An Imam’s Dilemma


Can America’s democratic values accomplish what our military actions and diplomatic efforts have not yet been able to — namely, tame militant Islam?
That’s what Feisal Abdul Rauf, imam of the Al-Farah Mosque in Lower Manhattan, is counting on.

Considered by many to be a key voice of reason among Muslim leaders here, Abdul Rauf, 54, is confident that American principles and ideals will have a moderating influence on Islam, a religion whose very name instills fear in so many Americans.

He says he is working toward that positive end, seeking to blend traditional Islamic law with modernity much the way Modern Orthodoxy has espoused a balance between Torah and contemporary life within American Jewry.

The analogy is his, and the soft-spoken, dignified Abdul Rauf offered numerous parallels between the Jewish and Islamic faiths during a recent interview, displaying a deep understanding and nuanced appreciation of Jewish life.

For example, as an outspoken critic of the Wahabi form of fundamental Islam whose hatred of the West is embodied by and exported from the mosques of Saudi Arabia, he described the Wahabi takeover of Islam there “as if the Satmars struck oil and spoke for all of Judaism.”

Abdul Rauf is frustrated by the perception so many Americans have of Islam because he says his religion has a rich tradition, as practiced over centuries, of restraint, respect and the quest for a just society. He believes that tradition has been hijacked by militant radicals, culminating in the Sept. 11 attack that destroyed the World Trade Center only 12 blocks from his mosque.

His goal is to reclaim the model of a peaceful Islam, he said, and the vehicle for that transformation is the American experience, which he noted has had a profound impact on the major religions as practiced here.

It is true that values of humanism, tolerance and equality helped shape an American Judaism that aside from the strictly Orthodox has come to embrace egalitarianism and a quest for innovation. Similarly, American Catholicism had a major influence on the Church, leading to Vatican II four decades ago and its renaissance of renovation and reformation.

Recognizing that the Muslim immigrant experience is almost a century behind the Jewish immigrant encounter with America, Abdul Rauf wants to “accelerate and shape the sociological process of American Islam,” he said, “especially those aspects that are the key issues of the day,” like pluralism and tolerance.

“My thinking is driven by vital needs, and since Sept. 11, those are the issue of the relationship between Islam and the West, flashpoints between Muslims and other faiths, and problems within the Muslim world like living under authoritarian regimes,” he said.

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, fully subscribes to Abdul Rauf’s theory that America will have a tempering influence on Islam here, but he does not think the process can be accelerated.

“There is no reason to believe that Islam will withstand the power of America to stick tolerance to its citizens,” said Wieseltier. “But Americanization takes time. It cannot be avoided, but it cannot be jump-started.”

In an interfaith sermon at his mosque on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Abdul Rauf stressed the common search for peace among people of true faith, whatever their religion, and said he felt closer to the participating rabbi and minister than to militant Muslims. He called for more interfaith dialogue whose two major ground rules should be “compare equal to equal, and allow each to define himself to the other.” He also stressed the commonalties of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, seeing all who submit to one God as “brothers in faith.”

Voice For Democracy

Abdul Rauf is well positioned to advocate for understanding. Born in Kuwait, he was educated in Egypt, England, Malaysia and the United States, he is a graduate of Columbia University and speaks Arabic, English and Malay/Indonesian. A Sufi Muslim, a group known for its emphasis on spirituality, he is president of ASMA (American Sufi Muslim Association), an organization he founded in 1997 to increase understanding between the American public and American Muslims. He is on the board of trustees of the Interfaith Center of New York and lectures regularly at mosques, churches and synagogues.

Rabbi Michael Paley, executive director of synagogue and community affairs of UJA-Federation of New York, met Abdul Rauf at an interfaith breakfast shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and since then the two have had numerous meetings and conversations.

Rabbi Paley, a former academic with a wide knowledge of Islam, said he has come to trust Abdul Rauf and appreciates that “he is someone who listens, who has great respect for the Jewish community” and who is working toward creating for Muslims the kind of voluntary infrastructure of social service agencies that Jews have to take care of their own and others.

Most significant, Rabbi Paley points out that Islam is a religion of submission, where individualism is minimized, while America is a country where individualism is emphasized. In calling for and working toward more freedom of expression within Islam, Abdul Rauf is addressing “the exact pressure point of the conversation,” Rabbi Paley said.

“To espouse democracy in the Islamic world is the most courageous of all of Feisal’s positions,” the rabbi added.

Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli journalist and author, describes Abdul Rauf as “a man of enormous goodwill and one of the best dialogue partners we can hope for.” He noted that Abdul Rauf showed courage in appearing with him at a lecture at Drew University last year in connection with Klein Halevi’s most recent book, “At The Entrance To The Garden Of Eden,” a personal account of his “search for hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.”

“The fact that he appeared in public with me and praised my book, written from a religious Zionist perspective, took courage,” Klein Halevi said of Abdul Rauf.

In addition, Abdul Rauf is a welcome participant in Muslim-Jewish programs at the 92nd Street Y, according to Rabbi Phil Miller, director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life there.

“He may not be voting for Sharon, but he is, and should be, engaged in discussion with us,” Rabbi Miller said. “He is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Walking A Tightrope

Some in the Jewish community are not so sure.

Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee’s division on Middle East and International Terrorism, says Abdul Rauf has described as a moderate an ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, well known for a number of anti-American and anti-Israeli statements, including a 1998 fatwa, or religious ruling, condoning the use of suicide bombs against Israel.

Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the AJCommittee, classifies Abdul Rauf as “overall a moderate” but described as “disappointing” a statement he made on “60 Minutes,” soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he said that American policies “were an accessory to the crime that happened.” He added that the United States has been an “accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.”

Barsky also charged that Abdul Rauf “skirted” a question put to him by Eric J. Greenberg of The Jewish Week at a lecture last year about whether the imam believes there is a distinction between martyrdom and suicide bombing. Abdul Rauf replied by defining martyrdom as “basically a Purple Heart given by God,” though he went on to cite Islamic jurisprudence as “quite specific against taking one’s life.”

Abdul Rauf was taken aback by the charges, especially coming from the AJCommittee. He noted that he was invited to speak at the group’s national meetings in Washington by his friend and interfaith partner, Rabbi David Rosen, three months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Rabbi Rosen, who heads the AJCommittee’s international interreligious affairs department in Jerusalem, says Abdul Rauf is “an important voice of moderation.”

Abdul Rauf said he was misunderstood about referring to Sheik al-Qaradawi as a moderate, noting that he avoids labeling people. He said his comments about Osama bin Laden were born out by the facts, since the U.S. provided financial and military support for bin Laden’s fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

As for condemning suicide bombing, he noted that while the Jewish community wants Muslims to denounce such attacks “period,” moderate Muslims are prepared to speak out while also noting the context of the situation, namely “the Israeli occupation and the lack of human freedoms of the Palestinians.”

“It is politically incorrect in the Muslim world” to censure suicide bombings outright, he said.

Building Bridges

Even his supporters in the Jewish community acknowledge that Abdul Rauf may be less courageous than they would hope for when it comes to speaking out directly against his coreligionists, citing the delicate balance he seeks to maintain between support from his own community and the integrity of his views.

“Feisal condemns suicide bombers but he is careful to add a caveat about their desperation because he still needs credibility in the Muslim world,” Klein Halevi said. “That doesn’t mean he is insincere. We just have to know what to expect.”

Abdul Rauf emphasizes that his goal is “to be a bridge” between Jews and Muslims, and acknowledges that he has to be careful about what he says publicly to maintain respect in both communities. His goal, he notes, is to help create a just and understanding society for Jews and Muslims, and he often deflects questions about the nature and history of the Arab-Israeli conflict by emphasizing the need to move forward. To delve into who started the conflict is “endless” and fruitless, he maintains.

Another incident leading to conflicting conclusions: Abdul Rauf is on the board of trustees of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, a mosque on 96th Street and Third Avenue that his father, who was also devoted to interfaith work, helped build some five decades ago.

The most recent imam there was considered a friend of the Jewish community and was a frequent participant in interfaith discussions. But a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks, he distributed leaflets blaming Israeli intelligence for the destruction and soon returned to Cairo, where he spoke out even more militantly against Jews and Israel. The episode made Jewish leaders feel increasingly wary of relations with Muslim clerics these days.
But Abdul Rauf says the imam was fired for his “nasty remarks, which we deeply regret and for which we made apologies.” And he offers the incident as proof that what is needed here is American imams, not those sent from Egypt or other foreign cultures that “do not understand or appreciate” our Western society.

So is Abdul Rauf a worthy partner in dialogue?

For Klein Halevi, what is required is “someone ready to stand with Jews publicly in discussion and not apologize for terrorism,” and he feels Abdul Rauf eminently qualifies.

“We have to cherish someone like Feisal and understand his predicament,” Klein Halevi said, noting that the imam had been working on Jewish-Muslim reconciliation long before the Sept. 11 attacks, and continues to do so.
Klein Halevi says honesty is the key ingredient, asserting that too much of the existing (and minimal) Muslim-Jewish dialogue is less than authentic.
“An occupational hazard of Muslim-Jewish dialogue is to pit angry Muslims against apologetic Jews,” he said. “I expect Jews who enter into dialogue with Muslims to uphold the integrity of Israel’s position and to make clear to our Muslim partners that the anger and grievance go both ways.”

Barsky says Jews should maintain their standards, insisting on talking only to those who show mutual respect and who place equal value on the lives of all people.

As the debate continues, as it surely will, we should be mindful that we do ourselves and the Muslim community a disservice by expecting only one kind of partner for the dialogue we seek.

Khaled Abou El Fadl, the UCLA law professor described here last week, is outspoken in his condemnation of fundamentalist Islam, but his brave statements have made him the target of numerous death threats. On the other extreme are those Muslims who play a con game, espousing Islam as the religion of peace while praising suicide bombers as a legitimate weapon in the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

Somewhere in between is Abdul Rauf, who is eager, if not desperate, for dialogue, but not prepared to lose the support of his community. So he respects and works with the Jewish community while maintaining his status as a traditional Muslim.

At this stage, with so much fear and animus separating Jews and Muslims, such efforts should be encouraged and nurtured rather than examined under a microscope, particularly when we realize the asymmetry of the relationship. For while it is virtually risk-free for Jews to seek religious dialogue with Muslims, the consequences for the Muslims are ostracism or worse.
Talking to, if not agreeing with, an imam like Feisal Abdul Rauf can be a challenge. But the alternative is only more hopelessness, enmity and despair.