Supporters of the proposed $100 million Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan argue that it offers moderate Muslims an opportunity to practice their faith and become ambassadors of Islam to America. Yet the little-known history of Washington, D.C.'s Islamic Center shows how the entity controlling the purse strings can transform even a moderate ecumenical institution into a mouthpiece for Wahhabism, an intolerant form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.
Washington's Islamic Center, a magnificently arched structure gracing Massachusetts Avenue on Embassy Row, was conceived in high principle as a "religious organization to provide a place of worship for the members of the Islamic faith." Its opening ceremony, in 1957, commanded the presence of President Eisenhower, who praised Islam's contributions to the "advancement of mankind" and concluded with the resolution that "America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have your own church," noting that "without this, we would be something less than we are."
The center's first board of directors was truly representative of the Islamic world, including members from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. And its stated mission was full of promise, including a commitment to "enlighten American public opinion on the Islamic Countries . . . and to promote friendly relations between the Muslim world and the Americas."