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Profile: the imam behind the Islamic centre near Ground Zero

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by Céline CURIOL

Latest update : 2010-08-28

Feisal Abdul Rauf is widely known as a moderate Islamic cleric, but also as someone who once accused the US of complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Now he's sparked a virulent debate over religious freedom in the US.


Feisal Abdul Rauf is the soft-spoken yet determined Muslim cleric who is the driving force behind plans to build a controversial Islamic centre two blocks away from the Ground Zero site in Lower Manhattan. Although the Egyptian-born imam is a leader in inter-faith dialogue, he has also sparked a virulent debate over religious freedom in the United States.

'Ground Zero mosque' raises questions of tolerance and grief

The proposed Islamic facility in lower Manhattan known as the “Ground Zero Mosque” is neither a mosque nor located at Ground Zero. Yet those semantic shortcomings have done little to cool what is now a raging debate across the United States about religious freedom and the place of Islam in American society. 
 
The man behind the New York project prefers to describe the new complex in lower Manhattan in far more benign terms. Rauf, who is widely known as a leading moderate cleric, chose the name “Project Park 51” – a reference to the building’s address – as a means to downplay the religious symbolism of the proposed facility. While the new complex will, in fact, have a mosque, Rauf contends that it will not be the main focus. Instead, “Project Park 51” will serve as an Islamic cultural centre with sports, childcare and library facilities among other amenities. Nonetheless, those subtleties have not made their way into the broader debate that is now becoming a critical issue in the upcoming mid-term elections in the United States.

A site near Ground Zero, luck or provocation?

New York’s real estate market is among the most competitive and complex of any region
The former Burlington Coat Factory building that will make way for an Islamic center in lower Manhattan.
in the United States. In one of the most densely populated cities in the country, purchasing large buildings for development can be both difficult and expensive.
 
It is worth noting that the real estate agency behind the deal, Soho Properties, is extremely well connected. The agency is managed by three Egyptians, one of whom is the nephew of former Egyptian Foreign Minister and current Arab League Secretary Generel Amr Moussa. Imam Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, first became acquainted with Soho Properties in 2006, one year after Khan had conceived the idea of building a large Islamic community centre in Manhattan.
 
Soho Properties purchased the building at 51 Park Place in July 2009 for just 4.8 million dollars. The property had been on the market for quite some time, and at one point was priced at 18 million dollars. The firm allegedly opted to not finance the purchase, paying for the entire transaction in cash. The building, once a Burlington coat factory, is now rundown and will require a considerable investment to transform the space into the modern facility that Rauf and his wife have envisioned. However, in addition to its proximity to Ground Zero, the construction financing is the other controversial aspect of this project that roils critics.
 
Rick Lazio campaign ad attacking "The Ground Zero Mosque." Source: Youtube user "nydailynews"
It will take an estimated 100 million dollars to build Project Park 51. So where will those funds come from? Critics fear that individuals and countries that sponsor terrorism and who are openly hostile to the United States will step up to fund the project. Although there is no evidence to support this claim and the project’s supporters have raised only a fraction of the necessary funds, that has not stopped Republican party critics such as New York gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio from demanding a full financial investigation.

Reconciliation above all  

Feisal Abdul Rauf was born in Egypt in 1948 and emigrated to the United States 12 years later. He thrived as a student in New York, graduating with a degree in physics from Columbia University. Beginning in 1985 he became actively involved in New York’s Islamic community through his work as an imam at Masjid al-Farah, a small mosque also located near the Ground Zero site in Lower Manhattan.
 
Rauf adheres to the Sufi branch of Islam, known for its tolerance and pacifism. He is widely considered to be a leading moderate who has often worked on behalf of the US government among others to facilitate improved dialogue between the Muslim world and the West. In New York, he has worked extensively with the city’s Christian and Jewish communities to foster improved inter-faith relations. As part of that effort, Rauf established the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) in 1997 to organize cross-cultural exchanges and support moderate Islamic youth programmes.
 
In spite of his efforts to promote Muslim assimilation and integration into American society, Rauf’s critics are unwavering in their condemnation of the Imam, describing him as “radical” and “militant.” Ironically, this type of “religious paranoia” is the very phenomenon that Rauf said he has been fighting against for years. It is this kind of hostility and misunderstanding of Islam, Rauf said in an interview with the New York Times, that demonstrates the need for the kind of facility he is proposing to building in lower Manhattan.  
 
The imam’s contradictions
 
Rauf is not new to this kind of virulent hostility. Recently, Feisal Abdul Rauf has come
TV programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart have attacked critics of the Islamic center. Source: Comedy Central
under intense criticism in the US media, particularly on the conservative Fox News cable channel, for remarks he made in a 2005 speech.  During a lecture to describe the broader context of the September 11 attacks on the United States, the imam claimed that Washington also bore some responsibility. He went so far as to say that “the United States is worse than al Qaeda,” provoking a strong reaction from family members of 9/11 victims. In that same speech, Rauf added "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."

For critics, those remarks raise the inevitable question over where Feisal Abdul Rauf’s loyalties ultimately lie: to his country or his religion? Columbia University sociologist contends that the best method to determine Rauf’s allegiances is to refer to the Imam’s own writings. In his book “What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right with America,” Rauf argues that contrary to popular opinion, the United States constitution is entirely compatible with Islamic ideals.
 
Other commentators, however, allege that Rauf’s positions are complicated and not easy to decipher. Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens recently argued in the online magazine “Slate” that Imam Rauf’s inconsistencies are worthy of considerable alarm. It is intellectually dishonest, Hitchens writes, that the imam can simultaneously accuse the United States of being partially responsible for the 9/11 attacks and fly around the world on behalf of the State Department to promote the virtues of American cultural integration.
 

 

Date created : 2010-08-26

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