x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Big challenges ahead for new imam of New York's proposed Islamic centre

With the 10th anniversary of the attacks this year, emotions across the United States could be raised even higher than they were last summer when the controversy over the proposed Islamic centre reached fever pitch in the US media.

NEW YORK // The new imam of a proposed Islamic centre and mosque near where the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11, 2001 faces as big a challenge as his predecessor in winning popular and financial support for the project.

Soon after the developers of the centre announced on Friday that Abdallah Adhami would replace Feisal Abdul Rauf as the lead imam, the blogosphere was alight with renewed attacks on the project, suggesting that right-wing critics would continue their vocal opposition to what they called the "mosquestrosity" no matter who leads the project.

With the 10th anniversary of the attacks this year, emotions across the United States could be raised even higher than they were last summer when the controversy over the proposed Islamic centre reached fever pitch in the US media, causing many American Muslims to fear heightened discrimination.

Mr Adhami was born in Washington, DC and started his religious education in Syria. He has a degree in architecture from Pratt University in New York City and taught at the Al Ghazali Islamic school in New Jersey. He lectures in the United States and Europe on religious law and has previously led prayers at the small mosque where the new centre is planned.

Mr Rauf will continue to be involved in the new centre and remain on the board but he will spend the next few months travelling, according to a statement from his publicist. The centre is sometimes called Cordoba House after his interfaith group but is also called Park51 after the physical site in downtown Manhattan.

Mr Rauf has just started a speaking tour across the United States following a State Department-sponsored tour of the Middle East last year. "Imam Feisal wants to meet the people of America where they are, to help build broader connections and understanding among all people of faith," the statement said. "To make that vision a reality, he is stepping back from the day-to-day details and operations of Cordoba House."

Neither Mr Rauf nor Mr Adhami could be reached for comment.

Much of the $100 million (Dh367m) needed to create the new mosque and centre has yet to be raised and there were differing visions for it held by Mr Rauf and Sharif el Gamal, the property developer whose company, Soho Properties, owns the site.

A statement issued by Mr Gamal on Friday said: "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. Our focus is and must remain the residents of lower Manhattan and the Muslim American community in the greater New York area."

Imam Adhami was being given "an extraordinary opportunity to be a key adviser on a project going forward that has enormous creative and healing potential for the collective good in New York City and our nation", the statement said.

In an interview with The National last year, Mr Rauf said he envisioned the new centre being similar to a YMCA facility, which often combines sports and educational facilities for members of all faiths.

It was unclear whether there would be any changes to plans for the centre that include an Islamic prayer space, a spa and a memorial to the victims of the September 11 attacks.

Muzaffar Chisti, a friend of Mr Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, told The New York Times that differences between the imam and Mr Gamal over whether the centre should focus on people of all faiths or mostly Muslims had been evident for some months.

"The groundswell of support we saw over the summer for this project was not a wave of support for a developer's rights," Mr Chishti said. "It was support for a vision that was articulated by Imam Feisal."

sdevi@thenational.ae