08.20.10

The Money Behind the Mosque

Far from fundraising juggernaut with ties to Ahmadinejad, the planned Islamic center near ground zero has less than $9,000 in the bank—raised by a group of Muslim-American moms. Asra Q. Nomani reports.

Far from a fundraising juggernaut with ties to Ahmadinejad, the planned Islamic center near ground zero has less than $9,000 in the bank—raised by a group of Muslim-American moms. Asra Q. Nomani reports.

In recent days, critics of the proposal to build a mosque and Islamic center near ground zero have linked the plan to everyone from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Islamist organizations Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. But the plan's real fundraising effort, thus far, is much more
innocuous: a PayPal account with less than $9,000 in it, mostly from New Yorkers, raised by a group of Muslim moms in Manhattan whose original aim was to host a peace march.

Just this week, the New York Post ran a piece questioning the fundraising ties of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, spiritual leader of the Cordoba House, now dubbed Park51. The piece speculated that the fundraising effort could extend to Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Politico reported on a less-sophisticated operation—noting that the Cordoba Initiative's latest fundraising report shows just $18,255. The piece accurately concluded that the mosque remains a long shot, as fundraising for the $100 million project has hardly even begun.

The list of donors numbers only in the dozens, according to people familiar with the donations, and many are New Yorkers living in the neighborhood of ground zero.

But the mystery of the mosque funding is both more complicated—and considerably less sinister—than the early reports suggest. Rauf's group, the Cordoba Initiative, isn't even directly handling the fundraising for the proposed cultural center. In recent weeks, the business developers of the effort, Sharif El-Gamal, and volunteers decided to make some changes so that the new center isn't tied just to Rauf's organization. (For that reason, the effort has been rebranded as "Park51," rather than the Cordoba House.) So now, a group called Muslims for Peace, which I helped found with a group of moms four years ago, is handling the fundraising, and so far it has collected less than $9,000.

It's a long way from a fundraising juggernaut with ties to Ahmadinejad, as the New York Post speculated. On the Park51 website, the "donate" button leads to a PayPal page titled "Muslims for Peace c\o Park51." The list of donors numbers only in the dozens, according to people familiar with the donations, and many are New Yorkers living in the neighborhood of ground zero.

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Complete coverage of Park51
Our group, Muslims for Peace, became the fundraising arm of Park51 through a string of informal personal connections. Muslims for Peace began in the summer of 2006, when two other Muslim immigrant moms and I responded to a call by Ameena Meer, a straight-shooting Muslim-American single mother of three who wanted to organize a Muslim march for peace and tolerance. One of the other moms, Sharbari Ahmed, a Bangladeshi-American writer, had written a play, "Raisins not Virgins," asserting a theological argument that the "virgins" martyrs believe they are going to get in heaven is more accurately translated as "raisins." We founded our nonprofit organization to speak out against the violence that had been happening in the name of Islam. That summer, British police foiled a plot by Muslims to blow up trans-Atlantic flights. Since then, the little business of getting our children through school has gotten in the way of organizing a march, and the most we've done for the group is design an ad campaign that Meer created, launch a now outdated website, and file the papers to get our nonprofit status. Before Park51, we weren't in the fundraising business.

Earlier this year, Meer got interested in the mosque effort near ground zero. She knew the organizers well. She had been going to Masjid al-Farah, the progressive mosque where Rauf preached, for years. And she knew his wife, Daisy Khan, from her work in the Muslim community. She knew El-Gamal too, the new owner of the former Burlington Coat Factory building at 51 Park Place, the site for the new mosque and Islamic center.

While the plan had grabbed headlines, there wasn't any money set aside to make it reality. Rauf, the spiritual leader of the effort, and his wife were spearheading much of the community effort, calling the vision "the Cordoba House," but they haven't appropriated any money from the Cordoba Initiative and the Asma Society organizations that they run, according to people involved in the effort.

The business organizers found themselves in a quandry: Ramadan, the season of charity giving, was fast approaching, but they hadn't organized their effort yet as a nonprofit organization. Meer, the engine behind Muslims for Peace, asked the other mothers and me if we could support the effort and allow Park51 to collect money through Muslims for Peace. The others agreed. (I told them, sadly, I had to recuse myself from our support of the effort because I was worried about the hurt feelings of 9/11 victims' families to the location, and I also knew that as the fundraising operation grew, I wouldn't know where the donations were coming from.)

Now, on the Park51 website, donors can give directly to Muslims for Peace. Meer goes occasionally to check the status of donations, but overseeing the donations is the accountant at Soho Properties. According to a person familiar with the situation, PayPal hasn't released the money yet while it conducts its own review of the legitimacy of the nonprofit organization. In the long run, of course, the question of donations will only get more complicated.

Inside the Park51 effort, the organizers recognize they have to beef up their public relations. The team has relied on a hip young marketing specialist, Oz Sultan, who has made his mark with social marketing but may be in over his head in this debate. Sultan set off a storm of criticism when, in reply to a question from a New York Post reporter about whether the fundraising effort would extend to Iran and Saudi Arabia, he said, "I can't comment on that," adding, "We'll look at all available options within the United States to start." Meer, whose advertising agency, Take-Out Media, is handling the branding of Park51, responded internally with an email that the group had to take a strong stand against foreign funding.

The planners have also conducted internal debates about the public image of the campaign, with Sultan's @ Park51 Twitter feed taking potshots at the usually respectable Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and posting juvenile items like, "If my younger brother asked your sister to prom, would you picket him?" As part of its burgeoning PR strategy, the team has decided to lay low until after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, when it is thinking of holding a feast to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah and the Muslim holiday of Eid, marking the end of Ramadan.

Meanwhile, the Park51 organizers would like Meer to act as their spokeswoman. From my perspective, making such a change would be a good thing for their effort at building bridges, whether the center is built or not. She knows the language of Islam and America, sending Ramadan greetings and signing emails with "xx," electronic shorthand for "hugs."


 

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace . asra@asranomani.com