Feisal Rauf: Ground Zero's lightning rod
US State Department favourite he might be, but his plans to open a cultural centre for Muslims close to the site of the Twin Towers have seen him reviled
The Observer, Sunday 29 August 2010
For the first time in a long while, Feisal Rauf is avoiding the press. The imam behind the planned "Ground Zero mosque" is on a trip to the Gulf states, after the US State Department shelled out $16,000 to fund a bridge-building series of meetings between Rauf and various local figures. Normally, that is the sort of low-level diplomacy that would fly under the radar. Indeed, Rauf might have been expected to try to publicise the trip, which is his fourth to the region on behalf of a US government which uses him as an ambassador to the Islamic world. But not this time.
Rauf's first stop was a dinner in Bahrain at the US ambassador's residence at which he chatted with carefully selected guests. Reporters, who might usually have ignored such a banal event, were kept at arm's length. Attempts to talk to Rauf's dining companions were stymied. That is what happens when you become the centre of a political storm such as that which has engulfed the Ground Zero mosque project which, for the record, is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. Instead, it is a planned Islamic cultural centre â€“ with a restaurant and swimming pool as well as a place of worship â€“ a few blocks from the giant building site that once housed the Twin Towers. The planned centre, now known as Park51, after its street address, is a large project. But it is not the "super-mosque" its detractors claim.
Yet Rauf, as the driving force behind Park51, is one of the most divisive figures in the American political landscape. To critics, he is an anti-American supporter of terrorists who refuses to condemn Hamas and who believes America was responsible for its own tragedy on 9/11. Park51 is nothing less than a deliberate slap in the face of America and another indication of the creeping Islamisation of the US.
The vitriol is staggering. Rightwing blogger Pamela Geller has dubbed Rauf a "stealth radical" and the Republican party has piled in behind her. But it is not just the extremists. Jewish groups, influential Democrats and even the current Miss USA (a Muslim) have spoken out against Park51. It is a startling alliance against a self-styled moderate, who has led countless inter-faith meetings and is so trusted by the US government that he counsels the FBI.
But these are the signs of the times. After all, one in five Americans believes their president is a Muslim. It is a nation dominated by media that feed on rage. It is a place where a handful of rightwing bloggers can drag the debate over Park51 so far from reality that a man such as Rauf is seen as a threat to national security. To nearly everyone now engaged in the argument over Park51, the truth seems irrelevant. That is a huge misfortune for a man who, like millions of other immigrants, has actually so fully embraced America.
Feisal Abdul Rauf was born in Kuwait in 1948. His father, a respected Egyptian cleric called Muhammad Abdul Rauf, had been part of a wave of Islamic scholars sent out by the Egyptian government to posts around the world. That led to a wandering childhood as Rauf's father took up positions in Britain, Malaysia and the Gulf. His accent still retains clipped tones from the time he spent in Cambridge with his father. But it also led to a certain sense of rootlessness that only ended when the Raufs went to the US. It was 1965 and Rauf was 17. "I did not know if I was Egyptian, Malay or English," he has said. He soon found he was, in fact, destined to be American.
Landing in New York, the family moved into a small apartment above Rauf senior's mosque on West 72nd Street, tending to a small congregation of immigrant Muslims and black American converts. He studied physics at university before taking on postgraduate work in New Jersey. Though the Rauf family was a conservative one (Rauf's mother was not allowed to drive), Rauf was a typical student, with a wide circle of friends and a fondness for cars and girls. He had Jewish friends who, during the Six Day war, remember Rauf striving to understand the conflict's meaning for American Jews.
"There was a genuine openness," a classmate, Alan Silberstein, told the New York Times. Rauf has always welcomed others. He still talks of the profound influence of his childhood in Malaysia.
That disparate nation has many ethnic groupings and practises a gentle form of Islam. But it was America that Rauf truly embraced. In all his speeches, Rauf, like any other American, says "we" and "our country". He became a citizen in 1980. In his writings on Islam, Rauf has emphasised common links between Judaism, Christianity and Islam (which, he says, share Abrahamic ideals). He sees their quarrels as a family dispute.
Yet it was not always certain that Rauf was destined to be an imam. He first taught remedial English in a school in Harlem; then he was a salesman, though he was always on a spiritual journey. He travelled and met Islamic scholars and eventually became a Sufi, a form of Islam that emphasises the mystic.
A Sufi scholar in Turkey asked him to create a Sufi mosque in New York and in 1983 Rauf left the working world to found the Masjid al-Farah in Manhattan. From the start, it was a moderate place, friendly to women and attracting a diverse crowd. Among that crowd was interior designer Daisy Khan, who had been born in Kashmir, but, like Rauf, arrived in America as an immigrant teenager.
Khan had been searching for a moderate form of Islam and found it at al-Farah. She also found her future husband. The pair married in 1997. But Rauf and Khan became far more than just a couple. They became a working team, especially after 9/11. Suddenly, all America was trying to understand Islam. Journalists and politicians were desperate for a moderate voice to explain it. Rauf and Khan filled that void. Rauf had set up the American Society for Muslim Advancement in 1997. Khan, who, in her 25 year interior design career had worked for various Fortune 500 companies, spoke in favour of women's rights.
Suddenly, the Raufs were big news. They went on TV and advised politicians. They became the face of moderate American Islam. When a memorial service was held for murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Rauf declared: "I am a Jew." When the scandal of Abu Ghraib broke, Rauf was among those asked to appear in an apology advert that was broadcast on Arabic television. The Raufs were an industry of moderate Islam: writing books, giving speeches, travelling to the World Economic Forum.
The Raufs were the epitome of those most American of traditions: the salesman and the motivational speaker. But these are now dangerous waters to swim in if you're a Muslim. It matters little what are the Raufs' intentions. What matters is the views others project onto them. Park51 was originally called Cordoba House, after Rauf's inter-faith Cordoba Initiative. The name Cordoba is a nod to the Moorish emirate known its for religious tolerance. But rightwingers believe it is a reference to the Muslim conquest of Spain (some radical Islamists also take it that way).
The same goes for any number of Rauf's statements. When he says American foreign policy has angered many Muslims, he is stating a belief shared by liberals and voiced by some conservatives, such as Glenn Beck. But critics say Rauf thinks America deserved to be attacked on 9/11. When he speaks of wanting to see Islam spread in America, it is seen as a sign of Islamisation. But any religious person wants to see their faith grow.
In this atmosphere, the Raufs cannot win. Yet far from being a radical plot, planning Park51 was a rather amateurish exercise. Rauf had no media campaign, no PR. To critics, that just shows how secretive the Raufs are. Yet all the evidence seems to suggest two moderates, happy to brand themselves as such, who wandered naively into a hornets' nest. "I don't really think they knew what would happen. Which is worrying in itself but not in the way most people worry about it," said one New York religious notable who supports Park51.
No wonder Rauf's minders in the State Department were keeping him under wraps. In one of the few moments in Bahrain when he did directly address the Park51 issue, Rauf kept things simple. He read out a statement that included this plea: "With God's help, inshallah, we shall pass through this stormy season." Delivered in Rauf's cool voice tinged with a British accent, it sounded heartfelt. But calming this particular storm might be beyond even the powers of the Almighty (whichever one you believe in).
THE RAUF FILE
Born Feisal Abdul Rauf, in Kuwait in 1948. His father was Muhammad Abdul Rauf, an Egyptian scholar, and his mother was an Egyptian called Buthnaya. His wife is Daisy Khan, a Kashmir-born interior designer.
Best of times In 2003 at a memorial for murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Rauf took a courageous stand by saying: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one."
Worst of times Now. The furore over Park51 has seen Rauf become one of the most vilified people in America, destroying years of careful image-building.
What he says "My colleagues and I are the antiterrorists. We are the people who want to embolden the vast majority of Muslims who hate terrorism to stand up to the radical rhetoric. Our purpose is to interweave America's Muslim population into the mainstream society."
What others say That depends. Right-wing blogger Pamela Geller says: "While imam Feisal speaks of tolerance, he praises the worst extremists and inciters to genocide."
Meanwhile, Atlantic Monthly journalist Jeffrey Goldberg says: "He represents what bin Laden fears most: a Muslim who believes that it is possible to remain true to the values of Islam and, at the same time, to be a loyal citizen of a western, non-Muslim country."