What’s right (and wrong) with Feisal Abul Rauf

Imam Abdul Feisal Rauf, the Muslim cleric behind the Park51 project, is a good person and a patriotic American, even if I don’t agree with everything he says.

After the 9/11 attacks, he went beyond just denouncing the 9/11 attacks.  He offered his services to the FBI as an expert adviser, and he visited majority-Muslim countries on behalf of the State Department to speak on behalf of the United States, at the risk of being labeled a stooge for the U.S. government.

Judea Pearl, the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded in 2002 by terrorists in Pakistan affiliated with al Qaeda, invited Imam Rauf to speak at a memorial service for Daniel Pearl at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan.  Imam Rauf affirmed in that service that the religious values of Judaism, Christianity and Islam were not only the same, but were the values of the same religion.

Yet he is under attack as an enemy of Judaism and Christianity because of the Park51 project, the so-called Ground Zero Mosque which is not at Ground Zero and not a mosque.

I first heard of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf some years ago, when I picked up his book, What’s Right With Islam: a New Vision for Muslims and the West, in a bookstore selling remaindered books.

In the book Rauf tries to explain and justify Islam to non-Muslim Americans, and American ideals to Muslims.  He makes a case that the principles of Islam, rightly understood, are compatible with American freedom and democracy, and to Muslims that American freedom and democracy, rightly understood, is compatible with Islam.

Imam Rauf says that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the successive unfolding of the same religion, which teaches that all human beings are children of the same Heavenly Father and that all of them are entitled to justice and worthy of love and compassion.  American freedom and democracy, in his view, are part of that same “Abrahamic” tradition.

Muslims, like Orthodox Jews, give a central place to religious law, which they call “shari’a.”  To me, as to many Americans, the word conjures up pictures of Islam at its worst, ignorant fanatics in places such as northern Nigeria stoning women to death for adultery.  Imam Rauf says “shari’a” should be understood as God’s law in the way that most Christians and Jews, and as the writers of the Declaration of Independence understood it when they appealed to “the laws of Nature, and of Nature’s God.”

What’s wrong with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

I think Imam Rauf has good intentions, but I can’t accept all his ideas.  He suggested in his book that, for certain purposes, each American religious community should be governed by its own religious law.  For example, if a Muslim should die without leaving a will, his estate should be divided up among his close living relatives, rather than going to the next of kin as provided for by American law.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

I have no objection to any group of people – Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Scientologists or anybody else – agreeing among themselves to be governed by the laws of their faith.  It is another thing to ask the government to enforce religious law.  This gives religious organizations too much power over the individual, and government too much power over religious organizations.

What he proposes is very like the system in the old Turkish Ottoman Empire, where the different religious communities were self-governing under the overall authority of the empire.  It probably worked all right under the Ottomans, where people from generation to generation stayed in the same religious community.  That’s very different from today’s United States, a nation of come-outers where people choose and change their faith.

Imam Rauf’s idea would put the government in the position of classifying each person according to religious faith, and determining whether that person is still in that faith.  Suppose a person baptized a Catholic were to seek a divorce in violation of Catholic canon law. Could that person claim that canon law no longer applies because he or she is no longer a believer?

He accepts religious pluralism, but is not a strict believer in the principle of separation of church and state.  I don’t think he would have any problem with public school children being required to recite the Lord’s Prayer or a court displaying the Ten Commandments chiseled on stone, since according to his idea Jesus and Moses were Muslim prophets and the Hebrew and Christian Bibles were genuine revelations in their day.

On the American Christian religious spectrum, with liberal Episcopalians on the left and fundamentalist Southern Baptists on the right, he would be slightly right of center.  But on the Muslim spectrum, he would be on the left.

I read of Imam Rauf’s unusual background in a New York Times profile.  He was born in Kuwait, and lived as a boy in England, Malaysia and then in the United States. His father, Muhammed Abdul Rauf, was a graduate of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the foremost Sunni Muslim center, was one of a number of scholars sent abroad by the Egyptian government sent abroad to staff mosques and universities.  Feisal Abdul Rauf studied physics at Columbia University and for a time pursued a secular career, but then was called to lead a Sufi mosque, Masjid al-Farrah, in lower Manhattan.

Sufism is a mystical tradition which attracts non-Muslims and which not all Muslims accept.  The New York Times reported that Masjid al-Farrah is one of the few mosques with a woman prayer leader, where men and women sit together in some rituals, and women do not cover their hair.

What’s Not Wrong With Feisel Abdul Rauf

Anti-Muslim Americans go over his statements in detail, cherry-picking them for ambiguities which they can interpret as code messages saying the opposite of what they seem.  You can read many strained interpretations on Internet sites.  Why would not the mass of Muslims who hear his statements not take them at face value?  Are they all issued some sort of secret Muslim decoder ring?

His critics focus on two main points.  One is that, while Imam Rauf denounced the 9/11 attackers, he has implied that the attacks were the result of the U.S. government’s policies and actions in Muslim countries.  He said in 2005 that “we tend to forget … that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaeda has of innocent non-Muslims.”

That statement, unfortunately, is true.  Hasn’t the United States government for decades supported repressive governments, engineered military coups, intervened with U.S. troops, bombarded cities, and waged economic warfare in the Middle East?  When I heard of the 9/11 attacks, my first thought was, along with outrage against the perpetrators and sympathy for the victims, that something like this was bound to happen sooner or later.  This is not an excuse for the terrorist attacks, and Imam Rauf did not excuse them.  It is merely a recognition of the law of cause and effect.

The other point of criticism is Imam Rauf’s refusal to say, in so many words, that Hamas is terrorist.  Hamas in fact is terrorist and anti-Semitic, but there are reasons why most Arabs don’t see it that way.  If the United States were subject to a foreign occupier who treated Americans as the Israeli government treats the Palestinian Arabs, and if the only effective opposition were led by the Ku Klux Klan or the Weather Underground, I might not entirely reject the Klan or the Weathermen.

In those same speeches Imam Rauf said that suicide bombing and terrorism are against the teachings of Islam, and that American freedom and democracy fit the teachings of Islam better than the practices of the governments of many Muslim countries.

Imam Rauf cannot be an effective goodwill ambassador if he pretends that everything the U.S. government does, and also everything the government is Israel does, is 100 percent right and just.  Nobody is 100 percent right and just.  To pretend otherwise just makes him seem like a tool of the U.S. State Department – which is probably how many Middle Easterners see him anyway.

Some ask why he and the other backers don’t simply relocate the project, since the opposition’s main point is its distance from the former Twin Towers.  My guess is that they chose that location simply because the vacant Burlington Coat factory store was available; prime real estate is not so readily available in lower Manhattan that you can build wherever you wish.

Imam Rauf has critics within the Muslim community.  Some say he is not a mainstream Muslim.  Some say he was wrong to go ahead with the Park51 project without consulting other Muslim leaders in the New York City area; they resent the fact that he has somehow become the symbol and spokesman for Islam in that city.  Some say the project is not well-thought out.  Is it to be a community center with a mosque, or a mosque that serves as a community center, or a community center with an interfaith chapel that can be used by Muslims?

A Muslim friend of mine criticizes Imam Rauf for seeking to raise money for a fancy building with a gym and swimming pool during a time of economic distress.  A true Muslim, she said, would be raising money to help the poor and unemployed.

As for myself, I not only support the right to build the Park51 project, I think it is a good idea.  It shows that Muslims can work together with people of other faiths, and it shows that the United States has a place for people of all faiths including Muslims.  It is a thumb in the eye of al Qaeda, which depicts the United States as the enemy of all Muslims and which hates the idea of interfaith cooperation.

Click on Feisel Adbul Rauf’s Balancing Act in Mosque Furor for the New York Times profile of Imam Rauf.

Click on Building on Faith in Lower Manhattan for Feisal Abdul Rauf’s op-ed article in the New York Times on Cordoba House. [Added 9/8/10]

Click on Feisal Abdul Rauf On Faith for a collection of his columns for the Washington Post.

Click on The Leadership Failure of Park51 for a Muslim critique of Imam Rauf.

Click on Daniel Pearl Memorial for Imam Rauf’s message at the Daniel Pearl memorial service in Manhattan in 2003.

Click on ‘Ground Zero’ Imam: ‘I Am a Jew, I Have Always Been One’ for a comment by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic Monthly on the significance of Imam Rauf’s message.

Click on Daniel Pearl Wiki for a Wikipedia biography of Daniel Pearl.

Click on A mosque near Ground Zero? for comments and links concerning the Park51 project.

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