June 2004, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the American Sufi Muslim Association and the leader of a mosque 12 blocks away from the World Trade Center site, was the reluctant veteran of countless media appearances.
The author of several books on Islam and Sharia, he had pursued the scholastic life of a man dedicated to interfaith understanding.
But all that changed on September 11, 2001.
Driven into the spotlight by the attacks on America, his adopted country, he struggled to pursue his quiet agenda of interfaith reconciliation in the teeth of almost daily frustrations created by the horrors of a world that seemed to be escalating out of control.
This June day in 2004 was to be no different. Arriving at the CNN studio for an interview with Paula Zahn to discuss his latest book – What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America – he instead found himself confronted with the news that Nick Berg, an American civilian in Iraq, had been kidnapped and beheaded.
Imam Feisal, as he later said, felt physically sick as he was shown a photograph of Berg kneeling before his captors. “The first question I was asked was, ‘Why would they do that?’, he recalled. “It was emotionally gut-wrenching.”
Six years on, with the softly spoken Imam Feisal now at the centre of the controversy surrounding plans to build Park51, a community centre near Ground Zero, little has changed.
A leading Sufi thinker and scholar, Imam Feisal, now 62, was born in Kuwait to an Egyptian father. He was educated in England and Malaysia before he moved to the United States as a teenager and became an American citizen. He has a science degree from Columbia University in New York and a master’s in plasma physics. His father, a man he describes as his “greatest teacher”, was an imam.
His wife, Daisy Khan, an interior designer, was born in Kashmir and also emigrated to the US as a teenager.
In 1997, the couple founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which aims to bring Muslims and non-Muslims together through various programmes in academia, policy, current affairs and other spheres.
The couple’s experience as Muslims is uniquely American and middle-class. They are well integrated and represent a moderate, tolerant and adaptable strain of Islam, and Imam Feisal’s message resonates with North American Muslims struggling to figure out how to integrate their values in a secular society.
In 1983, Imam Feisal became the imam of Al Farah Mosque in New York City, a post he held until 2009. It was the mosque’s proximity to Ground Zero that threw the media spotlight on him after September 11.
The events of that day “pulled me out of the warm mahogany pulpit at my mosque 12 blocks north of Ground Zero,” he said. Suddenly he found himself inundated by requests from TV and radio to “explain the Islamic viewpoint”.
Committed to improving relations between religious communities, he was propelled onto a speaking circuit of synagogues, churches, seminaries and interfaith groups, “seeking ways to help others understand and recognise the higher ground that unites our faith traditions”.
In 2004, Imam Feisal founded the Cordoba Initiative, an organisation set up to encourage interfaith dialogue and which is behind what has become the controversial plan to open an Islamic community centre two blocks north of Ground Zero.
That year he wrote that since 9/11 one question had been thrown at him repeatedly: “How do we heal the relationship between the Muslim world and the West?” It was, he said, “the critical question of our time”.
He wrote movingly of the pressures felt not just by him, but by all American Muslims: “Islam, a religion I love and that comprises my essential identity as a human being, has become broadly perceived in the US as a security threat, while America, a land whose values I cherish, has aroused broad antagonism and anguish in much of the Muslim world.
“Today American Muslims bear the pain of witnessing this growing divide, and my fellow Americans have challenged me to offer some urgently needed fresh ideas on how to bridge this yawning chasm.”
Park51 was one such idea, but its meaning and purpose have been misrepresented from the start.
Originally, the project was to be called Cordoba House, in reference to the Spanish city which in medieval times was under Muslim rule. Cordoba was an enlightened city where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived and worked in relative freedom, but the name was dropped after American conservatives said the reference to Muslim rule smacked of Islamic supremacy over western civilisation.
The plan for Park51, a US$100 million (Dh367 million), three-building complex located at 45-51 Park Place in Lower Manhattan, envisages a community centre, open to all faiths, which would include a 500-seat auditorium, restaurant and cooking school, library, pool, gym and basketball court.
There would be a place of prayer – not strictly a mosque, as critics have misleadingly suggested – and a September 11 memorial space.
Although Imam Feisal has been criticised for not condemning the events of 9/11 vociferously enough (on 9/11 he said: “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened. But the United States’ policies were an accessory to the crime that happened”), he has consistently denounced violent, radical Islam.
He has also declined to say whether he agrees that Hamas is a terrorist organisation, in line with US policy. “I’m not a politician,” he has argued. “I am a peace builder. I will not allow anyone to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy.”
At an emotional public meeting in May this year, Imam Feisal said the centre would “bridge the great divide” between Muslims and the rest of America and appealed to America’s higher principles of fairness and tolerance. “We are Americans, we are Muslim Americans. Many of us were born in the United States,” he said. “We have no higher aspirations than to bring up our children in peace and harmony in this country.”
Until May 5, 2010, he had succeeded in winning the respect of mainstream America but, as ever, events intervened. That very week the Times Square bomber was arrested and opinion swung against the project.
The far Right and some families of 9/11 victims have said the centre should not be built because it is an insult to the memory of the worst attack on American soil and would be a victory for Islamic extremists. While Imam Feisal has made no public comment since the controversy flared, Daisy Khan has said that some members of her husband’s congregation were among those who died. Nevertheless, she recently conceded that they could have done a better job of reaching out to the families of 9/11 victims first to gauge their support. “I guess in hindsight, if we had known this would be such an issue, we would have started with them.”
One of the project’s most vitriolic opponents has been Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House; among its supporters are the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloom-berg, and high-profile Jewish and Christian leaders.
Considering the controversy is one of the most divisive public issues of recent times, Imam Feisal has kept a remarkably low profile, which has not helped his case. He has also not said where funding for the $100 million centre will come from.
Now the imam has once again found himself and his message derailed by events – this time, as mid-term elections loom, by the vicious game of US politics.
Earlier this month, President Obama at first endorsed the centre. “As a citizen, and as president,” he said, “I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”
But 24 hours later he appeared to backtrack. “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” Mr Obama said. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”
There is not, and never has been, any plan to build “a mosque at Ground Zero”.
Though he has remained silent, there is little doubt that the controversy will be causing Imam Feisal great distress. In 2004 he wrote: “Both America and the Muslim world have nourished me in important ways, yet I’m pained by what they have done to each other.”
August 20. 2010, The national