As the fierce debate continues over plans to build a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan near the site of terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, one of the project’s central figures, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is on a mission from the United States government to promote religious tolerance in the Arab world.
As P.J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, explained at a briefing last week:
Imam Feisal will be traveling to Qatar, Bahrain and the U.A.E. on a U.S. government-sponsored trip to the Middle East. He will discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance….
His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it’s like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States. And our discussions with him about taking this trip preceded the current debate in New York over the center.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Crowley said that the two-week speaking tour will begin on Thursday in Bahrain. He added that Imam Feisal had visited the same countries on behalf of the State Department in 2007, during two trips he made in support of the Bush administration’s outreach to the Muslim world.
Now, more than a year after President Obama’s address to the Muslim world in Cairo signaled an effort to broaden that outreach, the plan to build a center with a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center attacks has provoked a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment.
Asked about how the vociferous protests against Park 51, the planned center, might complicate Imam Feisal’s mission, Mr. Crowley said:
We are trying to break down stereotypes of the United States through this kind of program…. And the fact that we’re in essence having a debate in this country, actually, we hope can demonstrate to audiences overseas that this is how we engage an issue, have a robust debate. We have people on all sides of the issue and we resolve it peacefully and we resolve it based on the appropriate laws and authorities within our country….
There have been some strident views expressed on this particular project, but we would certainly hope that it is the kind of vigorous debate that we would like to see anywhere around the world, as opposed to the alternative… [that] we have seen this in various parts of the world, where people who promote tolerance and diversity are intimidated, jailed, killed….
His trip is not about his center. The fact there’s a debate about his proposal should not detract — it can be an example of how we handle these kinds of issues.
As Charles Hoskinson of Politico reported, two opponents of the project, Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, and Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, “issued a joint statement calling the trip ‘unacceptable’ and saying Rauf is ‘a terrible choice to be one of the faces of our country overseas’ because of past statements he has made about Sept. 11 that the two lawmakers interpreted as blaming the United States for the attacks.”
The letter from the two Republicans cited remarks Imam Feisal made in an interview with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes on Sept. 30, 2001, in which he said that there was frustration in the Muslim world “against the policies of the U.S. government, politically, where we espouse principles of democracy and human rights and where we ally ourselves with oppressive regimes in many of these countries.”
When Mr. Bradley asked, “Are you in any way suggesting that we in the United States deserved what happened?” Imam Feisal noted that Al Qaeda’s leader started his militant career in Afghanistan fighting alongside Islamist militants supported by the U.S. government in their jihad against the Soviet Union:
I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened…. Because we have been an accessory to a lot of — of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, it — in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the U.S.A.
As John Stewart pointed out this week, conservative commentators like Glenn Beck have made similar arguments about American foreign policy.
In a Times Op-Ed on Tuesday, William Dalrymple reminded readers that the Imam belongs to a sect of Islam whose members have been the subject of repeated and bloody attacks by militants:
Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative is one of America’s leading thinkers of Sufism, the mystical form of Islam, which in terms of goals and outlook couldn’t be farther from the violent Wahhabism of the jihadists. His videos and sermons preach love, the remembrance of God (or “zikr”) and reconciliation. His slightly New Agey rhetoric makes him sound, for better or worse, like a Muslim Deepak Chopra. But in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate; they no doubt regard him as a legitimate target for assassination.
In a post on a Washington Post blog last month, which called the center “an attempt to prevent the next 9/11,” Imam Feisel wrote:
We are not the extremists. We are that vast majority of Muslims who stand up against extremism and provide a voice in response to the radical rhetoric. Our mission is to interweave America’s Muslim population into mainstream society. We are a Muslim-American force for promoting the universal values of justice and peaceful coexistence in which all good people believe.
What has grieved me most over the past few months is the blatantly false reporting that has led some victims’ families to think that this project is somehow designed by Muslims to gloat over the attacks on 9/11. That could not be farther from the truth.
My heart goes out to all the victims of 9/11. But I urge you to include in your sympathies the family of Mohammad Salman Hamdani. Born in Pakistan, his parents brought him to New York as a small child. He wanted nothing more than to be an American, and he was. A high school football player in Queens, he graduated from Queens College. When he could not get into an American medical school, he became a part-time ambulance driver. He disappeared on 9/11 and his body was found months later in the wreckage of the North Tower. This 23-year Muslim died saving his fellow New Yorkers.
Amid concerns about the Islamic center, some American Muslims are worried about a quirk of this year’s calendar, which means that the traditional Islamic feast to mark the end of Ramadan will fall on or around Sept. 11.
On Wednesday, Riazat Butt and Chris McGreal of The Guardian reported:
Islamic groups in the US fear an overlap between the end of Ramadan and the anniversary of 9/11 will lead to criticisms that Muslims are celebrating the 2001 terrorist attacks. Islam follows a lunar calendar, so Ramadan begins approximately 10 days earlier every year. This year, Eid al-Fitr — the festival that marks the end of fasting — falls on or around September 11….
The Islamic Circle of North America decided against holding its Muslim family day on September 11 out of respect for victims and families. Founder Tariq Amanullah worked in the World Trade Center and died in the attacks. An ICNA spokesman, Naeem Baig, said: “We took the decision not to have it on September 11 because it is not a day to celebrate. We will be mourning the deaths of all those who perished. We wish it to be as close to Eid as possible. But we don’t want it on 9/11. That would be insensitive, we had to think of that.”
August 18, 2010, The New york times