Embattled Muslim Center Appoints Little-Known Imam to Spiritual Leadership

In Surprise Move, Proposed Islamic Cultural Center Near Ground Zero Dumps Co-Founder Many Jews Supported

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published January 19, 2011, issue of January 28, 2011.
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The developer of the Islamic center planned for near Ground Zero has demoted the imam who has been the controversial project’s main public face, while naming a comparatively little-known Muslim cleric to its leadership team.

In a January 14 press release, those behind the center announced that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, would no longer be speaking or raising funds on behalf of the project, which has been the focus of national controversy. The statement also announced the appointment of Imam Abdallah Adhami as a senior adviser to the center.

The abrupt announcement of Rauf and Khan’s diminished role came as a surprise to some supporters of the center. The two were prominent proponents of interfaith dialogue and had cultivated a high public profile in post-9/11 debates about Islam. In contrast, the American-born Adhami appears to be unfamiliar to many in New York’s interfaith world and even in local Muslim circles.

The announcement by Park51 — the planned Islamic center’s current name — comes in the wake of press reports suggesting tensions between Rauf and the real-estate developer behind the project, Sharif El-Gamal. The two reportedly had differing visions for the planned center.

“While Imam Feisal’s vision has a global scope and his ideals for the Cordoba Movement are truly exceptional, our community in Lower Manhattan is local,” Park51’s January 14 statement said, referring to the organization led by Rauf and Khan. “Our focus is and must remain the residents of Lower Manhattan and the Muslim American community in the Greater New York area.”

The statement said that Rauf would remain on the center’s board.

A spokesman for Park51 told the Forward that the group would announce in coming weeks the names of other senior advisers who will work alongside Adhami. The spokesman also said that the group would soon announce a multi-faith board of directors and an executive director.

The Park51 spokesman declined to make Adhami available. A phone message left with Gamal went unanswered. Rauf and Khan were said to be traveling and unavailable for comment.

Supporters of the project seemed taken aback by Park51’s sudden announcement. In a January 8 talk at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Khan made no mention of the coming change.

Rauf and Khan had strong relationships with many local Jewish religious leaders. Still, some leading Jewish groups suggested that the center’s funders should be closely scrutinized, and the Anti-Defamation League called for the center to be relocated.

Several New York rabbis involved in interfaith affairs who had been supportive of Rauf and the Park51 project said that they did not know much about Adhami.

“I do not know him. I’ve heard some good things about him so far. We’re trying to figure out what his thoughts are,” said Rabbi Robert Kaplan, who heads the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York’s interfaith initiative. “It was not something we had any heads-up on.”

Indeed, Adhami appears to be something of an unknown quantity. Imam Shamsi Ali, the leader of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, a large Upper East Side mosque, said that he knew Adhami, but that he wasn’t very familiar with him.

“I think his profile is as a scholar, which is not the same as imam,” said P. Adem Carroll, founder of the Muslim Consultative Network and a member of the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition. “I think he’s known as having a positive voice, and humanitarian approach to religious life.”

Carroll said that Adhami has cachet among younger Muslims. The imam is scheduled to appear at a February conference hosted by the Islamic Center at New York University.

The most vocal critics of the Park51 project, led by anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller, have mounted a sustained rhetorical assault on Rauf and Khan. Geller is claiming the shake-up at Park51 as a win for her cause. “We are declaring victory,” she wrote.

Now Geller and her allies are turning their fire against Adhami. They have zeroed in on his ties to Imam Siraj Wahhaj, a nationally prominent African-American Muslim leader from Brooklyn who has made a number of inflammatory remarks over the years.

A 2003 Wall Street Journal profile noted that Wahhaj had praised Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman while testifying as a character witness in the 1995 trial in which the Egyptian-born cleric was convicted of seditious conspiracy for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And in a 2003 radio interview, Wahhaj bristled when asked whether he thought Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were behind the September 11 terrorist attacks. “I’m not going to get into that,” he responded. “I’m saying that whoever did it is wrong — absolutely. I’m saying that the majority of people that I speak to are not convinced simply because the American government said this one did that and that one did that. I’m just not convinced.”

The website of an educational organization called Sakeenah, founded and chaired by Adhami, singles out Wahhaj for praise. “Siraj Wahhaj is the voice of the spirit of Islam in America and its pride,” the site says.

“Siraj Wahhaj is very widely respected as a local and national leader, and I think he’s explained any of his past rhetoric,” Carroll said. “A link to that would be very noncontroversial in the Muslim community. We don’t see Siraj Wahhaj as an extreme or irresponsible voice.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter at @joshnathankazis


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