Author Interviews
10:44 am
Wed May 9, 2012

Creating A New Vision Of Islam In America

Originally published on Thu May 10, 2012 12:54 pm

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a leading moderate Muslim leader in the U.S., was once the lead cleric associated with the proposed Islamic community center some critics called the "ground zero mosque." In late 2010, a debate over the location of the community center, now called the Cordoba House, became a contentious issue during the midterm elections.

During the debate, Rauf was called a "radical Muslim" and a "militant Islamist" by critics of the proposed community center. He was accused of sympathizing with the Sept. 11 hijackers and having connections to Hamas.

"For those who actually know or have worked with the imam, the descriptions are frighteningly — indeed, depressingly — unhinged from reality," political reporter Sam Stein wrote last August for The Huffington Post. "The Feisal Abdul Rauf they know spent the past decade fighting against the very same cultural divisiveness and religious-based paranoia that currently surrounds him."

In his new book, Moving the Mountain, Rauf details the events in his own life that have shaped his religious philosophy. He also recounts the struggle to build the Lower Manhattan community center, which was designed to bring together Muslims with people from other religions.

"That was my goal," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "because the world needs that today. Now, what happened at that time clearly wasn't the perfect solution, and what happened did not reflect my dream or my purpose in the right way. But the dream still exists and continues to exist."

A Moderate Voice In America

Rauf was born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents and spent his early childhood in Malaysia. At 16, he moved with his parents to New York City, where his father had been asked to establish an Islamic center of worship. It was the middle of the 1960s, when the counterculture was in full swing and the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states had created a growing divide between Jews and Muslims.

Rauf, who was attending Columbia University at the time, recalls it being a difficult time for young Arabs in New York City.

"Many of my schoolmates at Columbia were Jewish. I made many good friends among them, but we had moments of difficulty in those discussions," he says. "And [it made me realize] how the politics in the Middle East had poisoned and continued to poison, to this day, the relationship between Muslims and Jews. It was a painful aspect of that period of my life, but it also shaped it in important ways in terms of wanting to understand it and seeing how we can be a factor for positive change."

After leaving Columbia, Rauf became a public high school teacher in the New York City school system for several years. But he couldn't shake the thought that he was missing his calling.

"I even knew, when I was coming on the ship from Egypt to the United States — I had this interior voice in my heart telling me that my role would be to introduce Islam to America in an American vernacular, in an American vocabulary," he says.

Rauf served as the imam of the al-Farah mosque in New York City from 1983 to 2009. For the past two decades, he has argued that Islam supports both religious tolerance and equality for women, and has worked to strengthen moderate voices with the Muslim world.

"I believe we are part of a growing global chorus," he says. "And I know for a fact that moderates exist everywhere, in every tradition and in every political environment. There are moderates in Israel. There are moderates in Iran, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party. And what we need to do is link all of these moderates together and figure out a way that this coalition can speak to important issues to marginalize the voice of the extremists."


Interview Highlights

On Pastor Terry Jones' threat to burn a Quran if the community center was not moved

"What that made clear to me is that the real battlefront is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, between Muslims and Jews, between Muslims and Christians etc. The real battlefront was between all the moderates of all faith traditions against all of the extremists of all faith traditions. Here is a perfect example of an extremist, in this case a Christian, challenging a moderate, who was a Muslim. And that's the battlefront that we have to wage. And this is why I proposed a way to build a global coalition of moderates, to grow it into a movement of moderates, that can drown out the voices of the extremists — not only in the West but also from our faith traditions."

On how the threat to burn a Quran was resolved

"The heroes of that story were our Christian friends, our Christian evangelical friends. At that time, [the] Rev. Jim Wallis called me up ... and explained how [the evangelical community] did not want me to engage with this person. They said, 'This is not your problem. This is a problem within the Christian community. Let us deal with him.' And they were the ones, in fact, when he came up trying to meet me, [they] met him at the airport and forced him to back down."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is the imam who was at the center of the controversy over the so-called ground zero mosque. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's vision is of an interfaith Islamic center modeled on New York's famous 92nd Street Y. Opponents have said it's an insult to those victims and survivors of the terrorist attack to have a mosque built close to ground zero.

Imam Rauf is no longer working with his original partner on the project. He's now calling his proposed center Cordoba House, part of the Cordoba Initiative, a multifaith project he cofounded to bridge relations between Muslims and the West. Rauf is a longtime advocate of interfaith understanding. So was his father, who was Egyptian and headed Islamic centers in New York and Washington.

Imam Rauf moved to America with his family when he was a teenager. From 1983 to 2009 he served as imam of a mosque in Tribeca, about a dozen blocks from ground zero. In his new book, "Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America," Rauf explains why the extremist version of Islam is untrue to Muslim history and profoundly dangerous to Muslims and non-Muslims.

Imam Rauf, welcome to FRESH AIR.

IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you, Terry, it's a great pleasure to be with you.

GROSS: We'll get back to this later, but what is the status of the interfaith Muslim center that you've been trying to build near ground zero, which is now known as Cordoba House?

RAUF: Yes, the dream is still alive, and this is why I wrote this book. But let me tell you what my goal was, what my dream was for the Cordoba House and what it still is and continues to this day. My dream was to find a place where Muslims and people in this country from all different religions can get to understand and respect one another more deeply in peace, in recreation, in worship and learning, and to find a place that can truly be a safe space for us all to come together in a positive, constructive way, because the world needs that today. That was my goal.

Now, what happened, Terry, at that time clearly wasn't the perfect solution, and it did not - what happened did not reflect my dream nor my purpose in the right way, but the dream still exists and continues to exist.

GROSS: I think a lot of people have found it especially ironic that you are so demonized because of the interfaith center, interfaith Islamic center that you are trying to build, because the Bush administration State Department sent you as an emissary. You were asked to speak to the FBI about Muslims in America so that they could understand Muslim life here and not fall back on stereotypes. That was in 2003.

So I mean, like the government, the FBI, had asked you to work with them, and you did, and then you were the target of death threats.

RAUF: Yes, in fact I worked with the FBI beginning in 2002. They invited me in January of 2002, just a couple of months after 9/11, to speak to all of their FBI agents, 1,200 of them in New York City, and to help liaise with many mosques and other Islamic centers so that law enforcement agencies would be - would get the cooperation of our community in making sure that, you know, we root out all terrorists who might be lurking in our mosques and our communities. And that was a very successful initiative.

And as you've pointed out, since that time I have been, and even before then, sent by the State Department to several countries around the world to speak about Islam, Islam in America, and how the - and to differentiate between Islam as a faith tradition and those who have used, the small number of extremists who have used religion to perform acts of terrorism, which are absolutely prohibited by our faith tradition as much as it is prohibited by any humanistic values on any tradition, including even the secular humanist tradition.

GROSS: Well, you moved here at the age of 16. Your parents are from Egypt. You were born in Kuwait. You grew up in Malaysia. And when you were 16, your father was asked by what you describe as the preeminent Islamic theological seminary in the Muslim world, that seminary asked him to move here and start an Islamic center in New York.

So he did that and then later moved to Washington, D.C. Correct me if I get anything wrong here.

RAUF: Yes, exactly. I was 17 when I came.

GROSS: Seventeen, OK, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you're age 17, and this is 1960-what?

RAUF: 1965, December 22, 1965 when we landed on West 52nd Street on an Italian liner.

GROSS: OK, so it's not only culture shock for you, it's like so many Americans are going through culture shock, and the culture shock gets even more extreme as '65 gets into '67, '68, '69.

RAUF: Absolutely.

GROSS: So what was most difficult for you in being a Muslim and being from the Arab world and trying to find a place for yourself in the middle of - you know, as a young person in the middle of this kind of countercultural era in New York?

RAUF: Oh, there were three major problems and challenges I had. One was finding myself as a teenager who was brought up in different parts of the world, who never - who in spite of peer pressure and the natural pressure of wanting to fit in never felt that I completely fit in, into any society, including my own. When I went back to Egypt on holidays, I was made fun of by my cousins because I spoke funny. I spoke like a foreigner.

The other challenges were the moral ones. The mid-'60s was the time of the sexual revolution. It was Vietnam War. It was the drug culture. It was Timothy Leary coming and encouraging students to experiment with LSD. And the - kind of the moral laxity that I experienced compared to the culture that I grew up in to me was very threatening, because, you know, I felt that if, you know, as attractive as it was, if I did not have a moral grounding, then I could do anything.

And the other challenge was also the political one, being an Arab and being an Egyptian, especially after '67 and the Israeli-Egyptian War. It became a very difficult thing for me as an Arab in a city, and many of my - even my schoolmates at Columbia were Jewish.

We has usually passionate discussions and arguments even. Of course I made many good friends among them, but we had moments of even difficulty in those discussions. And how the politics of the Middle East and the - has - had poisoned, and continues to poison until this day the relationship between Muslims and Jews, has been one of the more painful aspects.

It was a painful aspect of that period of my life, but it also shaped it in important ways in terms of wanting to understand it and seeing how we can be a factor for positive change.

GROSS: Why did you decide to become an imam, and what did you do before that?

RAUF: I worked as a teacher in the public school system in New York City for several years, and I was a victim of the layoffs, you know, in the mid-'70s. And then I worked as a sales engineer for a company in New Jersey that was selling industrial filtration equipment.

But I always had a strong interest in religion, and I even knew when I was coming on the ship from Egypt to the United States, I had this interior voice in my heart telling me that my role would be to introduce Islam to America in an American vernacular, in an American vocabulary, both Islam as a faith and also the spiritual dimension of Islam, which is called Sufism.

I was completely surrounded by religion from a young time. I was taught by my father. I engaged in discussions with him and many of these scholars who visited and came around the dining table, the lunch table, and attended many lectures with my dad. And so I learned the apprentice way.

I read, read enormously on all different fields of Islamic thought, from philosophy to Islamic literature, poetry, exegeses, knowledge of the Hadith, the teachings of the prophet. That's how I trained myself. And then I was appointed imam by a Sufi master from Istanbul, Turkey.

GROSS: So as the imam, when you were the imam of the Islamic center in Tribeca, New York, what was - what was the job description? How much time did you spend trying to teach or lead people in meditative prayer? How much of your time was spent just doing things like fundraising, which you probably had to do, or helping people solve their problems, which, you know, religious leaders usually spend some of their time doing?

Like, give us a sense of what it means to be an imam.

RAUF: Well, I was imam of what was then called the Sufi mosque. I mean although we had a name, but people tended to call mosques based upon their nicknames, and we were a mosque that was known as enhancing or amplifying the spiritual dimension of Islam, and people who came to our mosque tended to be those who were from all the different Sufi traditions.

You know, we have different - we have different, we have many different schools of mysticism or Sufism throughout the Muslim world, and many of those who have emigrated to this country used to come to our mosque and still do, because my sermons always amplified the spiritual aspect, from the teachings of the Quran and from the prophet, from our scripture and the prophet's teachings, that really brought us to the presence of God and reminded us of our closeness to God.

Fortunately, I did not have to do very much fundraising because we were supported by a wealthy patron who took care of all of the expenses of the mosque, and that was very kind of them.

GROSS: Did you ever find in your mosque that there were people who seemed very, like, disaffected from America, very angry at America and were the kind of people that would raise a red flag in your mind that maybe they were an extremist, maybe they were dangerous?

RAUF: Well, look, as Americans, you know, we have a very healthy tradition of questioning our government's policies, whether they're domestic or international. And certainly within the Muslim community at large, not only in my mosque but at large, the Muslim community always felt that many aspects of American foreign policy towards the Muslim world were not, you know, in the best interest of the United States nor in the best interest of the Muslim community.

GROSS: OK, but there's a difference between somebody challenging American foreign policy and somebody wanting to attack Americans.

RAUF: True.

GROSS: And I guess I'm just curious if you ever met anybody at your mosque who you were worried about.

RAUF: My mosque, no, because we were primarily a Sufi mosque. Very few - I mean, I really don't - most of the people who came to our mosque really came to discharge their obligations of the Friday prayer and were spiritually motivated and really were more concerned about how can I know God, how can I really taste God and experience the reality of God.

This is what I had to deal with more, and of course there were people who had, like, you know, marriage conflicts, the usual kind of things that we do to minister to our community, people who have had a death in the family, people who had - or people who want to get married. And these are the kinds of things that I generally dealt with, and still do.

GROSS: In your attempt to create not only an interfaith community but an American Islam, you want women to have, you know, more equality. And so women in your mosque were in the main section. They were not put in back. They were not behind a curtain. But they did sit separately from the men, and I guess in reading your book I was wondering why although including women in the main section you still separated the men and women.

RAUF: Women prefer to be separated from the men because the nature of our prayers is very, you know, very intimate. We stand next to each other in rows. We're in contact with each other. We bend down. We prostrate, you know, I mean - people don't like to see a man, like, staring at their behind, that kind of stuff. So...

GROSS: You know, I really never thought of it that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's never occurred to me that that would be something...

RAUF: Yeah, besides this, there's a different energy. Even in Dhikr, for example, where we do Dhikr, where we are, you know, repeating God's names and chanting, there's a very - that's where you really feel the difference between male energy and female energy. And many women, you know, prefer to be in the company of other women so that they emphasize their, and get into their feminine energy and men in their men energy.

GROSS: What's the difference between those two energies?

RAUF: The male energy is far more aggressive, very often abrasive, and also when you're doing your Dhikr, one of the things that we believe when we are doing these mantras or these Dhikr is that it is also - as much as we are imbibing into ourselves a divine energy, a godly energy, we're also purifying ourselves of the negative energies within.

And what men throw off, you know, tends to be far more violent and abrasive compared to the energy which women throw off.

GROSS: My guest is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. His new book is called "Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and he was the imam at a mosque in Tribeca for many years and then after that started working on the Cordoba House, which has become known as the ground zero mosque, an attempt to build an interfaith Islamic center modeled kind of on the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan near ground zero, and that was very controversial, as I'm sure our listeners know.

And now he has a new book called "Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America." So let's just go back a couple of years, I guess, when Terry Jones, a Christian extremist pastor from Florida threatened to burn the Quran. And wasn't he saying that you need to say that you were not going to build that mosque near ground zero?

RAUF: Well, what happened was Sarah Palin was one who made that suggestion. I mean, he threatened to burn the Quran, and Sarah Palin suggested that maybe he should agree not to burn it if we agreed to move. So that immediately changed the dynamics and made it into a kind of a hostage crisis type of a situation.

GROSS: So you must have been in a really tough situation because Terry Jones is, like, very extreme. I can't speak to his mental health. And if he burned the Quran, that would have probably unleashed riots around the Muslim world.

RAUF: Absolutely.

GROSS: I mean, it's a very offensive act.

RAUF: Especially at that time.

GROSS: Yes, exactly. So I'm sure you didn't want him to burn the Quran. On the other hand, you're trying to build this kind of like interfaith Islamic community center in Manhattan near ground zero, and for you this is something that would, like, be bridging faiths and be a very healing thing. That's your vision.

So do you sacrifice what you consider to be a very healing vision so that there aren't, you know, so that somebody doesn't burn a Quran inciting riots around the world? I mean, how did you think that through?

RAUF: What that crisis made very clear to me was that the real battlefront was not between Muslims and non-Muslims, between Muslims and Jews, Muslims and Christians, et cetera, or Muslims and the West. The real battlefront was between all the moderates of all faith traditions against all the extremists of all faith traditions.

And here was a perfect example of an extremist, in this case a Christian, challenging a moderate who was a Muslim. And that's the battlefront that we have to wage. And this is why I proposed that we figure out a way to build a global coalition of moderates, to build and grow it into a movement of moderates that can drown out the voices of the extremists not only in the West but also from our faith traditions.

Fortunately, what really - the heroes of that, the unsung heroes of that story was our Christian friends, our Christian evangelical friends. You know, at that time Reverend Jim Wallace called me up and said, look, you know, and told me about, you know, Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, how they did not want me to engage with this person. They said this is not your problem.

They said this is a problem within the Christian community. Let us deal with him. And they in fact spoke to him, and they were the ones who when he came up trying to meet me, met him at the airport here at La Guardia airport hotel, and forced him to back down.

GROSS: So I'm going to change the subject here and ask you a question, and this is something I've read in New Jersey papers, and apparently you own some properties in New Jersey, apartment buildings, that have been accused of having health violations. And that just seems so out of tune with your spiritual belief. So I was wondering...

RAUF: Well, I have had this property, which I have actually tried to sell. We had a fire in one side of it. And, you know, unfortunately some people in the town even tried to attack me and create the problems. You know, but I have done everything I possibly can, and we have - we have spent every penny we can possibly throw into that building to keep it, to keep it, you know, free of all violations.

And whenever they have notified us of anything, we have certainly tried to do everything we can to fix them, and we have done that and continue to do that.

GROSS: Is it difficult for you to have that responsibility while being a spiritual leader?

RAUF: Well, what has been difficult for me is that since 9/11 and my devotion to bridging this work, that is has taken me away from being able to focus on managing properties. This is why I have been trying to - actually I've sold all my properties, and I've been trying to sell this last one as well.

GROSS: So, you know, ever since 9/11, people have been saying where are the leaders in the Muslim world who are willing to stand up and say this extremism must stop, and why isn't there a louder, more forceful set of voices insisting on that. You've been one of the voices saying that.

RAUF: Yes.

GROSS: Do you feel like you are part of a growing chorus or that you're part of a small group?

RAUF: Well, I believe we are part of a growing chorus. And I know for a fact that moderates exist everywhere, in every tradition, in every political environment. There are moderates in Israel. There are moderates in Iran, there are moderates in the Republican Party, moderates in the Democratic Party. What we need to do is we need link all of these moderates together and to figure out a way by which this particular coalition can speak to important issues to marginalize the voice of the extremists.

GROSS: Well, Imam Rauf, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

RAUF: Terry, thank you so much for having me. It has been such a pleasure indeed.

GROSS: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the author of "Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.