Interfaith relations in the United States have come to a crossroads, particularly concerning American perceptions of Islam. While instances of blatant xenophobia and discrimination—characterized by a Floridian pastor’s averted plans to hold a Qur’an burning ceremony—are not the norm, the rhetoric surrounding Islam in the United States speaks to a serious problem. Rumors questioning the president’s true religion, propagated by conservative media personalities, are but the tip of the iceberg. While President Obama has been an important player in the interfaith dialogue—ignited as a result of the controversial construction of an Islamic center near the site of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks—another man has been at the center of this tug-of-war.
Imam Rauf Feisal, a self-declared builder of bridges, has been caught in the middle of the debate surrounding the possible construction of the center (which includes plans for a prayer space that will accommodate up to 2,000 people), known as Park 51 by supporters, or the Ground Zero Mosque by its opponents. The founder and CEO of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and imam of the Masjid Al-Farah Sufi mosque in New York City, Rauf Feisal has dedicated his career to promoting a healthy interfaith dialogue in the US, and ensuring the integration of Muslims in their communities. His advocacy of ecumenical progress has made him a sought after authority on Islam and its relations with other religions in the United States—particularly following the 9/11 attacks when the question of faith came to be confused in the country with radicalization, presenting a serious challenge to those hoping to fight Muslim stereotypes.
Yet despite Imam Rauf’s extensive experience in informing worldwide communities about Islam, he was unprepared for the tensions that would surround his upcoming project, the construction of Park 51 just blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood. The argument expounded by the opposition built on the visceral reaction many Americans associate to the attacks, unfortunately compounding Islam with the extremism that cost so many lives. Supporters, on the other hand, which include New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the less vocal President Obama, have argued that as a country founded on a principle of religious freedom, followers of any religion may construct a place of worship wherever they want.
A question of civil liberties remains in the foreground, as does the possibility that backing out of the project may further damage the US’s image amongst the Muslim community at home and abroad. Needless to say, the situation is of such sensitivity that extensive experience in interfaith dialogue will be crucial in determining how the polemical question of the center is answered. Fortunately, Rauf’s upbringing and intentions appear to have set him up to be a vital factor in the improvement of America’s relationship with Islam.
Imam Rauf immigrated to the United States when he was only 17 years old. Recalling the event that changed his life at a recent conference with the Council on Foreign Relations, Rauf said, “We sailed into New York harbor on a sunny and cold winter day in December 1965, three days before Christmas. I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time—that beacon of freedom rising and looming majestically in the harbor. I remember admiring her strength and her beauty and her colors in that morning, crisp sunlight. I had no idea what life would be like in America, but I looked forward to it.”
Until moving to the US, Imam Rauf had been brought up in Kuwait by religious Egyptian parents. However, he is not the first in his family to have acquired a position of leadership in the Muslim community, or a vaunted position in American interfaith dialogue. His father, who studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, was sent to the US to head a growing Muslim community in New York.
Amid the combination of growing up in a religious household while living in the comparatively secular culture that identified 1960’s America, Rauf experienced what he has described as a culture shock. Yet he has also recognized the religious foundations on which the American state was built, and saw in this fact an important commonality between his religious identity and his American values.
Despite his passion for interfaith dialogue, it would be some time before Rauf would come to see religion as his career. First he completed his undergraduate degree in physics at Columbia University, then went on to work in education and real estate. Having spent the majority of his adult life in the US, Rauf came to see himself as a Muslim American with no tension between his two identities.
“I’m a devout Muslim. I pray five times a day, sometimes more, if I can, and I observe the rituals required by my faith. And I’m also a proud American citizen. Let no one forget that. I vote in elections. I pay taxes. I pledge allegiance to the flag. And I’m a Giants fan…Both this country and the teachings of my faith have nourished me in fundamental, essential ways, have shaped me. Both have shaped up and made up my core identity as a human being.”
The impact that these two sources of influence have had on his life, alongside his familial tradition of working in ecumenical projects slowly brought him closer to working on connecting Muslims and the wider American society. Alongside his second wife, Daisy Khan, Imam Rauf has spoken out regularly against religious violence, and taken advisory roles with the FBI as well as a panel for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
Despite Rauf’s background in interfaith dialogue, there have been various accusations alleging to evidence of latent extremism in his work. One particular criticism has been brought on by his reluctance to label Hamas a terrorist group. In an interview with The New York Times, he defended his position by stating that terrorism is defined differently across the globe and that labeling a group as such would hamper his ability to build a dialogue with them. Nevertheless he attenuated his statement by adding that, “Targeting civilians is wrong. It is a sin in our religion,” and, “I am a supporter of the state of Israel.”
At a time when the US is dealing not only with problematic interfaith relations at home, but the compounded issue of “home grown terrorists” like Yemeni-American cleric Anwar Awlaki with links to every major terrorist attempt since and including 9/11, the US has had a difficult time welcoming, as it should, a moderate voice in Islam, and public disdain towards Rauf’s project is but one example.
The animosity towards Rauf, however, may be less a result of a lack of recognition on the part of the American public that he is a moderate Muslim, and more the result of his association to a very contentious debate surrounding the building of Park 51. However, the existence of any tension on the issue of building a place of worship indicates that the wounds created by the September 11 attacks did instill in the American psyche at least a latent misapprehension of Islam, to the point where moderates attempting to build bridges are publicly misconstrued as antagonistic.
Optimistic as Imam Rauf is, the criticism he faces and the animosity towards the development of his community center have not deterred his commitment to bettering relations between Islam and the US. Instead he affirms, “My life’s work has been focused on building bridges between religious groups and never has that been as important as it is now.”