A bridge builder between America and Islam

The imam of a N.Y.C. mosque offers an encouraging vision

America's future is bound up with the Muslim world. Is that as grim a prospect as it appears today? The imam of a New York City mosque (located 12 blocks from the World Trade Center) insists that it doesn't have to be so. With a foot - and an extensive history - in both worlds, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf offers an encouraging vision and an ambitious blueprint for getting past the stereotypes and paralyzing myths. This is an invigorating glimpse into the heart and mind of a wise Muslim seeking the higher ground, and a moving example of the impact of the American experience.

"What's Right With Islam" could easily be subtitled "And What's Right With America." An American Muslim who was born in Kuwait and has a degree from Columbia University, Rauf has a grasp of US history, values, and civil religion that would put many native-born citizens to shame.

With this illuminating analysis, he aims to demonstrate to East and West alike the congruence between American values and Islamic ideals. In fact, he describes the US as "substantively an 'Islamic' country, by which I mean a country whose systems remarkably embody the principles that Islamic law requires of a government."

A clear sign, he says, is the way practicing Muslims from across the globe line up for visas to come to the US. Rauf himself came here as a teenager, after living in Egypt, Malaysia, and England.

An eloquent answer to the frequent call for moderate Muslims to speak out, his book reflects a deep love for his faith and American values, but it also issues a forceful call for America to live up to its values in the most serious test it has faced in a generation.

Through an elucidation of core Islamic teachings and a cogent review of US and Islamic histories, he argues that the current conflict is not really about religion, but, as in most conflicts, about power and economic assets. "Muslims around the world believe in the principles that undergird American governance and want it for themselves," Rauf says. But the problem is that "America has historically acted in a way that gives the strong impression that [it] seeks to deprive Muslims of their inalienable rights."

One example he gives is the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 and installment of the autocratic shah in its place, which set the stage for subsequent US-Iranian distrust.

His lucid book comes at an opportune time, as surveys show that the estrangement between Muslims and the West is greater than ever. American Muslims, he says, are in a position to help change that by articulating the congruence of values and helping educate both sides. But the imam warns that, when comparing faiths, it's important not to compare the ideals of one with the practice of another, but to compare ideals with ideals and practice with practice.

While emphasizing that immigrant Muslims are still grappling with the integration of their two identities, he sees them following a process like the one American Jews and Catholics passed through in earlier eras, which eventually had a global impact on the nature of those faiths.

In Rauf's view, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam share the common roots of "Abrahamic ethics" in the two great commandments - loving God and loving one's neighbors - which he sees as underlying the values articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

In Islam, the second commandment takes practical form in the Koran's demand to pursue a just and good society. The Koranic injunction makes this as much a religious responsibility for Muslims as prayer to God, while to Americans, it's seen more as a secular task. This helps explain, he says, the different way Muslims see the separation of church and state.

Muslims believe that human society should be organized to acknowledge God as the supreme ruler, but Rauf shows how this has not kept pluralism from flourishing during significant periods of Muslim history. This can be seen as compatible with the view of the majority of Americans, who, according to polls, want to retain "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and to bring religion more into public life.

In fact, in seeking the good society, Rauf sees "the unfinished business" of America and of the Muslim world as two sides of the same coin. "The unfinished business of the United States is religious," he writes. "It is the question of how to express a religious impulse more fully while doing it within the guidelines set forth in the Constitution."

The unfinished business of the Muslim world is "how to introduce democratic capitalism, while doing it 'constitutionally,' that is, within the guidelines set forth in Muslim law."

Western societies have become prosperous over recent centuries, he says, because they changed two practices once considered sins in all three Abrahamic faiths: charging interest for moneylending (banking) and eliminating the obligation to fully repay debts (limited liability corporation).

Muslim societies have fallen behind economically because the Koran forbids interest as usury, which has precluded development of robust institutions of banking, capital markets, and stock exchanges. Significant progress in the economic realm may be a more crucial priority for the Muslim world to start with than full implementation of democracy, Rauf says.

Rauf's discussion of Abrahamic ethics may startle some readers accustomed to thinking in terms of Judeo-Christian ethics, but by spurring fresh thinking on the interplay of values, his book is just as beneficial for domestic as international purposes.

Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.

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