Will the real Imam Rauf please stand up?

Supporters and detractors are debating whether Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf is a dedicated interfaith activist, a stealth apologist for Islamist terrorism or something else. ()

Supporters and detractors are debating whether Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf is a dedicated interfaith activist, a stealth apologist for Islamist terrorism or something else. ()

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Who is Feisel Abdul Rauf?

Initially the controversy over building a $100-million Muslim community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero was about location, location, location. Increasingly, however, attention has turned to the 61-year-old Sufi imam behind the project.

Depending on who you ask, Rauf — currently in the Middle East as part of a U.S.-funded outreach program to the Muslim world — is a dedicated interfaith activist, a stealth apologist for Islamist terrorism, or something else.

Those looking to defend Rauf in Jewish circles have a new card to play: It turns out that the imam delivered a moving speech at the 2003 memorial service held in a Manhattan synagogue for Daniel Pearl, the journalist murdered by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan.

Invoking Pearl’s final words before his beheading, Rauf declared: “If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind and soul, ‘Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad — hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,’ not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one.”

The speech was cited last week by Jeffrey Goldberg on his influential Atlantic.com blog, and then mentioned on one of journalism’s biggest stages: Frank Rich’s lengthy Sunday column in the Week in Review section of The New York Times.

On his blog, Goldberg called Rauf “a moderate, forward-leaning Muslim,” and said the imam’s words showed courage because “any Muslim imam who stands before a Jewish congregation and says ‘I am a Jew’ is placing his life in danger.”

Rauf’s other supporters note that he is a frequent participant in interfaith dialogues, who  condemns terrorism and fanaticism.

His critics, however, paint a different picture, accusing Rauf of paying lip service to such sentiments, while either failing to offer strong criticism — by name — of foreign governments and organizations engaged in terrorism, or making common cause with anti-American Islamists.

The critics come armed with their own set of quotes: Shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the imam told “60 Minutes” that “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened; but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.” In a radio interview in June with WABC’s Aaron Klein, Rauf described himself as a “supporter of Israel,” but declined to label Hamas as a terrorist group, saying, “I do not want to be placed nor will I accept a position where I am the target of one side or another.” And, this week, his detractors are trumpeting a 2005 speech in Adelaide, Australia, in which he cited the impact of U.S.-led sanctions on Iraq and asserted that “we tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than Al Qaeda has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims.”

The stakes are high in the battle to define Rauf as an interfaith leader or terrorist sympathizer, as the controversy over the proposed Islamic center has quickly turned him into the most famous imam in America. How he is perceived by the wider public could play a key role not only in how Americans feel about the project — polls continue to show large majorities opposed – but also in influencing U.S. attitudes toward Islam in the years to come.

So far on his State Department-funded trip to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, Rauf reportedly has avoided answering questions about the controversial project, stressing instead his efforts to “Americanize” Islam and find a formula for Muslims to stay to true to their faith while assimilating into Western societies. The Bush administration sent him on a similar trip.

In an interview Sunday with ABC, Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, connected these efforts to the drive to build the Islamic center. She also said that her husband’s comment in 2001 about the United States being an “accessory” to the World Trade Center attacks was a reference to support that the United States provided to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in the 1980s. Regarding Hamas, the website of Rauf’s Cordoba Initiative states: "Hamas is both a political movement and a terrorist organization. When Hamas commits atrocious acts of terror, those actions should be condemned. Imam Feisal has forcefully and consistently condemned all forms of terrorism, including those committed by Hamas, as un-Islamic."

Khan appeared on “This Week With Christiane Amanpour” with Rabbi Joy Levitt, the executive director of the JCC in Manhattan. Both women said that Levitt and the JCC have been advising the effort to build the Islamic center. Levitt said that the JCC had invited Khan and her husband to speak at the JCC in September, and called on other Jewish and Christian community centers to do likewise “because clearly what this whole controversy has unleashed is a tremendous amount of misinformation, lack of knowledge about Islam that we need to address.”

Such appearances seem unlikely to sway at least one opponent of building an Islamic center so close to Ground Zero at this time — Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father and a computer science professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Pearl told JTA that while he was “touched” by Rauf’s appearance and speech at his son’s memorial, “many Muslim leaders offered their condolences at the time.” More to the point, Pearl said he is discouraged that the Muslim leadership has not followed through on what he hoped would come from his son’s death.

“At the time, I truly believed Danny’s murder would be a turning point in the reaction of the civilized world toward terrorism,” said Pearl, who engages in public conversations with Akbar Ahmed, an Islamic studies professor at American University, on behalf of the Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding. The established Muslim leadership in the United States, Pearl said, “has had nine years to build up trust by pro-actively resisting anti-American ideologies of victimhood, anger and entitlement.

Reactions to the mosque project indicate that they were not too successful in this endeavor."

He views the controversy to be a vote of no confidence in the organized Muslim leadership, not specifically against Rauf.

“If I were [New York] Mayor Bloomberg I would reassert their right to build the mosque, but I would expend the same energy trying to convince them to put it somewhere else,” he said. “Public reaction tells us that it is not the right time, and that it will create further animosity and division in this country.”

Israeli scholar Yossi Klein Halevi is another journalist throwing his hat in the imam’s bio ring.

He met Rauf in September 2001 at Drew University at a symposium for “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” Halevi’s chronicle of the year he spent learning about the three Abrahamic faiths.

Rauf was, Halevi told JTA, “one of the very few Muslim leaders who responded positively to my book and was willing to endorse it publicly even though it was written by an Israeli and from a Zionist perspective.”

Halevi called the stance “generous and kind,” and added “if he is not a dialogue partner for us then there is virtually no one with whom we can speak in the Muslim world.” 

That said, Halevi, too, is opposed to the Ground Zero mosque, saying it is “not an effective way of bringing Islam into the mainstream, and mainstreaming Islam in America is Rauf’s goal.”

A better idea, he said, would be an interfaith center that would include a church, a mosque and a synagogue as well as a common space for people of all faiths and none.

Like Pearl, Halevi believes focusing on the imam’s personality is misplaced.

“The question of building a mosque at Ground Zero is traumatic enough,” Halevi said. “We don’t need to create an artificial issue around the man behind it.”
 

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