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.

In making the rounds of the Middle East oil capitals, as Rauf meets for the secret discussions State has arranged with his nameless interlocutors, what account is he giving of the controversy and in some cases the anguish he and his Cordoba House/Park 51 partners are causing right now, back home in America? Is he still in the business of telling his audience, as he did less than three weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, Islamist attacks, that "in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the U.S.A."?

Whenever Rauf does finally deign to re-insert himself in person into the U.S. debate, it could entail some interesting footwork on his part. A big question by now is why this self-described bridge-builder would treat the American public with such staggering contempt. Having provoked a raging debate, Rauf for weeks now has removed himself from the reach of all questioners, and disclosed nothing about his doings and his plans for a lengthy summer sojourn abroad -- some of that on the U.S. taxpayers' tab.

When he does resurface, I'd wager it will be with an interview or remarks given to a reporter too friendly to ask real questions -- something along the lines of the supreme puff-piece that the Wall Street Journal's news pages ran on Aug. 2, in which the reporter spoke with Rauf's wife, Daisy Khan, and apparently asked not a single question about money, nor about why Rauf himself had vanished from public view. Or perhaps Rauf's return will be handled by an outlet such as the New York Times, as naturally and unthinkingly as the Times handled his disappearance. Remember the article Aug. 10, in which a New York Times reporter also interviewed Khan, and somewhere around the 14th paragraph mentioned, in passing -- as if it were quite normal to have the leader of the project drop out of sight, no further questions needed -- that "Imam Feisal is in Malaysia and could not be reached for comment for this article." Really? He could not be reached at all, not even by his cheering section at the New York Times? Why not?

Or maybe, as Rauf makes his rounds of Gulf petro-dollar domains, an item will slip out here and there in the local press -- in which, for the first time in weeks, the imam himself pipes up. Whatever Rauf finally does to break radio silence, the protracted and bizarre information blackout in which he has already indulged -- with all its implied scorn for the questions and anxieties of the American public -- is a sorry portent of how he might manage his "bridge-building" $100 million mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero.