Imam Feisal Rauf, the man behind the Park 51 Muslim community center, a.k.a. the "Ground Zero Mosque," leaves this week for a three-nation Middle East tour on behalf of the State Department, on which he is expected to speak about the controversy surrounding his project.
Rauf will leave New York and arrive in Manama, Bahrain Aug. 19, where he will stay until Aug. 23, a State Department official tells The Cable. On Aug. 24, Rauf will arrive in Doha, Qatar, where he will stay until Aug. 27. From Aug. 28 to Sept. 2, he will be in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, after which he will return to New York. The U.S. government is covering the costs of the trip but won't disclose the amount.
And while the State Department has no idea and no control over the specifics ofwhat Rauf will talk about as he tours the region, officials note that his agenda could not be more directly related to the issue of backlash against his project, still slated to be built in lower Manhattan.
"His program is about religious diversity and tolerance in America. Will he relate that to his personal situation? Probably," another State Department official said.
The State Department has been shy about talking about Rauf and the trip, ostensibly to avoid wading into the controversy over the community center. But that didn't stop officials from posting Mayor Michael Bloomberg's impassioned defense of the project on the State Department-run website, America.gov. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that because the site is directed at foreign audiences, State was not violating the Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibits the U.S. government from spreading propaganda inside American borders.
The trip is organized by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs and will not include any fundraising. This is his third trip with the State Department; the first one was in 2007 under the George W. Bush administration. Rauf also visited Egypt in January.
Rauf's pending trip is independent of the Park 51 project and was organized before it became subject of a national debate, though the issue will now likely be front and center when the imam arrives in the Middle East. In fact, the State Department chose Rauf for its public diplomacy program not for the sake of controversy, but because he had a reputation as a moderate, open-minded religious leader.
"His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known, and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it's like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States," Crowley said, adding that he is not permitted to fundraise for the project as part of the State Department program.
Meanwhile, Sharif El-Gamal, the developer of the project, told NY1 Tuesday that he has no plans to move the mosque and is not aware of any meeting to consider a new location. He said the building will be "the most famous community center in the world" and he criticized those who are making political hay out of the mosque debate.
"I am surprised at the way that politics is being played in 2010. There are issues that are affecting our country, which are real issues: unemployment, poverty, the economy," he said. "And it's a really sad day for America when our politicians choose to look at a constitutional right and use that as basis for their elections."