Amidst the contentious debate surrounding the building of a mosque and Islamic community center at Ground Zero, it was revealed that the imam behind the project – Feisal Abdul Rauf – will soon be departing on a State Department-sponsored trip to the Middle East — and American taxpayers will be footing the bill.
The State Department released further information about the trip Wednesday, disclosing that it will cost roughly $16,000, with Rauf — who has been criticized for refusing to call Hamas a terrorist organization and saying that American actions in the Middle East were “an accessory to the crime” of the 9/11 attacks — receiving $3,000 in speaker fees.
The 15-day excursion to Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates is meant to promote religious tolerance and help bridge the cultural gap between the Muslim world and the West. It is part of the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Program. For Rauf, it will be his fourth tour as part of the program.
In a joint statement about the trip, Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Peter King of New York expressed outrage that the State Department would be promoting a figure they view as extreme.
“It is unacceptable that U.S. taxpayers are being forced to fund Feisal Abdul Rauf’s trip to the Middle East,” the statement read. “The U.S. should be using public diplomacy programs to combat extremism, not endorse it.”
Rauf’s trip is just another example of Muslim outreach programs that began at the State Department under President Bush and have been expanded by President Obama. But critics says that while Muslim outreach programs may be prudent in theory, in practice the State Department may be supporting the very thing they hope to combat.
“It [the Muslim outreach program] won’t work because it doesn’t address distinguishing between Islam and Islamism,” Tarek Fatah, founder of the Canadian Muslim Congress and political activist, told The Daily Caller.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and a scholar of Islam, agreed, telling TheDC the program in general is “perfectly respectable except that it includes Islamists,” referring to those Muslims who turn their religious beliefs into a political ideology.
“In the 1950s, this lecture program with State included famous jazz players and the like, but evolved into something more tame and political,” Pipes said. Now, however, “Islamists are a favorite. They are supposed to say how great it is for Muslims in the U.S.”
Fatah also said that it didn’t make sense for the U.S. government to send a religious leader to speak in the Middle East.
“Who do we send to other parts of the world?” said Fatah, indicating the answer was not religious leaders.
Rauf is not the only figure associated with the State Department program that has drawn concern. In 2004, for instance, Abdurahman Alamoudi, founder of the American Muslim Council, signed a plea agreement with the U.S. government admitting to membership in terrorist organizations overseas, affiliation with Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook, and a series of other related crimes.
Before that, however, Alamoudi had traveled abroad on six separate occasions on behalf of the State Department to lecture about the moderate Muslim community in America.
When questioned last week about the State Department sponsoring Rauf’s trip to the Middle East, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley defended the decision saying, “His [Rauf’s] 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.”
In an interview on Fox News, Crowley also said that the State Department has sent roughly 50 religious authorities abroad to talk about religion in America. “This includes rabbis, imams and Christian scholars as well,” he said. “We value his [Rauf’s] participation in the program and he’s been an effective representative of the United States.”
The State Department has not yet returned TheDC’s request for comment by time of publication.