Ground Zero mosque organizer Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been described by the media as a "moderate" and a "bridge-builder." But not too long ago, the same news outlets gave identical labels to a radical Virginia mosque that has been linked to some of the most infamous Islamic terrorist attacks in recent years. And it celebrated in the same terms a "prayer-leader" who is now one of the most wanted Al Queda terrorists in the world.
The Washington Post reported on the Dar al-Hijrah mosque 30 times from Sept. 11, 1983, to Sept. 11, 2001, and the big news stories about the prayer center were its popular summer camp, its charitable activities and its joyful celebrations of Muslim holidays.
But to federal investigators and watchdog groups, the big news about the Dar al-Hijrah mosque was that it was a magnet for some of the top names in terrorism - most recently including the Sept. 11 hijackers and the Fort Hood shooter.
The mosque's former imam, Anwar Al Awlaki has been tied to numerous terror attacks in the U.S., and is now serving as a top Al Qaeda leader in Yemen. Al Awlaki will be shot on sight if he is tracked down by the U.S. military, under an order given by President Obama this past April.
Media Hail "Moderate" Terrorist Mosque
The positive coverage enjoyed by the Dar al-Hijrah mosque wasn't exclusive to the Post. There was a time when many news outlets, from The New York Times to NPR, described the Dar al-Hijrah and its radical imam the same way they now describe the Ground Zero mosque and Imam Rauf - as "moderates," and "bridge-builders" between Islam and Western culture.
A New York Times article from Oct. 19, 2001, lists Al Awlaki as one of the Muslim leaders who were "calling on their colleagues to tone down the incendiary anti-American messages that have long been a staple at some Muslim events."
Al Awlaki is "held up as a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West," the Times reported.
The same article lists Rauf as another one of these "assertive" religious leaders.
"[M]any mosque leaders who draw large numbers each week for Friday prayers and sermons, including Mr. Al-Awlaki, in Falls Church, Va., and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, spiritual leader of the Al-Farah mosque in Lower Manhattan."
The Baltimore Sun also latched onto the theme. "Al-Awlaki bridges the two worlds as easily as he shifts from lecturing on the lives of the prophets to tapping phone numbers into his Palm Pilot," reported the paper on October 28, 2001. "He and other Muslims say they support action against terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in retaliation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks[.]"
And while there was no coverage of the Virginia mosque by the major network news stations, other media outlets expressed concern over the difficulties faced by Muslim "moderates" like Al-Awlaki.
"The war of ideas in the Muslim world pits extremists, like Osama bin Laden...and moderates, who want to solve the problems without violence. But right now this war of ideas is a lopsided one, says Imam Anwar Awlaki, the prayer leader at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia," reported NPR on Nov. 1, 2001.
"Awlaki, whose mosque is one of the largest in the U.S., sees himself as a Muslim leader who could help build bridges between Islam and the West. [B]ut political scientist Telhami says these are difficult days for Muslim moderates," the NPR report continued.
Of the 30 articles in the Post that mentioned the Dar al-Hijrah mosque, not one questioned the prayer center's extremist leadership. Instead, many were glowing portraits of the mosque's summer camp, its charitable activities and its members' apparent concerns about anti-Muslim hate crimes.
"A sparkling sun in a pale blue sky, crisp air, children laughing and friends all around: ‘Yes, it is a beautiful day,' declared Mohammad Hassan. Outside the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, a festival was going on, a celebration at the end of the holiest month on the Islamic calendar, and now Hassan looked toward the heavens," began one particularly flattering Washington Post story from Mar. 3, 1995.
Even after the federal government began publicly investigating Al-Awlaki for his ties to the Sept. 11 hijackers, some news outlets continued to cover the imam and the Dar al-Hijrah favorably.
"It's very important for [my sons] to learn Islam as it truly is," Sabahat Adil, the head of the social outreach program at Dar al-Hijrah, told the Post on Dec. 17, 2001. "[At Dar al-Hijrah], they're seeing it day and night, how Muslims are really doing it. Are they talking hate? Hate Christians, hate whites? No. When people teach hatred, obviously they're not following true Islam."
On Nov. 18, 2001, just two months after the 9/11 attacks, the Post even had Al-Awlaki answer readers' questions about Islam on the newspaper's website.
"[T]he greatest sin in Islam after associating other gods besides Allah is killing an innocent soul," was one gem of wisdom Al-Awlaki offered Washington Post readers.
Like Al-Awlaki, the Post has also turned to the Ground Zero mosque leader, Rauf, as a source of spiritual advice. Since 2008, the imam has written 21 columns for the Post's "On Faith" website.
"We must understand that Islam itself is not the enemy - only the misguided interpretation of Islam on one hand and the incomplete application of its principles that has led to corruption and insecurity on the other," Rauf wrote on the Post's website on Oct. 6, 2009.
The same positive descriptions of Al-Awlaki and the Dar al-Hijrah mosque are used by the media today to describe Rauf.
"As a Sufi, Imam Feisal follows a path of Islam focused more on spiritual wisdom than on strict ritual, and as a bridge builder, he is sometimes focused more on cultivating relations with those outside his faith than within it," wrote the Times reporter and former Council on American Islamic Relations lobbyist Sharaf Mowjood in a Dec. 9, 2009, article that was co-authored with Ralph Blumenthal.
A May 26 New York Times article also referenced Rauf's "bridge-building."
"Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has led services in TriBeCa since 1983, told the [Manhattan community] board the [Islamic] center would help ‘bridge and heal a divide' among Muslims and other religious groups."
"We have condemned the actions of 9/11,'' the Times quoted Rauf as saying. "We have condemned terrorism in the most unequivocal terms."
Just How Radical was Dar al-Hijrah?
Nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Post printed an article on Muslim leaders who had denounced the terrorist assault. The story focused on Al-Awlaki, then the leading imam at Dar al-Hijrah.
"Our hearts bleed for the attacks that targeted the World Trade Center as well as other institutions in the United States," Al-Awlaki was quoted as saying. "We came here to build, not to destroy ... We are the bridge between American and 1 billion Muslims worldwide."
Just a few years later, Al-Awlaki abruptly fled the country, amid revelations that he had served as a spiritual adviser to two of the terrorists who piloted the hijacked planes on Sept. 11.
"[I]f anyone had knowledge of the plot, it would have been [Al-Awlaki]," an FBI agent told the 9/11 commission during the investigation, reported The New York Times.
Today, Al-Awlaki is an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen, and his talk of "bridge-building" has evaporated.
"The operation done by [Fort Hood terrorist shooter] Nadal Hasan was heroic," Al-Awlaki told the Yemen Post this past April, in reference to the attack that killed 13 people on a military base. "An American Muslim's loyalty is to the Muslim nation, not for America. Hasan has proved that, through his blessed operation; may God richly reward him."
The radicalism fostered within the walls of the Dar al-Hijrah is now widely known: Al-Awlaki reportedly served as a religious advisor to Hasan and the "Christmas Day bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Other religious leaders employed by the Dar al-Hijrah mosque included Imam Mohammed al-Hanooti, who was named by federal prosecutors as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Imam Mohammed Adam El-Sheikh, a former member of the radical Muslim Brotherhood; and Islamic Studies teacher Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who was convicted in 2005 of conspiracy to assassinate President George W. Bush.
Extremists who have reportedly been members of the Dar al-Hijrah are Hamas leader and fugitive Mousa Abu Marzook; Osama bin Laden's nephew, Abdullah Bin Laden; and Abdelhaleem Ashqar, who was jailed after refusing to testify in a terror fund raising investigation case in 1998.
And while there is no evidence that Rauf is anywhere near as radical as Al Awlaki and others at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque, the inability of the media to identify Al Awlaki as an extremist raises questions of whether it can credibly differentiate between moderate Muslims and Islamic jihadists in the future.
"What’s lacking in the emotionally charged coverage is an objective analysis of the concerns that have been raised," a spokesman for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Newsbusters. "Who is Imam Faisal Abd ar-Rauf, and is he the right person to lead the [Ground Zero mosque] project? Why has he refused to call Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist organizations? Why did he call the United States an 'accessory' to 9/11? These are the questions the media should be asking on behalf of the victims, their families, and every American today and in the future who visits the site to remember."