In the context of 9/11, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf on the issue of how America engages with Islam and Muslims

In May 2010, the site of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City became “Ground Zero” for a less deadly but equally emotive conflict on a question of religion. An inter-faith group called the Cordoba Initiative, led by an Imam of a local mosque, won approval for a proposed Islamic community centre called Park51, two blocks away from where the World Trade Centre stood ten years ago. The approval provoked an ugly backlash from conservative groups such as the Tea Party but also resistance from 9/11 victims’ families and some New Yorkers.

Even as the controversy saw these groups grapple with wrenching First-Amendment questions of religious freedom, the man at the centre of the controversy, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, persisted with his decades-long efforts to promote a multi-faith dialogue for better understanding across faith traditions. He ultimately won the approval of not only the Manhattan community board where Park51 is located but also NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and even U.S. President Barack Obama.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11 Imam Rauf spoke to Narayan Lakshman about why America’s reaction to the Park51 plan mattered not only to American Muslims but to the entire nation and to Muslims across the world. An edited transcript of the interview:

I’d like to begin by asking you about Park51, also referred to as Cordoba House and, in many media outlets, as the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Is it, in fact, a mosque? Also, what was the idea behind its proposal, especially locating it on what some Americans have called “hallowed ground?”

First of all we wanted to establish a community centre that would focus on a number of things which I believe that we as Muslims need to achieve. Most importantly, to evolve a definition of what we mean by American Muslims. In fact I have a book coming out in the spring of 2012, called Moving the Mountain, in which I talk about the need to evolve ourselves from being Muslims in America to being American Muslims — and this is something that I have talked about for 15 years or more now.

This involves charting a narrative and a roadmap for ourselves that recapitulates aspects of the assimilation into America of other faith traditions such as the Catholics and the Jews and so on. When they came to this country they had to undergo the process of Americanisation.

Also [this involves] our own religious history when Islam spread from Western Arabia to all the ancient civilisations of Egypt, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Byzantium, Iraq, Persia [and] India. [In India] it developed what you might call an Indian Islam, [and similarly] a Spanish Islam in Andalucía [in Spain].

What does this mean? It means a number of things. It [raises the question,] how do we express our values? Every religious tradition has a perennial challenge, which is, what are the eternal values of our faith and how do we express them in a different time and in a different place?

Islam in India for example developed the Mughal architecture, the qawwali music; and the Muslim concept of modesty of dress developed with Indian clothing — whether it was a sari or a shalwar kameez. So this was the Islamic faith, but culturally expressed in Indian tradition, art, architecture, food and sensitivities. For example, many Indian Muslims do not eat beef, because they were previously Hindus or their neighbours were Hindus. So they would eat lamb but they would not eat beef, out of respect for their own tradition and their own culture. You see this everywhere, [for example] in law. Pre-Islamic law became acceptable for Muslims as long as it did not contradict the Koran and the Hadith.

So we now have a task to do [and that is to ask,] how do we express ourselves as British Muslims, French Muslims, German Muslims and American Muslims? This is the task I am working on and one of the key aspects of this Cordoba House project [is that it] has been my vision and it will be built, whether it is on that site or this site. It is a dream I have had from a long time ago. In fact I wanted to buy the McBurney YMCA [nearly 30 blocks north of its present location] back in 1999 but I could not put the funds together.

[The idea] to establish such a Cordoba House Centre, [was to] focus on integration, developing American Muslims’ identity, expression of moderation, taking up multi-faith [dialogue]. Inter-faith dialogue has evolved beyond just dialogue with each other to understand each others’ traditions, to building coalitions around issues of common cause.

There are many things in which we are the same as other faith communities, because the real divide is not between Islam and the West or Muslims and Christians, or Muslims and Hindus, but between the moderates of all these faith traditions and the extremists.

But you did propose the 9/11 site location originally, which was labelled “hallowed ground” and I was wondering whether you were trying to make a specific point.

I have been the Imam of a mosque for 28 years in that neighbourhood, in Tribecca. Our community has grown in that area. I know that community and the community knows me, which is why the community endorsed the project — because they knew me. They knew what the inter-faith [dialogue] had done for the last 20 years and more, if you add my father’s time.

Last year you said you would never have proposed it if you knew what a storm of controversy it would cause. But you also said that U.S. national security depended on how the mosque proposal was handled and further that the U.S.’ view of Islam would be judged by this. On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks do you still believe that the project should proceed and why?

What the controversy really aroused was the question which was also precipitated by 9/11, and that is, how will America engage with Islam and Muslims, domestically and internationally? This is a far more important question than a piece of real estate. It is why I did a tour of other countries and spoke to many, many people and I continue to lecture in many places. During this controversy I was approached by a couple of Heads of State, including the Presidents of Indonesia and Turkey, who invited me to speak in their countries, which I did last November.

It became very clear to me, from the discussions that I had with other heads of governments and senior leaders in other countries such as those in the Gulf and Malaysia, that the United States has very significant interests in all of these Muslim nations. The U.S. has geo-political interests and military bases in the Muslim world. It has economic interests and these interests are mutual. Whenever there is this type of conflict it complicates these relationships.

Imagine there was an attack against the Hindu community in this country. The pressure on the Prime Minister of India to do something about it, by the local community there — it is exactly the same thing happening around the Muslim world. So it complicates these relationships and that is why I was very cognisant of the fact that how the story would play out would have enormous significance on how the Muslim world would see America.

As I have been telling Americans the optics of the Jewish Mayor of the largest Jewish city in the world supporting Muslims in building a “Ground Zero mosque” [were significant].

To be clear, who was the Mayor?

Michael Bloomberg. [Also,] the idea of the President [of the U.S.] supporting religious freedoms raised the stock of Americans in the Muslim world. Therefore, I had to be very cautious on how I talked about this issue because I did not want to give the impression that we were under attack. That would be the perfect thing that terrorists would want to use [for recruitment]. So it was a very tricky [issue].

On a related note, do you think “Islamophobia” in America is on the rise as conservative groups such as the Tea Party gain ground nationally and in the federal government?

There is a very well-organised, well-funded group of people that have been very active in promoting hatred of Islam in this country. They have been very successful in doing that.

Is the Tea Party one of these groups?

When this whole [controversy over the “Ground Zero mosque”] began for us Mark Williams [a Tea Party leader] and the Tea Party said in a statement that this mosque is going to be a place to worship their monkey-god. The next day he had to apologise to the Hindus! Do you remember that? This goes to show how ludicrous this whole [controversy] was.

Especially an influential voice of American Muslims do you think there is something different the community should be doing something differently to blunt this hatred?

First of all, we have to combat the people who are trying to promote Islamophobia — that is one thing. We have to play a more active role in stating our case.

What is clear is that we have worked very hard with the law enforcement agencies to make sure that terrorism does not happen. I think 40 per cent of the tips [against terrorist activities] have come from within the community.

Is that a recent statistic?

Yes this was mentioned either in a recent poll by the Pew Research Centre [Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism] or a report by the Centre for American Progress [“Since 9/11, the Muslim American community has helped security and law enforcement officials prevent more than 40 per cent of Al Qaeda terrorist plots threatening America.” – CAP report Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America].

The fact of the matter is that this claim that we were trying to establish a Caliphate — no one in the Muslim world was talking [about such things] — if at all maybe [Osama] bin Laden [did]. But no one in Egypt or Turkey, [for example] the AKP [Turkey’s largest political party] talked about a Caliphate anywhere.

And in terms of terrorism — we are the primary victims of terrorism. More Muslims have died from terrorism than Westerners. Terrorism does not build communities. It breaks down the structures of civil society. We are against terrorism. Muslims all over the world are against terrorism. The notion that we are trying to promote terrorism to enhance a cause is just totally incoherent.

So when you talk about combating Islamophobia, how do you do it? Is it just by dialogue or is there something more proactive that you do, which brings the other side around to a better understanding of your viewpoint?

I have been talking [and] touring the country speaking at many, many places about what it is that we Muslims in America are looking for. [Another dimension is] coalition-building, working with our colleagues to [reiterate] that we are interested in harmony and peace.

Congressmen Keith Ellison just drafted a letter regarding the Israeli soldier’s [Gilad Shalit, held captive for five years by Hamas in the Palestinian Territories] release. I was one of the signatories of that [letter]. In fact that call that I had just now as you were coming in was from his parents who are in town and want to meet with me.

These are the kinds of things that we are doing to show that we are committed to building peace between our faith communities. People like me have to be interlocutors between our community and the broader communities – that is part of the work we do.

I’d like to consider the flip side of this question. The author William Dalrymple wrote: “Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative is one of America’s leading thinkers of Sufism... which in terms of goals and outlook couldn't be farther from the violent Wahhabism of the jihadists.” Others have quoted you saying that you supported the state of Israel. While you no doubt lead the effort to present Islam’s moderate face to the West does that sometimes require you to downplay any aspects of the religion?

Every society has its notion of political correctness. Certain amount of our correctness is part of what I call the “Emperor is naked” syndrome. Everybody knows what the story is but people are taught not to say it. For example I have often said that one of the worst things that happened to the Indian Muslim community was the creation of Pakistan, or the division of India into India and Pakistan. It was a major tragedy for India and the Muslim community of India. That is a position that many of my Pakistani friends may privately admit but would not publicly say so. That is an example of what I mean when I say that people sometimes find it difficult to admit to what is logically correct or apparent to many people from a moral, ethical or even political point of view.

To me leadership is about being able to express the deepest aspirations of people and pointing out to people where this “Emperor is naked” syndrome exists. There are notions that we feel we are forced to accept as true but in our heart of hearts we do not believe them.

What I am getting at is that sometimes non-Western religions have certain traditional norms. As an example maybe religions like Islam talk of traditional roles for men and women — to the Western mind, which you could argue is fiercely fixated on equality defined on an individual basis, would such traditional values be hard to understand?

First of all I point out that much of gender relationships is culturally defined. America has had its own notion of gender relationships in the last 50-100 years, which have changed tremendously. In many non-Muslim societies such as those in India, China and Japan, there are very, very strict rules on gender relationships and differences. This proves the point that many of these things are more cultural than religious.

The flip side is that we as American Muslims can point out the fact that American Muslim women are more educated than American women. There is far less of a gap between the incomes of American Muslim women and American Muslim men than in the general population. This is also a detail that the Pew poll [corroborates].

Further we ourselves have taken initiative and one of our projects is women’s empowerment and addressing issues that we believe are wrong. We have projects that are combating, for example, female genital mutilation in Egypt. We have had projects in Afghanistan to help educate people on the rights of women.

A friend of ours who started a girls’ school in Pakistan was attacked by some Mullah, viciously. After a few years she was surprised that he had brought his daughters for admission to the school! She asked him why he had attacked her all this time if he wanted to bring his own children here, to which he replied that a lot of the young men did not want to marry an uneducated girl and he wanted her to marry well.

This goes to show how social change that is ongoing and the changing norms in society are actually helping develop these [attitudes]. These changes are happening and we can play a role in expediting them. But the evolution of communities and societies is creating these changes very rapidly in a generational time-sense. Within a generation or two we can all see huge changes within our societies. This is how I would express it.

The Obama administration would appear to be sympathetic to your views on the need to promote inter-religious harmony abroad. Would you agree, and could you tell us a bit more about what you have achieved through your travels to other nations in partnership with the U.S. State Department? What else have you done or do you do to promote this objective?

[In my travels I have achieved] two things. [Firstly] I learn about their perceptions of American Islam, which has been very helpful. But I also help them understand what is going on within our communities.

There is great interest on the part of Muslims in what we call the “traditional homelands” in what is going on with Muslims in America and what is meant by American Islam. Is this some type of coca-cola Islam that we have tried to create? [The history of Islam in these other countries] is part of our classical tradition. So what we are doing here is not something which is totally a wild innovation — it is part of our traditional history.

In the context of 9/11 you were quoted as saying that the “U.S.’ policies were an accessory to the crime that happened” — which aspects of the legacy of the George Bush foreign policy agenda do you think President Obama has succeeded in overcoming in terms of the negative views of Muslims abroad towards America?

The aspiration of the Bush administration to promote democracy in the Arab world was something that I was very, very supportive of. What we were not supportive of was the way in which he prosecuted the case.

Was there such a strong aspiration under the Bush regime?

That was what he officially tried to promote in Iraq. However as I had discussed, even before 2003, in my book, What’s Right with Islam, there were some missed opportunities. It is gratifying for me to see how the Obama administration has undertaken a far more nuanced engagement with the Muslim world. In fact he spoke about the aspirations of the people in his [2009] Cairo speech and also in Turkey and in Indonesia.

I believe that the way that we have engaged with the Libyans, for example, in helping them [realise] their aspirations, demonstrates our commitment to helping evolve governments that are more responsive to the aspirations of their people.

Since you mention Libya, it is part of what has been labelled the “Arab Spring.” Do you think that countries such as Libya typify a case where the outcomes are not largely known in terms of the aspirations being met, the core goal? One view of the Bush administration was that there was too much involvement in the domestic politics of other countries, often with a backlash for the U.S.

Today, nations have very different relationships with each other. The relationship between India and the U.S. today is very different to the relationship under Nehru, and certainly very different than [what it was] under the Raj. So the community of nations has a different dynamic right now and there are huge interests that bind nations together in very intimate ways that did not exist 40-50 years ago. You cannot separate them anymore — it is a different ballgame.

Second, people forget that the world is changing every day. To emphasise the point, if you take a snapshot every 30 years a generation dies, a new generation is born and a new generation that was young is now in power. Every generation has a different perspective.

I am 63 years old today. I grew up in Malaysia at the age of 6-7 in the 1950s. I had a very different sense of the world. I did not have Twitter, Facebook or internet connections. Today there is more difference between my father or grandfather in Egypt, your grandfather in India and someone else’s grandfather in China.

Today, look at the young generation all over the world: they wear the same clothing, the same brands and they all have iPhones or aspire to have them! If they do not have iPhones they all have cell phones that they know how to send text messages on, and they are connected to each other in a very different way. They know what is going on in other parts of the world — so much better than I did when I was a child, growing up in another part of the world. They see what is happening [elsewhere] and they want that.

It is a combination of the shrinking of the world, advancing technology and a new generation that has a different view of itself. Now the world is a different place, governed by economic improvement. Young people want economic improvement all over the world — whether it is in Bangalore, Egypt or Syria – they all want their own Bangalore! They want development and they want to have a future.

I remember this one clip I saw on a media channel of this young person in Libya, who was saying that earlier he had no job and no proper education but now he could “dream again.” [The earlier situation] was a recipe to promote terrorism.

Do you subscribe to the view that the killing of Osama bin Laden brought closure to the 9/11 victims’ families and other Americans? Could you tell us about any conversations that you have had with such families in recent months?

To some, yes [it brought closure]. The killing of bin Laden was a milestone in, if not complete closure, certainly partial closure, and also to the clear perception that al-Qaeda and terrorism are not the way to go. It is an important milestone in removing the sense of romantic heroism and the attraction that many young Muslim men may be drawn to — of turning to violence and terrorism as a way to contribute to the wellbeing of their community. To me that is the most important message.

Was this all in some sense about revenge?

I do not think this is about revenge. It is about marking the end of an era where there was great popularity and sentiment amongst certain people in the Muslim world that we have to make our frustrations felt by being violent.

We have no issues [with this]. The fact that bin Laden’s death coincided with the Arab Spring to me is a very important coincidence, which shows that the Arab Spring and the aspirations of young people [in the region] for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as deliverables, is what people want.

The actions of al-Qaeda and the frustrations of people that resulted in al-Qaeda stemmed in large part from the fact that many of these nations did not give their young people options. When young people do not have options they are easily recruited for these sorts of things.

What did you do in the aftermath of 9/11/2001 and what will you be doing on 9/11/2011? More generally, what does the tenth anniversary of the attacks mean to you?

Right after 9/11 and the following year or two was the time when I was invited to speak in many places, and the big question was how can I fix U.S.-Muslim relations. Out of that came the founding of the Cordoba Initiative, which is where you are right now sitting. We conceived of the idea in 2002 and it was formalised by 2003-04. This has become my life’s work.

What we have done is to shape the discourse in a number of ways, [for example] through our discussions with think-tanks such as the Brookings Institution. Many of the projects that I have been party to [were focussed on] better understanding of the issues and how we can actually build those bridges that people need built.

The tenth anniversary is just a particular point and you get emotional about some of these things, like your 21st birthday. It is just another day and another year in some respects, but people tend to think in terms of decades. Certainly this was a decade in which a deeper understanding was forged. [There was] a greater maturity in many circles about the complexity of the problems and the need to address them with deep understanding and finesse. You need to treat these problems like a medical doctor, who may need to do certain surgical operations, but they are done with the precision of surgery rather than the approach of a baseball bat.