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A Muslim in the Middle Hopes Against Hope

New York Times, Metro Section, June 23, 2004
By Chris Hedges

Imam Feiasl Abdul Rauf had a nightmare recently that has unsettled his days. He dreamed that Islamic terrorists had exploded a weapon of mass destruction in the United States and that Washington had made a retaliatory strike in the Muslim world. As he explained the dream, he used his index fingers to trace the paths of the arcing missiles.

"I have been worried," he said. "I told everyone in my mosque to pray more fervently for peace and the protection of our country."

"Our country" is America. And Imam Feisal, 55, a Columbia University graduate and the leader of the Masjid al-Farah mosque 12 blocks north of the World Trade Center site, is a man increasingly caught in the middle. He preaches a moderate Islam, one that embraces the values of Western democracy, carries within it a love of America and calls on Muslims to respect other faiths.

He condemns suicide bombings and all violence carried out in the name of religion. He meets regularly with Christian and Jewish leaders, not only to forge a common front but also to explain his belief that Islamic terrorists do not come from another moral universe - that they arise from oppressive societies that he feels Washington had a hand in creating. Last week, Imam Feisal joined three other American clerics of various faiths in a 30-second advertisement, broadcast on Arabic television, in which they apologized for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. He said that he had no hesitation when a rabbi asked him to participate and that reaction among his friends and colleagues had been "universally positive." "I see myself as a kind of marriage counselor," he said. "Iam not here to condemn one side or the other, but to tell Muslims what they must do differently and tell Christians and Jews what they must do differently. I want people to understand the things that have fueled this violence against us - not to excuse it, but to work to find ways to stop it."

But the world seems to be conspiring against him. The continuing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the bloody hostilities in Iraq, the beheadings of American hostages and the anger sweeping the Muslim world are creating a polarization that is becoming harder to stem. His dream, he worries, portends worse times. "I try not to be a pessimist," he said, "but things are not getting better."

Imam Feisal grew up in a polyglot world of cultures and languages. Both parents were Egyptian. His father was a religious scholar with degrees from Cambridge University and a doctorate from the University of London. He directed Islamic centers in Malaysia, Kuwait, New York and Washington, educating his five children largely in English as they moved across time zones and cultures.

The future Imam Feisal came to New York in 1965 as a 17-year-old who did not know "if I was Egyptian, Malay or English." "I had spent many years in Oriental society, where you never boasted about yourself," he said with a laugh. "You can imagine what a shock it was to come to America. Boasting for me was considered bad form. I couldn't sell myself."

He went to Columbia to study physics as the protests against the Vietnam War tore apart American society. The external conflict mirrored his inner turmoil. He, too, was on a search. "It was as if I was thrown into a wild sea," he said, seated one morning in his apartment on the Upper West Side, the walls decorated with frames encasing the looping calligraphy of Arabic script. "I was not anchored. I needed to educate myself spiritually."

He found his place in Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. After graduation, he taught in New York public high schools and worked in a real estate investment firm. None of these jobs gripped him, but his passionate embrace of Sufism filled his life with meaning. In 1983 a Sufi sheik from an order in Turkey asked him to head a small Sufi mosque in New York. Since then, his mosque, whose name means "divine ease," and his role as imam have consumed his life.

He had little to do with politics before the 9/11 attacks, working on building the small congregation and doing the usual counseling and preaching of a cleric. But afterward he felt compelled to speak out. Islam, he felt, was widely misunderstood. He says he believes that Islamic terrorists are not obedient to the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, or what he likes to call the "Abrahamic ethic" common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

"The attacks changed me," he said. "Before Sept. 11, I was an Islamic teacher focusing on the theological, spiritual and jurisprudential side of my faith. I suddenly had to explain my faith and myself. I started going to television and radio studios, churches and synagogues, talking with other religious leaders about Islam."

He is promoting a plan he calls the Cordoba initiative, "a blueprint to mend the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world." He is married to Daisy Kahn, a Muslim from Kashmir, who also runs his small nonprofit foundation, the American Society for Muslim Advancement. He has two grown twin daughters from a previous marriage.

When he is not traveling and speaking, he cooks, his dishes reflecting the range of cultures he calls his own. He speaks of his Indonesian and Egyptian creations softly, with the slight hint of a British accent, evidence of his years in the British school system. His dinners are an eclectic mix of Asian, Arab and Western dishes.

"If he drank, he would be a wine connoisseur," Ms. Kahn said. "But since he doesn't, he is a gourmet cook."

Copyright 2004 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.

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