequisites of successful real estate: location, location, location? For Muslims or anyone else, lower Manhattan ain’t it. Since taking care of property is evidently not among Rauf’s acquired skills, his completed new building could become, much like recent Miami condos, an instant slum.

I can recall when his Masjid al-Farah began in 1981 as a Sufi center at a former firehouse somewhat uptown in downtown SoHo, two blocks away from where I long resided. This Sufi center was funded partially by the initial principals of the Dia Foundation, otherwise known as a dogged patron of avant-garde art of the 1960s and 1970s. (The wife is a Franco-American who has taken a Muslim name; her husband, a German.) No Taliban outfit has this been, as a New York Times reporter found Masjid al-Farah currently too liberal for conservative Muslims (or ultra-orthodox Jews), for instance allowing men and women to pray in the same space on the same floor.

Since planting his provocations in early August [2010], traditionally the slowest news month, Feisel Abdul Rauf disappeared to points outside the US, perhaps in Malaysia I’ve heard, and thus didn’t initially participate (and can’t be quoted) in the debates he generated. Given what his statements might reveal about ulterior motives, he’s wisely laid low.

Likewise out of town (or out to lunch) was his third wife, Daisy Khan, once an interior designer, now under her own surname the director of ASMA (the American Society for Muslim Advancement) that portrays itself as indigenous as apple pie, though some doubt. How indisputably American cool are these cleverly hot immigrant operators.

Inadvertently perhaps, Rauf’s proposal also provoked a debate apart from politicians over whether Islamic designs are compatible with secular American ideals. For this illustrative result in raising a genuine issue for Americans now, let’s be grateful. This guy often portrayed as “a bridge builder” has actually divided public opinion. Publicists and self-publicists are ecstatic. So are politicians and institutional chiefs with ulterior motives (such as fleecing Arab moneys). Rather than accept thoughtful suggestions that Rauf and his coconspirators place this Islamic center further away from Ground Zero, they doggedly stuck to their original scheme. That last trick kept the news machinery going.

Who has been this guy Rauf away? Ostensibly the US State Department has sent him to the Middle East on some P.R. mission representing America as amicable to Muslims, incidentally during the month-long celebration of Ramadan that runs from mid-August through mid-September. "We have a long-term relationship with him," a State Department factotum told the NY Times, noting that Rauf had visited Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in 2007. Rauf went to Egypt in January, 2010, as part of an exchange program run by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs. Wow.

Though Rauf declared he wouldn’t be fund-raising for his pet project on this current trip, Ramadan, ongoing then, is, I’m told, the optimal time for Muslim begging, comparable to pre-Christmas for Christians.  Who can believe that this Rauf, sponsored by American taxpayers, won’t be meeting potential Arab donors? Or that he regarded the outset of a trip abroad as the most propitious time for his announcement? On the other hand, wouldn’t many Middle East potentates regard any US-government factotum suspiciously?

Of course, guys who purchase Manhattan property have a right to build under American law without state interference. There’s no doubt about that. That doesn’t mean should, if they want to avoid unnecessary risk. To avert failure for anything problematic, they try to marshal state interference on their behalf. May I suggest that a motive in swaying public opinion to influence politicians to affect policies. How neat.

May I confess surprise that Rauf, now 62, didn’t propose this earlier? May he someday be interviewed about the origins and timing of his audacious scheme. [Was he? I can’t find.] Given his evident cleverness in manipulating American media, why didn’t he attain such celebrity before? (Or is he the puppet of someone cleverer? Or, more perversely, a double agent intent on embarrassing American Islam with a generally unpopular proposal?) His dogged unavailability raises questions and increases mystery.

Whatever is proposed, let me predict, won’t happen, even if enough money becomes available, unlikely though that seems, because unionized NYC construction workers won’t build it. Too many lost friends in the destruction of the WTC, which is still commonly blamed on Arab terrorists, even if some of Rauf’s Muslim colleagues have claimed otherwise, while a project so big can’t be realized in NYC with scab labor.

In this respect, consider Rauf’s vision as an example of Conceptual Art (or Conceptual Architecture), itself a lower Manhattan tradition, where a provocative esthetic statements can gain cultural status apart from any realization. (Note that the Dia Foundation has also supported Conceptual Artists.)

If nothing gets built, suspect that the money collected for its construction will probably evaporate in a con(ceptual) man’s sink hole. Should potential Middle East donors fear such waste, perhaps identifying Rauf’s true character, this vision will collapse as well. I’d bet on failure and further failure if I could find someone to accept my wager. If only to demonstrate my refusal to be provoked into popular debate, may I resist offering any biased opinion on the validity of the scheme itself.

Oh yes, may I predict as well that the next time this Rauf tries to access American press ears, they will be closed. There’s a limit for such a successful con.

Meanwhile, the center itself is more likely to survive only in people’s minds and mouths, as nothing more than the provocative fantasy it was meant to be.

II

Illustrating my conclusion from two years ago, The Rail article by Sabine Heinlein focuses on Hanadi Doleh and Rashid Dar, both personable in their twenties. They are portrayed as earnestly giving classes last summer (when else?) on Islamic culture in the century-old commercial building on the Park Place site of the planned center. (Consider it the only Manhattan address named after a space on the childrens’ board game called Monopoly.) The former, aged 27, is described as born and raised in New York who has a masters degree in international relations from Brooklyn College. “’I am very proud to be a Muslim American, female, Palestinian New Yorker,’ she said. ‘I walk with my head high. My experiences have led me to where I am.’”  Uh, huh. The latter, aged 23, has just come to New York from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where “he wasn’t even raised in a particularly devout Muslim family. It wasn’t until he went to college that he was really confronted with Muslim issues.” Ah, yes. To some readers, particularly in New York, such sentiments have a certain appeal.

Although an entity called Soho Properties paid $4.85 million cash for part of this property, while leasing an adjoining building from Con Edison for twenty years, Park51 (sometimes misspelled as “Park 51”) is still unlikely. Tearing down a century-old building (in order to build anew), part of which is still owned by someone else, might encounter opposition from the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. As before, though this scheme too may garner more sympathetic publicity and perhaps enough attention to warrant rebuttals (especially during the slow-news summertime), it is still essentially a con-game whose result will be the same—nothing.

About “Soho Properties” itself, may I be curious? First of all, we sometime denizens of this artists’ colony spelled it SoHo as an abbreviation for South of Houston Street. The current misspelling, slight to most but significant to some, reflects either ignorance or arrogance, especially to guys capable of distinguishing “Park51” from “Park 51.” Secondly, its chairman, Sharif El-Gamal, is described as working as a waiter from 1997 to 2001, albeit in an expensive midtown restaurant named Serafina. About his subsequent elevation can we judge “only in America?” I remain surprised that no one before El-Gamel & co. used “Soho Properties” as a corporate name before them, even with the first word correctly spelled. My hunch is that the favored British epithet for real estate didn’t appeal to the modest Americans who developed Artists SoHo--actually renovated, as building anew is a landmarked district was problematic.

Among SP’s previous moves was the purchase in November, 2009, of 31 West 27th Street, a 12-story office building in a neighborhood once famous for its flower shops, now populated with street-level cheap dry-goods stores run by Asians both eastern and southern. For this Soho Properties paid $5 million down against $45.7 million, receiving a $39 million mortgage co-signed by a partner named Hisham Elzanaty, who had his own shady history, reportedly ordered to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars for fleecing Medicaid. (Since we’re acknowledging the significance of slight changes in orthography, note how some of these Middle-Easterners remove the hyphen in transliterating their surnames from the Arabic, sometimes successfully masking Middle-Eastern origins.)

The ulterior motive of such schemes, as well as reportage about them, is generating discussion of a question recurring in America. How liberal can a liberal society be toward social groups that are fundamentally not liberal. In the past 100 years, Americans have had to decide how to regard native fascists, then Jewish Communists, Black Panthers, and nativist militias, among others, all of whom could be portrayed as advocating illiberal violence from different directions to realize their social visions. Too often, while some Americans have excused the predisposition for violence for one or another of these groups out of sympathy for their ultimate aims, most Americans were opposed. All of them finally failed.

The latest challenge comes from Muslims not only elsewhere in the Western world but particularly in the United States to which more and more are increasingly immigrating. I’m not so sure that innocent Muslims here comprehend how many delicate buttons are being pushed by their compatriots elsewhere in the world. To be specific, the general failure of the “Arab Spring” to deliver liberal governments in those countries does Muslims here no good.

While Americans have so far been tolerant, I fear that Arab violence elsewhere in the world, especially in response to free expression, will make Americans reluctant to accept Muslims as neighbors here. Likewise should they fear attempts to impose Shariah laws on non-Muslims here; don’t be surprised to find some Americans reviving the acronym of NIMBY—not in my backyard, not only near the former World Trade Center but, say, in suburban residential housing. Muslims in America are being tested to a degree they may not yet understand but shouldn’t be surprised to discover that they are—tested, much as Jews, Italians, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other groups were tested. This is scarcely new or, in the end, unreasonable. Far be it for a radical such as myself to advise caution, but let me suggest that advocates for a downtown Islamic monument, as well as their sympathizers, should be careful about roiling waters best left calm.

I once conjectured to myself, but did not publish before, that Muslim-Americans would benefit from the equivalent of the Rosenberg case. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, recall, were Jewish Communists convicted in 1953 of spying for the Soviet Union and subsequently executed. Most Americans noticed that some of the prosecutors’ witnesses and the principal judge were Jewish, implicitly willing to sacrifice one of their own for the sake of establishing Jewish credibility in America.

It worked, even though it became clear that the Rosenbergs were wannabes rather than successful spies; they had no serious secrets. It worked, because Jewish loyalty to America was never again questioned and anti-Semitism declined. No Jew was subsequently executed for subversion—not even Jonathan Pollard who was caught selling military secrets not to the Soviet Union but to Israel in the mid-1980s. The prosecution of Sacco and Venzetti, innocent though they might have been, similarly defused prosecution of Italian anarchists. The execution of Timothy McVeagh eliminated the threat of militias.

Fundamentally disagreeable though all these prosecutions were, they benefitted the status in America of each once-suspect group. Stay tuned.

Richard Kostelanetz’s books include SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony (Routledge, 2003).

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