Feisal Abdul-Rauf’s return to the United States, first from an extended visit to Malaysia and then an a short State Department-funded trip to several Arab nations, reignites the questions about leadership at the Park51 Project. His return resulted in a coordinated media outreach that continues to confuse the issue and show that no one really seems to be in charge.
Abdul-Rauf begins this media offensive by writing an op-ed in the New York Times, in which he constantly calls the center Cordoba House, the same day Park51 revamped its Web site, and one of principals says he wants to sell. Apparently no one told him that in his absence the Cordoba House name was dropped in favor of Park51. Either he is being kept out of the information loop or there is a leadership struggle happening within the team. The only other alternative is that he really is just clueless, as his wife constantly referred to the project as Park51 in her Council on Foreign Relations interview.
None of these options bode well for the future of the project.
In the op-ed, he also continues to conflate the defense of constitutional rights with defense of Park51 and opposition to Islamophobia with opposition to criticism of Park51. Neither President Obama nor Mayor Bloomberg have come out in support of Park51. Both have spoken out for the rule of law and that all Americans are deserving of equal protection under the law. Those statements are facts that should not be forgotten, but it is not the same as supporting Park51.
Along the same lines, speaking out against Islamophobia does not mean that the critics of Park51 are all Islamophobic, or anti-Muslim. It is possible to recognize the dignity of other beings without tying that dignity to a building. However, at least part of the Park51 team’s strategy seems to be conflate support for the law and people with support for the center. It should be clear that the battle against anti-Muslim bigotry is not the same as support for Park51.
The same evening Abdul-Rauf gave an interview on CNN in which he raised the canard of national security when discussing the need to build Park51. The logic of his argument is as follows: we are building a center that has generated controversy because we have not clearly articulated our goals and now if we don’t build it the terrorists will come get us all.
There are multiple problems with this line of thinking. It allows him to side-step the issue of the purpose Park51 by raising the issue of national security. This tactic is what got us into the Iraq War. It reeks of authoritarianism and fear-mongering. Rather than defending himself from a liberal, rights-based perspective, he capitulates the moral and legal high-ground and positions himself as a modern political conservative.
As Americans, if the point is to not give into terror by preserving our rights, Abdul-Rauf’s demand that we give in to fears of terrorists as a reason to build Park51 seems odd. It is unclear how cowering actually furthers national security. It also does not provide confidence in his ability to build bridges and work on counter-radicalization if his default position is to concede to the imagined demands of radicals. Neither the New York Times nor experts like Marc Lynch see this as an overseas issue. If he really is an expert on building bridges, he should have worked harder on a proactive strategy. This last point is particularly relevant as he describes himself as the visionary behind the project, leaving the logistics to SoHo Properties.
While I suspect many people had hoped that Abdul-Rauf’s return would inject some calm into the debate over Park51, his statements do nothing to clarify the purpose or leadership of the center. Without that clarity, no matter how placid Abdul-Rauf’s demeanor, passions will continue to be inflamed. We are still waiting for the vision and the leadership he promises.