Home  > Israel-News Today  > Week in Review  > This Month Must Reads
´Ground Zero´ imam still reaching out to America (HAŽARETZ NEWS) By Natasha Mozgovaya 05/17/12)Source: http://www.haaretz.com/news/world/ground-zero-imam-still-reaching-out-to-america.premium-1.430921 HA'ARETZ} NEWS SERVICE HA'ARETZ} NEWS SERVICE Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
WASHINGTON - Following the 9/11 attacks, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf took on the thankless task of trying to explain to the American public that Islam is not about blowing up infidels in highrise office buildings, stoning adulterers or chopping off thieves´ hands. But his message of moderate Islam didn´t win acceptance; criticism against the Islamic center project, Cordoba House, 12 blocks from Ground Zero, brought an outpouring of personal criticism against him, as well as threats on his life. He is not involved in the project anymore, but tells Haaretz he is intent on correcting this misunderstanding of his religion in a new book, "Moving the Mountain - Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America."

Rauf writes about the controversy surrounding the "Ground Zero mosque" project without going into why and how he left it. He recalls leaders of Muslim countries warning him that the project might be seen as a provocation and harm the Muslim world´s relations with the United States. A pastor of a tiny fundamentalist church in Florida, he notes, threatened to burn the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11, but said he wouldn´t if Rauf´s Islamic center were moved somewhere else.

Hostage crisis

"We found ourselves almost literally in the midst of a hostage crisis, in which Cordoba House was the hostage," he writes. "From the very beginning we had envisioned Cordoba House as a project that could help heal the wounds of 9/11. Instead, in a perfect example of the ´big lie´ of propaganda, we were accused of the precise opposite: dancing on the graves of Americans in a show of Islamic triumphalism. How offensive! Approximately sixty Muslims died in the attacks on the Twin Towers; thus we too lost members of our faith community. I had been a New Yorker for forty-five years, an American citizen since 1979. I was hurt and angered by the accusations."

He insists he didn´t give up on his dream to one day create this Islamic cultural center that would house an interfaith dialogue and promote tolerance.

"My vision for the Cordoba House, which I had for over 20 years, is to have a place where people of all religions can come together, learn about each other, increase understanding and respect, and out of this to build friendships, a community that can become a more powerful voice for peace," he says.

"The vast majority of Muslims all over the world and the vast majority of the Jewish community want to have peace in the Middle East. However, the discourse was unfortunately hijacked by those who have been successful in pursuing a policy that has divided our peoples. ... I am not involved with the Park 51 group [that initiated the Cordoba House project] anymore, but my dream vision is still alive. I am still hopeful that with enough support we can establish such center - whether it will be in that location or another one."

Misunderstanding Islam

Rauf knows his support of interfaith dialogue is not highly popular in the Muslim world, and his comparisons between Shari´a and the U.S. Constitution might bring some new fiery attacks from America´s right wing. He explains that his comparisons in the book between Shari´a and other religious traditions, including halacha, was not only to familiarize people with Islam.

"I personally believe in the Koranic narrative that our religions are God´s religions, one God with different religious interpretations," he says. "And if we believe in that, that becomes a very powerful base on which to build what I call a ´coalition of believers´ who believe in the same principles, and this coalition is important for us to combat the extremists. ... And I believe extremists have the wrong interpretation of their faith, whether it´s the Jewish extremist or the Muslim extremist or the Christian extremist, or even an atheist extremist - "if you don´t believe the way I do, you are subhuman."

He vehemently rejects the argument that Islam is a violent religion, and tries to dispel concerns of Americans surrounding Shari´a law. Many people in America associate shari´a mainly with stoning the adulterer, chopping off the thief´s hand. The penalty for theft is in the Koran, but it was suspended during the time of famine by Caliph Omar because people might steal food when they are hungry. ... The importance of context in determining whether the penalty should be applied is an important part of Shari´a that people forget.

"I believe Americans are actually curious to hear about Islam," he says. "In the days and weeks after 9/11, university courses about Islam, the Arab language and the Middle East were completely over- enrolled. That´s what I love about Americans - when they see a problem, they roll up their sleeves to fix it."

Rise of Muslim women

As for the common belief that Islam is a misogynist religion, Rauf argues that the Prophet Mohammed actually improved women´s rights in his time, limiting the number of wives a man could take to four, and ruling that women couldn´t be disinherited. Rauf is confident a feminist revolution in the Muslim world is under way - his wife Daisy Khan is leading several initiatives involving prominent women of faith - even though in his mosque women pray in a separate section.

"There is an issue of women wanting to lead prayer in mixed company. I personally believe this time will come... I believe that within another 10 years, you are going to witness an incredible surge of women all over the Muslim world. We had women as heads of state or government in seven Muslim countries. In Indonesia there is a woman governor of the Central Bank - did that happen in the United States? In the United States, many women inherited wealth from their husbands or fathers and they were the ones to build the first women´s colleges and universities, to push for voting rights. We see the same kind of the story happening in the Arab world. Women are becoming more educated, wealthier. I believe change is happening as we are talking."

Expanding on the commonality between religions, he says: "Every religion that I know of welcomes people to come in, experiment and listen. Last December, when I was invited to Jerusalem, I visited the Wailing Wall on Sabbath with my friend Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, and I found this a very important experience in my education about the Jewish tradition and the importance of the place."

While the U.S. Muslim community is not yet fully integrated into American society and many of its members complain about suspicions and prejudice, Rauf believes they will become trailblazers for change in the Muslim world.

"What´s happening to American Muslims is the same story that happened to American Jews," he says. "Because it´s part of a global superpower, the American Jewish community had an enormous platform from which to reach world Jewry. They have played an outsized role in reshaping Judaism in the world. The same with American Catholic Bishops. The development and evolution of a robust American Muslim community will also result in the American Muslim community playing a role in reshaping Islam in the world, and also in being interlocutors between the global superpower of the United States and the Muslim people at large. It´s part of the nature of the community that exists within a superpower." (© Copyright 2012 Ha´aretz 05/17/12)

Return to Top