Volume 80, Number 37 | February 10 - 16, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Where’s the real Park51?

Last May, Daisy Khan, who heads the American Society for Muslim Advancement, approached a Community Board 1 committee about appearing at its upcoming meeting to share plans for an Islamic community center.

The wording on the meeting’s agenda stated that the presentation would be made by the Cordoba Initiative, an established organization focused on interfaith relations whose founder was Khan’s husband, Feisal Abdul Rauf, an internationally recognized religious scholar and imam.

Nine months later, that original presentation seems like a mischaracterization, at best. At worst, it seems like nothing more than the jump-off point for a public-relations spin campaign. The message we applauded and the project this community center has become are now murky and muddled.

Since that first introduction to our community early last May, the project has been called by three different names, has had two different spiritual leaders, two different blogs and now a Facebook page that is serving as the major method of promoting the project’s mission. And disturbingly, it is becoming harder and harder for the constituency that supported this project from day one, including those in the press, to communicate with the shifting leadership.

Our sister paper, Downtown Express, interviewed Rauf in early December and it was then that we began to question his motives about the project he had for so long been the face of. At that moment, he brought up for the first time his notion of the Cordoba Movement that, in his own words, had taken root right here in Lower Manhattan.

We were surprised, to say the least, when the rift that is all but crystal clear now, began to materialize between Rauf and Sharif El-Gamal, the president of SoHo Properties, who is spearheading the project’s development. Rauf hired his own publicists, and El-Gamal, his. The project soon adopted a new nickname: Park51, also the name of a mysterious nonprofit group that, according to SoHo Properties, would run the future community center. The group, consisting of El-Gamal and others, began holding “public information sessions” at their Downtown offices, which, strangely enough, were not open to the press.

The aim was to clarify the project’s goals. But their myriad attempts to demystify things only led to more confusion. Rauf and El-Gamal seemed to be contradicting rather than reinforcing each others’ apparent shared vision when publicly describing the project. 

“The Cordoba Movement and the Cordoba Initiative are separate nonprofit entities from Park51 with different missions and leadership,” El-Gamal said in a press release.

El-Gamal also recently announced that neither Rauf nor Khan would be speaking on behalf of Park51, nor would they be raising funds for it.

Weren’t “Cordoba” and “Park51” one in the same last spring? Wait, no — wasn’t the original name of the project “Cordoba House”? Were Khan’s and Rauf’s philosophies not the inspiration for the proposed community center?

Enter a new spiritual advisor, Imam Adhami, who espouses some controversial views on homosexuality very much at odds with the planned center’s original vision that embraced openness and inclusion. Days later, Adhami exits the project. 

We embraced this project from the very beginning, as did C.B. 1, most of our elected leaders and the Lower Manhattan community. It would be a shame if the very cause we rallied behind turns out to be something altogether different.

And while we hope that this is not the case, and we understand that all nonprofits encounter growing pains, we implore the real people behind Park51 to step forward once again and show the same level of transparency and openness to dialogue and inclusion that impressed and inspired us.


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