The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

July 21, 2007

Author's Flight 93 memorial assertions questioned

By KIRK SWAUGER

SOMERSET — Islamic and mathematical experts are questioning a California author who claims that the design of the Flight 93 memorial is a veiled tribute to terrorists.

Alec Rawls, author of the soon-to-be-released book, “Crescent of Betrayal,” contends a proposed arc of trees surrounding the ground where the hijacked plane crashed faces Mecca and that a tower of wind chimes at the entrance is an Islamic sundial for prayer.

“I have difficulty taking it seriously,” said Arthur Goldschmidt, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern history at Penn State. “The pictures I’ve seen made me think it is a rather standard American memorial. You have to try awfully hard to see all those Muslim attributes in the design.

“It sounds like this guy is looking for something to make a point and make a name for himself. If you look hard enough for something, you can find whatever you want.”

Mujahid Ramos, the imam, or spiritual leader, of the Islamic Center of York, agrees.

“I think it’s far-fetched,” Ramos said. “This gentleman is just venting his anger. When people vent their anger, they say and do strange things.

“It’s offensive to the families of the victims of this terrible act. It’s discrediting to them as well.”

Rawls maintains that the midpoint between the tips of the crescent points almost precisely toward “qibla,” the direction to Mecca, which Muslims are supposed to face for prayer.

His claims seem to be backed up by coordinates for the direction of qibla from Somerset that can be found on Islam.com. When superimposed over the crescent in the memorial design, the midpoint points over the Arctic Circle, through Europe toward Mecca.

“A crescent that Muslims face into is called a mihrab. It’s the central feature on which every mosque is built,” said Rawls, who says his book is scheduled to be released next month by World Ahead Publishing.

Rawls said the memorial contains all 12 prominent features found in mosques.

“It is indeed the world’s largest mosque by a factor of 100,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Palo Alto, Calif.

On Islamic flags, Rawls added, a star can be found at the midpoint of the crescent. On the memorial design, he said, a wall stands on that spot with the attacks date: Sept. 11, 2001.

“The date goes to the star on the Islamic flag,” he said. “The date goes to the terrorists.”

Although Rawls’ arithmetic is correct, his findings are mathematically and logically inaccurate, said Daniel Griffith, a professor of geospacial information sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. Griffith studied Rawls’ assertions for Families of Flight 93.

Griffith said the geometry used for a sphere such as the earth is different than the geometry for a two-dimension surface, which Rawls is using as the foundation for his arguments.

Though the math is complicated, Griffith said Rawls could use the same premise to prove any number of theories. For instance, while Griffith said Rawls suggested memorial organizers would be outraged if the crescent pointed to a Nazi concentration camp instead, the professor said it actually could be done.

“There are many arcs they could draw that satisfy what they’re saying,” Griffith said. “Aside from the arithmetic, there’s a lot of fallacies in the arguments they put forth. The math is not there; the logic is not there.”

Joanne Hanley, Flight 93 superintendent for the National Park Service office in Somerset, said Rawls’ claims are based on faulty assumptions.

“When you have faulty assumptions, you have garbage in, therefore garbage out,” Hanley said. “It’s rubbish.”

The design by Los Angeles architect Paul Murdoch was selected by two juries from more than 1,000 entries. Murdoch, who was unavailable for comment, has vehemently denied that his design contains any Islamic features. The centerpiece of the memorial will be a semicircle of red maple trees surrounding the site where the plane crashed on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I am certainly satisfied that the federal advisory commission, Families of Flight 93 and the National Park Service have done their due diligence regarding Mr. Rawls’ claims,” said Somerset County Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes, an advisory commission member.

“They have been carefully studied, and they have been refuted. I don’t see any merit in it.”

Rawls said he believes family members have gotten “caught up” in Murdoch’s design.

“They were all grieving people, and this guy was going to help heal their grief,” he said. “They just didn’t want to hear it.”

Rawls said he intends to travel to Somerset on Wednesday to attend meetings of the Flight 93 task force and advisory commission on Saturday at the courthouse. He said he is unsure whether he will try to address those groups.

Ben Wainio of suburban Baltimore, whose daughter, Elizabeth, was killed in the crash, remains philosophical. While he said Rawls has the right to say what he wants, he believes the author’s theories are baseless.

“The 40 passengers and crew who gave their lives on Flight 93 did this so this guy has the freedom to do the things he’s doing,” Wainio said. “We may not agree with it, but America is built on people having the right to free speech.

“It’s a shame. As hard as it is for me to live without my daughter, I have to put up with people like this.”