The Imam Has Landed ... So When Does He Phone Home?

It's now almost a month since the imam behind the Ground Zero mosque project answered any questions from the U.S. media (or any other media, as far as I'm aware), or even bestirred himself to fill in the American public on his exact whereabouts. All it's been possible to discern is that after spending weeks in Malaysia (and elsewhere?), Rauf is moving on to the Middle East -- with the State Department, after two weeks of hemming and hawing, finally confirming on Wednesday the bare-bones dates of his taxpayer-funded travels to Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

But I can report a recent sighting, of sorts. Not a sighting of Rauf himself, mind you. Nor the sound of his voice. But late Wednesday night, New York time -- Thursday morning in the Middle East -- I phoned the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, the first stop on Rauf's "public diplomacy" tour.

Asked if the imam had arrived in Bahrain, an embassy official told me: "Yes, that's correct."

And that, folks, is the sum total right now of the information available to the American public about the taxpayer-funded public outreach activities these next few days of  Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in Bahrain. I had more questions. But Imam Feisal evidently moves in circles in which inquiries about whom he's meeting overseas, what he's telling them, or where he plans to get $100 million for his mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero are seen by both Rauf and his hosts as an extraordinary intrusion on his public outreach and bridge-building endeavors. The U.S. Embassy in Bahrain would offer nothing further on the record about Ambassador Adam Ereli's controversial guest. There is so far no reply to queries I emailed to the U.S. embassies in Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. Visitors to the web site of the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain are of course welcome to read President Barack Obama's remarks at last Friday's Iftar dinner at the White House, in which Obama effectively endorsed Rauf's mosque and Islamic center project near Ground Zero, referring to the right of Muslims "to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan."

The web site of the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain does not feature any of the vigorously dissenting articles or comments by Americans to the effect that the uproar over plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero, on a site hit by debris from one of the hijacked planes, is not a matter of Rauf's rights, but of his judgment -- and whether it is a jab in the eye, rather than a bridge-building move, to plant a mosque and Islamic center so close to a former community hub -- the World Trade Center -- where more than 2,700 Americans were murdered in the name of Islam.

As Rauf now goes about his apparently covert public outreach program in Bahrain, he is supposed to be telling his audience about life in America. That is why the State Department is shelling out $16,000 for his Middle East Swing -- which may sound like peanuts to the public-outreachers at the State Department, but is more than most Americans could possibly afford right now for a summer jaunt abroad. For Rauf, the State Department tour includes per diems of $396 to keep him comfortable in Bahrain, $341 when he moves on to Qatar, and $496 when he gets to the United Arab Emirates.