The Leadership Failure of Park51

The proposal to build Park51, a community center, near Ground Zero has unleashed the beast of Islamophobia. Many people are speaking out against the Islamophobes, but we should not conflate this with support of the center. The organizers of the proposed Park51 project lacked the vision that could have foreseen both the fabricated “controversy” of the Islamophobes and the discontent of the Muslim community that was not included in the planning process. Because the project’s planners failed to foresee the former, the Muslim community has been forced to defend a project about which it is otherwise ambivalent.

As someone who has been party to many intra- and inter-faith discussions about the project, I have defended not only the right to build an Islamic community center, but to build one near the former site of the Twin Towers. But while I support such a hypothetical project, I do not yet support this particular one.

The New York Times ran its first major piece on the project in December 2009, but over the next six months no media strategy was developed. The fact that the organizers of Park51 did not see Islamophobia as a concern when announcing this proposal is disturbing. It reinforces the idea that they have no vision or leadership. Even allowing for rose-tinted glasses about Islamophobia, one would think a major undertaking like this would have generated some media planning. Instead, it’s been a series of missteps, and eight months later, still no clear articulation of the center’s goals. The result is a Twitter feed that makes near anti-Semitic comments while claiming it’s trying to build bridges. It was only this week that an FAQ was released for the project, but not on the project website.

The lack of clarity of mission reflects that lack of a consistent voice of leadership. When the controversy started in May, Feisal Abdul-Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative and his wife Daisy Khan of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) were treated as the official spokespeople of the project. Now, Sharif al-Gamal of SoHo Properties, which owns the land, is acting as the primary spokesman. At other times it seems to be Oz Sultan, who manages the Park51 Twitter feed. These shifts do not seem to reflect complementary representatives, but a problem in leadership.

In terms of purpose, is it a mosque, a community center, a community center with a mosque, or a community center with a generic prayer space? We have heard all these answers from spokespeople, but no one gave a firm answer until the FAQ was published. Since the FAQ is not on the official project website, the purpose of Park51 may still change. A project can, should and will evolve, yes, but the base case or starting point for that evolution needs to be clearly defined and clearly understood.

This lack of leadership also means that an important constituency has not been consulted: the Muslims that the center supposedly represents. I have asked repeatedly as to how much this project actually represents Muslim-Americans in NYC. How will this center represent them? Abdul-Rauf may be one of the “good” Muslims, but no one person should be the lynchpin of a project this size. This project needs a strong hand at the helm, a true visionary, but should never be dependent on that person. Rauf’s noticeable absence for the last several months speaks to the problems of relying on one individual, and the overall style of leadership.

It should be easy in New York City to create a visibly diverse group of Muslim supporters that represents the richness of our community, and who can put forward a clearly articulated vision. A combination of Muslims from different interpretations, like the interfaith advisory board the organizers envision, could protect the center from ideologues.

I am not the only one raising concerns about the project from within the community. Aziz Poonawalla at BeliefNet and Abed Bhuyan at OnFaith are also concerned about the project. However, I think it is clear that even those of us who have concerns believe in our basic American right to worship. It is the promise of the Constitution. For those of us in New York, we recognize how carpetbaggers are coming into to our city to foster mistrust and division without understanding anything about those of us who actually live here, many since before 9/11. As a New Yorker who grew up in the shadow of the Towers, there is pain in seeing how the site has been turned in theater. Thousands of people died on that site, but for New Yorkers, life goes on: we are building an office building on that site, and the surrounding neighborhood has rebounded nicely. The space is as hallowed as the ground of Murrah Federal Building. In this context, a visionary leader can affect real, positive change in the social fabric of Lower Manhattan.

However, leadership is about more than being in charge and more than thinking about what is good. It is about outlining a vision and knowing what is good. I do not think any of the organizers of Park51 are operating out of ill-will, but there is no indication that they actually know what they are doing on this project, either in terms of building it or running it once it is completed. I believe the core concern that many of us share is that a group that cannot lead a real estate development project cannot hope to launch a center that will create a long-term vision of what it means to be Muslim in America. For the amount of political, social, and financial capital being used on this project, its failure would set the community in New York, if not the country, back generations. For it to succeed at this point means allowing a project to go forward with which New Yorkers, and especially its Muslims, are not entirely comfortable. Leadership at this point means finding a way out of this morass that does not cost us any more.

I think the idea is good, but there is no vision. Show us that vision and get us all to buy into it. Right now a lot of people are fighting the fight against the vitriol this project has unleashed. Fighting against Islamophobia, fighting for the Constitution, is not the same as fighting for Park51. We need to believe in it to fight for it.