Is ground zero mosque imam best choice for diplomatic mission to Mideast?

The State Department plans to send Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the controversial ground zero mosque, to the Middle East as part of a public diplomacy mission to explain how Islam is perceived in America. Critics are complaining the imam is too 'radical' to represent the US.

Frank Franklin II/AP
Supporters and media gather at a rally in support near the intended site of an Islamic center and mosque near the World Trade Center, Aug. 5, in New York.

The controversy over plans to build a mosque and Islamic center near ground zero has already taken on national dimensions, and now it’s going international.

The State Department has plans to send the imam behind the controversial mosque project to the Middle East as part of a program to explain how Islam is perceived in America. And that is starting to cause a howl in Washington.

At least two Republican members of Congress have come out in opposition to the plan, calling it “unacceptable” that the US would fund the travel of a Muslim religious leader who they say has been less than categorical in his condemnation of 9/11.

“It is unacceptable that US taxpayers are being forced to fund Feisal Abdul Rauf’s trip to the Middle East,” say Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida and Peter King (R) of New York in a statement issued Tuesday. “This radical is a terrible choice to be one of the faces or our country overseas. The USA should be using public diplomacy programs to combat extremism,” they add, “not to endorse it.”

But the State Department says its choice of Mr. Rauf to represent the US in a forthcoming trip to Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, reflects the religious leader’s established record of moderation and his past experience in taking Islamic life in America to foreign audiences.

“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,” State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said Tuesday. He added that the department’s public-diplomacy offices “have a long-term relationship with” Rauf – including during the past Bush administration, when the religious leader undertook a similar speaking tour.

Mr. Crowley also noted that the imam’s trip was planned prior to the national controversy over the mosque project slated for a few blocks north of ground zero. The State Department sponsored more than 50 such projects promoting religious tolerance last year, he said, and expects to sponsor about the same number this year.

Rauf’s image may be moderate enough to have satisfied the Bush administration, but it is also true that he offered tough analysis following the 9/11 terrorist attacks that is now being used by some to question his allegiances. Just days after the attacks, Rauf said in a television interview that US policies in Muslim countries were “an accessory to the crime” and provided succor to radical Islam.

“In the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA,” he said.

The State Department’s sponsorship of the imam behind the New York mosque project has raised questions about the federal government’s – and the Obama administration’s – position on the controversy.

Crowley says the administration has no position on what he qualified as essentially a local zoning issue. But he also notes that State Department officials have informed Rauf that he will be prohibited from using government-funded travel to solicit financial support for the mosque project.

The State Department did, however, post on a website intended for foreign audiences New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Aug. 3 speech supportive of the mosque. The publication of the speech, in which Mayor Bloomberg says allowing the mosque would represent religious tolerance, appears to challenge the state department's claim of disinterest in the matter.

Defending placement of the transcript of Mr. Bloomberg’s comments on – and translations of the remarks in Arabic and Farsi – Crowley said “we posted it because we thought it was useful for people overseas to understand the perspectives on this issue.”

He added that the State Department “certainly support[s] what the mayor was underscoring, which is the history of religious diversity and religious tolerance in his city.”

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