Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, which is planning the controversial Muslim community center and mosque near ground zero in New York. He sat down to discuss the controversy with members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), including Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels, on Monday, Sept. 13. CFR president Richard Haass posed questions.
Exploring all options
Richard Haass: You have said that, “If I knew this controversy would happen, if I had known it would have caused this kind of pain, I would not have done it.” Given that, why don’t you undo your planned project, or at least do it differently from now on?
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf: We are exploring all options as we speak right now. We are working through what will be a solution, God willing, that will defuse this crisis and not create any of the unforeseen or untoward circumstances that we do not want to see happen.
The real battle
Haass: If you were to go ahead with the center, and given the larger mission of interfaith dialogue and bridges between faiths that you’ve dedicated so many years to, what sorts of things can you do to heal the rifts that have come about?
Rauf: Let me speak about the larger context. The charge that has been thrown to me since 9/11 is how to improve Muslim-West relations. All of my work since then has been based on doing that.
For many years people have asked, “Where are the moderate Muslims? Where are they? Where are they?” But we moderates couldn’t get any attention. Now that we’ve gotten attention, I’m accused of being immoderate!
In any crisis there is an opportunity. The challenge we have together is how to deploy ourselves in a way that will capitalize on these opportunities within the window of time we have so we can leverage the voice of the moderates – not only to address the causes that have fueled extremism, but enable the moderates to wage a war against the extremists.
Ninety-nine-plus percent of Muslims all over the world, I assure you, absolutely, totally find extremism abhorrent. Let there be no mistake, Islam categorically rejects the killing of innocent people. Terrorists violate the sanctity of human life and corrupt the meaning of our faith. In no way do they represent our religion. And we must not let them define us. Radical extremists would have us believe in a worldwide battle between Muslims and nonMuslims. That idea is false. The real battlefront today is not between Muslims and nonMuslims, but moderates of all faith traditions against the extremists of all faith traditions.
What has been so heartwarming to me (during the crisis over the community center) has been the tidal wave of people all across America who have inundated us with offers of help.
Haass: Sometimes in order to achieve the larger goals one has to deal with the immediate challenges. Is compromise one of the tools you are prepared to deploy to defuse this crisis?
Rauf: Everything is on the table. We are really focused on solving the crisis in a way that creates the best possible outcome for all.
Haass: You said that the battlefield today is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between moderates of all the faith traditions and extremists of all faith traditions. Doesn’t this skirt over a real issue? You have said that 99-plus percent of all Muslims are not terrorists. Yet, 99 percent of the world’s most dangerous terrorists are Muslims. Why is that? What is wrong?
Rauf: There are a number of reasons for this, some political, some socio-economic, and some as a result of perceptions shaped by the media. Together they have created a witches’ brew.
What we are trying to do at the Cordoba Initiative is to look at the underlying causes, unpack them, and create strategic projects that help to address these core issues.
The political dimensions are the most important, including the Arab-Israeli conflict that has gone on so long, as well as the presence of our American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that has expanded the amount of terrorist acts, of which, by the way, Muslims are the biggest victims.
Then there are the religious issues. How do we get around the issue of separation of church and state? In the history of the last century, we’ve had secular regimes pushing religious forces away from the boardroom, so to speak.
These are among the issues that have fueled this crisis.
The sense of alienation among Muslim minorities, more in Europe than the United States, is another issue. We Muslims have to help each other just as, during Communism, American Jews supported Soviet Jewry and their plight, creating a sense of a common bond.
To address these issues we need to understand the physics of what is going on to find solutions. At this point we understand the science. What we need now is to engineer the solution.
Haass: What about solutions? What is it that moderate Muslims who believe in tolerance can do so that radicals do not continue to have the upper hand?
Rauf: A very important issue we have to address, as I mentioned, is the issue of separation of politics and religion. But also, because we are in a globalized world today, what happens in the West has an impact on what happens in the Muslim world. Remember the Danish cartoon crisis. Here was a purely media-created crisis that resulted in a flare-up. Whenever a crisis occurs, there are always forces that emerge which have an agenda. If the train is moving, they jump on it because it helps them reach their destination.
In the case of the Danish cartoon crisis, it was taken advantage of by certain people to push their agendas. So we have to understand the political, social, and religious forces behind extremism and manage it.
Hijacking the agenda
Haass: There will always be people with agendas. If the Florida pastor had gone ahead with his terrible threat to burn the Koran, there would have been people who exploited that. Where are the voices pushing back? What can be done to strengthen the voices who say, “What has been said or done is awful, but it is not a license for committing acts of violence against innocent people”?
Rauf: We have to be proactive and strategic instead of reactive. In order to win the game, you just can’t have players on the field, but strategies formulated together, and deploy them. What is absent right now is strategic planning about how to push back.
Look, the threat of radical extremists throughout the Muslim world is not only a threat to Western governments. It is as much a threat to Muslim governments and societies. The people of Pakistan are sick and tired of suicide bombers. The same in Iraq.
I remember going to Egypt after a terrorist attack against some tourists. People were mad and angry because tourism dried up and the economy turned down.
Muslims are miserable over terrorism, not happy. They want something better, but we don’t know how to give it to them.
Radical extremists have hijacked our discourse. What might happen if, whenever there was a suicide bombing, there was a news blackout. They love the fact that the media gives them this coverage.
I don’t know the solution. But what I do know is that we have a status quo in which the extremists can hijack the agenda. For all of our intelligence, we haven’t figured out how to tie them down.