Op-Ed: The words behind the man behind the mosque

COLUMBUS, Ga. (JTA) — I admire my colleagues and friends who have shown themselves to be courageous enough to speak out against the anti-Islam hysteria that tends to surround conversations about the Islamic center that is being planned for a property that for many is uncomfortably close to Ground Zero. They have shown themselves to be paragons of religious tolerance, and for this I commend them.

But in the general category of “Is this good for the Jews?,” we might want to examine the words of the man who is the imam of the Masjid al-Farah — Feisal Abdul Rauf. Luckily we have no shortage of those words. A brief perusing of his book “What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America” (HarperOne, 2005) might prove both instructive and sobering.

What does Rauf believe about Israel? Rauf states that the creation of Israel was an unfortunate byproduct of the nation-state idea. Jews, he said, lived completely peacefully in the Muslim world for centuries.

"They looked, spoke and ate — even sang — like the rest of the people around them," he wrote, adding that the creation of Israel began a most unfortunate schism between Jews and Muslims, who had previously experienced "a deeply intimate kinship with each other" (page 169).

Rauf would have us imagine that life in the Middle East was Woodstock until the creation of the nasty State of Israel, which comes to ruin everyone’s good time. We might rightly wonder aloud whether the historic dhimmi status of the Jew in Muslim cultures actually implies the deep intimacy that Rauf imagines. And a subtle but telling point: Is the nation-state as a concept to be condemned (an arguable point), or only if that nation-state happens to be Jewish?

In his imagined history of the Middle East, Rauf continues to say that because of the Israeli-Arab conflict, Sephardic Jews became "unfortunately victimized" in many Muslim societies. He goes on to say that the worst thing about this is that it deprived those societies of their rich, deep pluralism.

Rauf lists notable dates in Islamic history — among them 1924, when the Ottoman Caliphate ended; 1947, when India was split into Pakistan and India; and 1948, when Israel was "created as a homogenous Jewish nation-state within the geographical envelope of the Muslim world" (page 243).

I realize that we Jews carry our own historic losses with our souls; the wound of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem is still memory-resident. But Rauf is mourning the loss of the power of the Caliphate and simply repeating the Palestinian narrative, and saying that the Muslim world is a restricted neighborhood into which a Jewish sovereign nation-state need not apply.

Rauf acknowledges that a number of conflicts exist today in the Muslim world, including Pakistan-India over Kashmir and Russia-Chechnya, "but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed in the Muslim world as being sustained by America" (page 161). He not only drastically understates the number of conflicts that exist today in the Muslim world (how about Darfur, the Balkans, etc.), but he clearly believes that America is at the root of the problem in the Middle East — and not, for example, the fact that the Arab leaders themselves cheated the Palestinians out of their land (see “Palestine Betrayed,” by Ephraim Karsh).

For the record: I believe that a Palestinian state is necessary — not out of any sentimental admiration of Palestinian nationalism, but because of a belief in Zionism, the idea that we might truly be “a free people in our land,” a people free to continue to craft our own national narrative, complete with our national values. Is there room for that narrative in Rauf’s worldview?

On Sept. 12, 2001, I heard the baristas at the Starbucks in Manhasset, N.Y., whispering about the cars that remained overnight in the railroad station parking lot — cars that would never be claimed because their drivers had disappeared. That moment will be with me forever. Since that moment I have worked at combating Islamophobia and criticizing those who are ready to brand all manifestations of Islam as a dangerous religion. I have urged Jews to reject the anti-intellectual temptation of essentializing Islam and writing off an entire religion as a terrorist operation. Maimonides, a victim of Muslim radicalism, had every reason to hate Islam and didn’t.

But if Rauf is the man who is the religious leader of the controversial mosque, then you might understand why Jews are permitted to worry. This says nothing about the rights of that institution to exist. It says nothing about privileging the feelings of the bereaved families of 9/11 over other American values of pluralism, which itself is debatable.

I am merely saying that we should not expect a “kumbaya-fest” with this gentleman. Of course, I would rejoice at the possibility that I will be wrong. I would rejoice in hearing, from his lips, an affirmation of the right of the Jewish state to exist, even in what he believes to be his Middle Eastern ‘hood.

And so I would hope that as the board of the Islamic center starts to prepare the guest list for the inevitable opening event that they might invite Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, to speak.

Now that would be a grand gesture that would help many Jews, and many Americans, sleep better at night.

(Jeffrey K. Salkin is the rabbi of Temple Israel in Columbus, Ga., and the president of Kol Echad: Making Judaism Matter. He is the editor of “A Dream Of Zion: American Jews Reflect On Why Israel Matters To Them.")

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