U.S. government funds mosque renovation and rehabilitation around the world

Caroline May | Reporter

While much attention has been focused on questions surrounding the Ground Zero mosque and the appropriateness of the State Department funding Ground Zero mosque imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s trip to the Middle East, little attention has been given to the fact that U.S. taxpayer money is funding mosque development around the world.

Just a cursory search of the term “mosque” on the State Department’s list of “projects” reveals 26 examples of federal funds going to fund construction, renovation, and rehabilitation of various mosques abroad. The benefiting countries include Bulgaria, Pakistan, Mali, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Benin, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Egypt, Tunisia, the Maldives, Yemen, Turkmenistan, Tanzania, Uganda, Azerbaijan, Sudan, Serbia and Montenegro.

The U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) — which is putting millions toward “heritage preservation” projects in the developing world — financed mosque-related projects in all the aforementioned countries.

In Montenegro, for example, the State Department has funded an effort to restore and conserve the Shadrvan (Fountain) of the Old Mosque in Pljevlja. According to the State Department’s website, without needed repairs there would not be a sufficient place for ritual washing before prayer.

“To support the restoration of a fountain at a 16th-century mosque concurrent with the restoration of the mosque itself. Used for ritual ablutions before prayer, the fountain has deteriorated over time and needs a new wooden octagonal roof, pipes, water-taps, and pavement,” the description of the project reads.

Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman, told The Daily Caller that the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation is a type of diplomatic effort and outreach, what she says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls “soft power.”

“It is helping to preserve our cultural heritage. It is not just to preserve religious structures,” Thompson said. “It is not to preserve a religion. It is to help us as global inhabitants preserve cultures.”

In a document provided on Monday to Indiana Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the State Department explained that the practice of funding such projects became acceptable in 2003 when the Justice Department declared that the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause did not preclude federal funds from going to preserve religious structures if they had cultural importance.

The DOJ wrote: “That advice is provided in the following paragraph that appears in every AFCP request for grant proposals… ‘The establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution permits the government to include religious objects and sites within an aid program under certain conditions. For example, an item with a religious connection (including a place of worship) may be the subject of a cultural preservation grant if the item derives its primary significance and is nominated solely on the basis of architectural, artistic, historical or other cultural (not religious) criteria.’”

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has also spent millions reconstructing and financing multiple mosques in Cairo and Cyprus, as well as providing computers for imams in Tajikistan and Mali.

Interestingly, however, according to the Code of Federal Regulations, “USAID funds may not be used for the acquisition, construction, or rehabilitation of structures to the extent that those structures are used for inherently religious activities.”
USAID press officer Annette Aulton told TheDC that the code did not apply to the mosque construction and the imam computer projects as they were done for ostensibly secular concerns.

“Historic and cultural preservation activities have a clearly secular purpose as do activities to promote tourism,” Aulton wrote in an e-mail. “With respect to the computer center in the mosque in Tajikistan, this activity seems to be part of a larger program aimed at reducing social conflict.”

She continued, “[W]ith respect to the computer equipment provided to the Imam in Mali, there really isn’t enough information to do an analysis. There are references to promotion of the town’s historical, cultural and religious heritage, which sounds like a secular purpose.”

“I think it is disastrously wrongheaded and unconstitutional,” Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch, told TheDC in reference to the federal government’s funding of mosque renovation and rehabilitation abroad. “It is not going to accomplish what they hope it will. They are not going to win hearts and minds. It is not as if they are going to say ’the Americans built this mosque for us so we shouldn’t wage jihad on them.’”

Spencer went on to say that the State Department will often explain that it provides funds for cultural reasons, “but a mosque is a mosque is a mosque. It is where prayer happens. That is a religious instillation.”

Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) disagreed, telling TheDC that such projects can help improve relations with the Muslim world.

“Anytime the United States is seen as being on the side of Muslims, of their aspirations and their needs and goals, that can only help our image and interests around the world,” he said.

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances, echoed Hooper’s sentiments, telling TheDC that it is worthwhile to preserve centuries old historical and cultural structures and funding these projects could help America build bridges in the Muslim world.

“It is an erroneous image that America is singling Muslims out as their target,” he said. “So to some extent this could help.”

But Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, noted to TheDC that such initiatives are problematic because they often lack oversight and “quality control.”

“Part of the problem is the State Department really has no definition of what radical means and they also have no coherent strategy when it comes to dealing with extremist Islam,” Rubin said. “As a result you have young junior officers who are adjudicating grants and are basically approving them on the basis of what the grantee says rather than doing a deeper check behind who they are affiliated with or what their mission is.”

He continued, “Unfortunately Muslim Brotherhood type groups are the ones which are the slickest when it comes to PR and have the greatest ability to reach out.”

Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, told TheDC that despite American efforts to reach out to Muslims around the world, a recent Zogby poll found that in the Muslim world, the percentage of the population which views America favorably still hovers around 18%.

“We have always felt this type of outreach is completely ineffective and that ultimately we have to approach it like the Cold War where we are fighting an ideology and we have to be poignantly open about what part of political Islam we are trying to change and modify,” Jasser said. “If we are going to have this long war of ideas we cannot fund these religious institutions. We can fund anti-Islamist institutions based in liberty.”

Herbert London, president of Hudson Institute, told TheDC that he is extremely troubled by the use of government funds for religious purposes. “I wouldn’t be okay with it if these were synagogues that they were funding,” he said.

According to the State Department’s disclosure to Sen. Lugar’s office, there are zero construction efforts occurring on historic Jewish synagogues, though there is funding of some Jewish related projects such as the “preservation of the Main Gate and Tombstones in the Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo [Bosnia-Herzegovina].” The disclosure also shows examples of the State Department funding churches, cathedrals and Buddhist and Hindu temples abroad.

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