Man in the middle
Newsday, June 08, 2004
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has devoted himself to rapprochement between the Islamic world and the West.
By Carol Eisenberg
No sooner had Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf set foot in CNN's studios in Manhattan than he heard the news flash from Iraq: A young American contractor named Nick Berg had been beheaded by Islamic extremists seeking to avenge the torture of Iraqi prisoners. Rauf was nauseated. He was to scheduled to go on the air momentarily with anchor Paula Zahn to discuss his new book, "What's Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West." But as a veteran of ceaseless media appearances since 9/11, Rauf knew that would not be the topic now.
Sure enough, as soon as a microphone was pinned to his jacket, he was shown photos of Berg kneeling before five hooded men. "The first question I was asked was, 'Why would they do that?'" a weary-sounding Rauf recalled later. "It was emotionally gut-wrenching."
So began another day, another attempt to douse the flames of hatred and violence in a world that seemed to be spinning out of control. Today, the story was Nick Berg. Yesterday, it was the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. The day before, it was Israeli tanks razing homes in the Gaza Strip.
As always, Rauf, the soft-spoken leader of al-Farah mosque 12 blocks north of the World Trade Center, was the man in the middle, struggling to stay on message in the face of unrelenting bad news.
"He's trying to talk about a big idea, about creating a paradigm shift in the relationship between the Islamic and Western worlds," said his wife, Daisy Khan, an interfaith advocate in her own right. "But the events on the ground are not even letting him do that."
If Rauf won few converts that day to his plan for rapprochement between the Islamic world and the West - called the Cordoba Initiative after the golden age of Muslim civilization - his ideas have been capturing the attention of leaders such as Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee; the Rev. George Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury, who chairs an international West-Islam dialogue group; and Queen Noor of Jordan.
Where are the moderates?
"One frequently hears the refrain: 'Where are the moderate Muslim leaders? Why aren't they speaking out more loudly about world issues?'" said John Bennett, former president of the Aspen Institute, an international relations think tank, where he first met Rauf, and now a cofounder of the Cordoba Initiative. "And here is a man who has the courage to do so and who is speaking out with great eloquence and feeling."
Rauf has done little else since the terrorist attacks that pulled him from his mahogany pulpit in the shadow of Ground Zero. At the outset, he categorically condemned suicide bombers and, in fact, any violence committed in the name of religion. He also said that American policies "were an accessory to the crime that happened" since they had armed a generation of jihadists to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
"Explaining is not justifying," he said. "I want people to understand the things that have fueled terrorism, because if we address them, that's how we eliminate terror."
With one foot in the Middle East and the other in America, Rauf sees himself as a bridge builder. His pedigree enables him to walk a religious and political tightrope: A teacher of Sufism, the tradition that focuses on the spiritual dimension within Islam, he traces his lineage to the prophet Mohammed, and to a long line of Islamic scholars. And as an Egyptian- American educated in England, Egypt, Malaysia and the United States, he is able to negotiate barriers of culture and language.
"The role I've chosen for myself is to be a mediator," he said. "It's like when a couple comes to me for marital counseling, and there's pressure to condemn one partner or the other. I say to them, 'Look, I'm not going to be on either side....'
"So when I'm with Muslims, I tell them, 'Here are the things we have to do differently.' And when I'm with Christians and Jews, I say, 'Here are things we have to do differently.'"
Crisis within Islam?
The thesis of Rauf's new book is that Sept. 11 was not the result of a crisis within Islam, as some have argued, but rather of the relationship between the Muslim world and the West.
"The humiliation that the Muslim world has experienced over the last century is something that people in the West are not even aware of," he said in an interview recently in his spare, 21st-floor office on the Upper East Side. "The analogy I use with Americans is that it's like when women say that men have humiliated women for centuries. And men say, 'What are you talking about? We've always loved you.' When I use that analogy, you get it, right?"
He traces the causes of dissonance to scars left by European colonialism, the grievances of poverty, perceived cultural threats and Western support of undemocratic regimes. But he finds reason for hope in the Abrahamic traditions of a just society that are common to Christians, Jews and Muslims. And he cites religious and legal scholars in his book to show that Islam's core teachings are compatible with a pluralistic democracy.
How to reconcile that with the reality of zealots crashing jetliners into buildings, chanting "God is great"?
"Fascism can arise in any system," he said. "Fascism can exist under an atheistic system like the Soviet Union. Fascism can exist under Christianity - the burning of heretics and the Spanish Inquisition. Or how about the way that Americans treated Native Americans or African- Americans? The fact that ideals do not match realities is nothing new in human history."
The fact is that many of the madrassas, or religious schools, that produced today's terrorists were supported by the U.S. in the '70s and '80s to create jihadists to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, he said.
Rauf also laments that today, many Muslims "have more passion than knowledge" about the Quran. "This is one of the unfortunate things that is plaguing the Muslim world," he said.
The heart of his book is a blueprint of sorts for an initiative on the scale of the man-on-the- moon project to mend the relationship between the Islamic and Western worlds. Starting with a proposal for a new U.S. foreign policy that would aim to spread democratic values and institutions, Rauf calls on governments, foundations, corporations and religious groups to commit to the goals of nation- building and economic and educational development in the Middle East. And he calls on the U.S. government to lead efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has fueled anti-Americanism around the world.
"To use a football analogy," Rauf said, "what is needed is a series of quick, highly advertised first downs to rapidly excite ordinary Muslims and convince them that America is serious about pursuing a mutually respectful relationship."
If this sounds pie in the sky, Rauf and his supporters would beg to differ. "Look, it only took about two dozen neo-conservatives in Washington," he said, referring to those who pushed for the war in Iraq, "to establish a policy that has aroused the whole world."
"What is the alternative?" asked Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and formerly the chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine, who is a supporter of Rauf.
Skepticism in some quarters
Others are more cautious in their assessments. And even Rauf's carefully calibrated statements have drawn criticism in some quarters. Some in the Jewish community, for instance, have wanted him to condemn Palestinian suicide bombers without also noting the desperation created by the Israeli occupation.
Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi and vice president of The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York, attributes such criticism to "built-up anger that prevents people from trusting.... All I can say is that every encounter I have had with this man makes me trust him more, not less," said Hirschfield, who has collaborated with Rauf on several projects.
"What I see in him is the combination of fierce pride in his identity as a Muslim, and absolute openness about the fact that there's a lot that still has to be fixed inside that culture," he said. "I think that's the litmus test to which we should all be holding ourselves in our communities, as Americans, as Jews, as Christians and as Muslims."
Rauf, for his part, shows no sign of discouragement. He elaborates his message every chance he gets, whether on the road or in his bully pulpit at the al-Farah mosque, in a storefront on a stretch of TriBeCa favored by hipsters in black leather jackets.
"Brothers and sisters," Rauf said one recent Friday after mounting the steps of the staircase-liked pulpit, dressed in a white cassock and a white cap. "God is not the name of a religion. God is not the name Christianity, Islam, Judaism, secular humanism, Buddhism, whatever. God is a reality.... It is not Islam that you embrace. It is truth with a capital 'T.' ... And that absolute truth is God." He called on the faithful to practice the "values that Islam teaches" by demonstrating respect and tolerance in their daily lives.
A small group of worshippers spilled into a neighborhood cafe afterward, and nearly everyone had a story about Imam Feisal's influence on their lives. A young woman from Bangladesh told how he had helped her resist pressure to "take sides" in student demonstrations related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"He said, 'It doesn't matter which side of the conflict you're on. The question is: Which side is God on?' And he told me that God does not condone killing of innocent people. Ever. That sort of dissolved the two sides for me and helped me to see it from a more human perspective."
A young Canadian convert to Islam told how Rauf had introduced her to the man who would become her husband and then smoothed the way with her future in-laws.
"It's the only time I've played the matchmaker," Rauf insisted.
Over salmon and rice, he talked about how his ideas grew out of his own polyglot experience. The son of an Egyptian scholar who had been appointed the imam at a New York mosque, Rauf came to this country with his family in 1965, a wide-eyed 17-year-old awed at the sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
"I came to this country after having lived five of my most formative years in England, 10 years in Malaysia, and then I came here at age 17 not knowing whether I was Malay, Arab or English. I felt like Humpty Dumpty - totally fragmented inside and not knowing where to hang my identity hat, so to speak."
Delving into his 'eternal I'
Those feelings would force him to delve deeper into his spiritual life - to identify with his "eternal I," as he put it, and not with the "I" who felt Egyptian or English or American.
They would also equip him to see things through the lenses of others - preparing him for his role as a cultural ambassador throughout his life.
After graduating from Columbia University, where he studied physics, he taught for several years, helped run a small company, then made real estate investments.
"But I reached a point where those things just stopped working," he said. "It's like you get messages from beyond saying, 'OK, Feisal,' that's not for you anymore.'"
When he was asked to head a Sufi mosque in New York in 1983 by a well-known Sufi sheik in Turkey, he did not hesitate. "You know when you are meant to do something in life, you can't help it. You are compelled into it."
Since the terrorist attacks, Rauf has devoted himself to an entirely different quest.
"Since Sept. 11, Islam, a religion I love and that comprises my essential identity as a human being, has become broadly perceived in the United States as a national security threat, while America, a land whose values I cherish, has aroused broad antagonism and anguish in much of the Muslim world," he wrote in the preface to his book.
Today, everything takes a back seat to his efforts to seek common ground. It is slow and daunting work, often dependent on one-on-one encounters. But there are breakthrough moments.
There was his meeting earlier this year with the Grand Mufti of Australia, a controversial figure whose purported comments praising suicide bombers had created consternation there. Rauf had a private breakfast with him while on a speaking tour, after which the man offered a public apology.
Bennett, who accompanied Rauf there, described another encounter at a church in Sydney.
"There was one person who got up at this church who was angrier than anyone I've ever seen," he said. "He was literally shaking with rage.
"He said to Feisal, 'You say that Islam is a religion of peace, that the prophet taught peace and compassion. But what about this?' And he named a temple in India where Hindus had been massacred by Muslims. 'What do you have to say about these people who were killed, innocent women and children, murdered by Muslims?'"
When the man finished, Bennett said, the room was silent. "Feisal said to him, 'This is what I say, sir: ... I am sorry. I am sorry that happened in the name of my religion. It shouldn't have. It was wrong.'"
For the first time, the man stopped shaking, Bennett said. "He said, 'Thank you, sir. Thank you,' and put his hand on his heart."
That connection, Bennett believes, is the beginning of something bigger.
Copyright © 2004 by Newsday. Reprinted with permission.
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