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08.23.10

The Mosque Is the New Balloon Boy

With less than $9,000 raised and a chaotic PR strategy, the “ground zero mosque” is nowhere close to becoming a reality. Asra Q. Nomani on why the media frenzy is this summer’s Balloon Boy.

As debate rages over the “ground zero” mosque, the media has once again whipped itself into a frenzy over a story that doesn’t really exist.

Without money, a nonprofit organizational structure, or a coherent PR strategy, the plan to build an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero, dubbed Park51, remains nothing more than a pipe dream. And the growing media brouhaha is a little reminiscent of last year’s storm over “Balloon Boy,” the Fort Collins, Colorado, child whose parents claimed he had drifted away in a helium balloon.

Among the many issues facing the Islamic center’s development plan is its lack of an institutional structure, clear leadership, or money. For one thing, the effort to build the mosque isn’t yet a nonprofit with 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. That’s months from being cleared, according to most nonprofit experts. On its website, Park51 acknowledges that forming the nonprofit with an executive director and a 23-member board of directors is “the next step” in making the plan reality.

The truth is that the Park51 plan is much more nascent than the story has been played in the media—and that’s nobody’s fault; it’s just the hallmark of any fledgling operation.

Now the group behind the Islamic center is taking steps to improve its image. Acknowledging fears that the Islamic center effort may look “juvenile and amateur,” the developer of the property, Sharif El-Gamal, has brought in A-list New York publicist Ken Sunshine to informally advise the development effort. Sunshine confirmed Monday: “I’m advising the developer informally. They’re not a formal client. I’m not going to tell you what I’m advising them.

“If anybody knows me, they know I do things in a quiet way,” he said, declining to comment on specific strategy suggestions he is making. Publicist to celebrities from the Jackson family to Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Barbra Streisand, Sunshine is considered one of the most powerful publicists in Hollywood and Manhattan, and he has publicly acknowledged problems with the developers’ PR strategy. Considered a New York liberal, Sunshine has pull in the city that the Islamic center wants to call home.

Asra Q. Nomani: The Money Behind the Mosque

Brad Gooch: The Man Behind the Mosque

Complete coverage of Park51
But the truth is that the Park51 plan is much more nascent than the story has been played in the media—and that’s nobody’s fault; it’s just the hallmark of any fledgling operation. It is almost more responsible simply to acknowledge the truth: The organizational efforts are juvenile because they’re just beginning.

The spiritual head of the proposed cultural center is Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, executive director of the nonprofit Cordoba Initiative, an interfaith group, but he isn’t the leader, despite most media depictions. He is a “program manager” along with the building’s owner, El-Gamal. Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, executive director of the progressive Muslim nonprofit American Society for Muslim Advancement, is a public face of the effort, telling viewers on Sunday’s This Week with Christiane Amanpour that the organizers will meet with “stakeholders” to discuss solutions. She is slated to hold a one-hour conference call Wednesday organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, which is pitching the call on the Islamic center as a “a forum for discussion on this issue as it relates to the larger debate on religious freedom in the United States.”

On its website, Park51 says the project “will be separate from the Cordoba Initiative and ASMA,” getting no funds from the groups and clearly establishing that the venture isn’t run by Rauf or Khan.

Furthermore, after collecting less than $9,000 through a nonprofit organization, Muslims for Peace, started by four Muslim moms in 2006, Park51 took down the “donate” button on its website this past weekend and stopped its fundraising efforts. I was one of the founders of Muslims for Peace but recused myself from support for the center and mosque over concerns about the location and future fundraising. I just stepped down from the group because of backlash to an article I wrote for The Daily Beast about the fundraising. Organizers claimed I was attempting to sabotage the effort. But what I was trying to do was humanize the story and show that, despite the conspiracy theories, the fundraising isn’t the financial juggernaut some are accusing it of being. In a vacuum of actual details, insinuations about Saudi clerics and Iranian Holocaust deniers funding the project have permeated the media coverage.

In a phone call before my fundraising article ran, El-Gamal, owner of the building at 51 Park Place, asked that details about the fundraising levels not be disclosed because it would make the organization look “juvenile and amateur.” He said he had already felt backlash after Politico reported that the latest fundraising report with the New York state attorney general’s office, from 2008, revealed that Rauf’s Cordoba Initiative had only $18,255. The Islamic center effort won’t even be getting that money. (El-Gamal asked that his comments be taken off the record after he made them.)

Based on public records filed with the state attorney general’s office, the Cordoba Initiative, started in 2004, is clearly a more mature nonprofit venture. In a 2004 letter to the IRS, the organization explained that one of its projects would be a “Cordoba Bread Fest, which will gather Christians, Jews and Muslims together to break bread and celebrate the sacred significance of the role bread has played in the three Abrahamic cultures.” Another effort, “the Sharia Project,” the letter said, “will use its research to demonstrate to the world that Islamic holy law is compatible with a pluralistic and free democratic society and that peace and tolerance are authentic expressions of Islamic principles.” It laid out a detailed PR plan with plans to get articles published in publications from Foreign Affairs to The Atlantic.

In its agenda, the Cordoba Initiative had a plan from which the Park51 PR effort could take a page: hosting meetings between Muslims and Americans that “will be focused on promoting intercultural communication, trust and tolerance. As individuals from different cultures spend time together and get to know each other, bonds of trust and friendship will inevitably form.”


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