A week after 9/11, Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam of a mosque close to the still-smoldering World Trade Center ruins, invited other religious leaders to his regular prayer service. He was trying to show that Islam is a welcoming faith, not an angry one.
"It was his attempt to show hospitality to New York," recalls Matthew Weiner, who is Jewish and was at the service that day. "That vision is kind of what led to Cordoba House – the idea of creating a space for Muslims that showed hospitality to others," says Mr. Weiner, who is the director of programs at the Interfaith Center of New York.
But Mr. Rauf's vision has not been received as warmly in all corners. The plans of the Cordoba Initiative, for an Islamic community center and mosque 2-1/2 blocks from ground zero, have attracted plenty of detractors. They've focused on a "60 Minutes" interview from late that fateful September in which Rauf said, "US policies were accessory to the crime that happened." He added, "In the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA."
That sound bite is being used by opponents of the proposed 11-story Muslim center to paint Rauf as a "radical," as anything but a friend of the United States.
So, who is Rauf – friend or foe?
Rauf, who's familiarly known as Imam Feisal, has been one of the most open and public American-Muslim religious leaders. He is the author of several books, including "What's Right With Islam." The Monitor, in a July 2004 review, described the book as demonstrating "the congruence between American values and Islamic ideals."
He is also the founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, one of whose goals is to bring together Muslims and non-Muslims through programs in academics, policy, current affairs, and culture. On its website, he writes about the duty of American Muslims to be "effective intermediaries" between America – "a land I dearly love" – and Islam – "a religion I deeply love and which is essential to my identity."
Rauf may identify with America, but he was born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents. Both his father and grandfather were imams. He was educated in England and Malaysia, as well as Egypt. At age 17, he arrived in the US and went on to receive a degree in physics from Columbia University in New York.
After some stints teaching and working for a real estate investment company, he explored Sufism, a Muslim tradition known for mysticism. In 1983, he started leading prayer services at his mosque near the World Trade Center, in the TriBeCa neighborhood. Since then, he has been sought after by a number of national and global organizations to lend a reasoned Islamic voice on various issues.
Three times in the past three years, the US State Department has sent Rauf abroad to explain how Islam is viewed in America. Through part of September, he is on one of those tours and was unavailable to be interviewed.
"His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well known, and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it's like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
The trip this summer has not sat well with those who were already upset about a new mosque near ground zero. After they found out he was traveling on taxpayer dollars, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida and Peter King (R) of New York issued a statement, saying, "This radical is a terrible choice to be one of the faces of our country overseas."
In an e-mail to the Monitor, Representative Ros-Lehtinen, top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added, "In the wake of protests against the Iranian regime after the fraudulent 2009 'elections,' Abdul Rauf even called on the President to say that the Administration 'respects many of the guiding principles of the 1979 revolution' that brought the dictatorship in Tehran to power."
The plans for an Islamic center have also offended Andy Sullivan, a construction worker who says he was at the World Trade Center site on 9/11. The location of the proposed project is "hallowed ground," he says, because the landing gear from one of the planes fell on that spot.
Mr. Sullivan has created what is called a "Hardhat Pledge," in which construction workers promise not to take part in building the mosque.
Though he has never met Rauf, he has followed the debate and says, "When I see this guy, I get a bad feeling."
Sullivan says he heard Rauf interviewed recently on a call-in radio show. He says Rauf was asked about Hamas, the organization that runs Gaza and that the State Department lists as a terrorist group. He recalls Rauf doing what he calls a "dance" to avoid calling Hamas members "terrorists."
Sullivan believes Rauf's approach was related to his need to raise $100 million for the Islamic center. "I think he knows if he does that [calls Hamas terrorists], the $100 million will disappear," says Sullivan.
Some who oppose the mosque have been planning a protest on Sept. 11. A rally against anti-Islamic bigotry is also being planned for that day, according to the Associated Press. Such developments have prompted some 9/11 groups to ask people to refrain from protests on the day of remembrance.
In a New York Times poll released this week, two-thirds of New Yorkers say the planned Islamic center should be relocated to a site farther away from ground zero.
As the man promoting the plans, Rauf is at the center of the controversy. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, has known the imam for six years. Rauf, he says, has "condemned terrorism over and over again."
Although he has not asked Rauf about Hamas, Mr. Waskow says the imam has condemned organizations when they are doing bad things. And, he says, Rauf has affirmed the existence of the state of Israel. "He may not agree with all of Israel's actions, but he does not condemn the state," says Waskow.
However, Ros-Lehtinen says in her statement, "while Abdul Rauf has claimed that he supports the State of Israel, in a 2005 speech, he supported a 'one-state solution' in which Israel would cease to be a Jewish state. These are not the words and actions of a moderate."
To some people who know Rauf personally and have listened to his sermons, the depictions of him as a radical are almost laughable. One of these people is Rosemary Hicks, who just completed her doctorate in religion at Columbia University.
Ms. Hicks first heard Rauf at Manhattan's Riverside Church, where he described how the American Judeo-Christian heritage is actually a trifold Abrahamic one that includes Muslims. As part of her dissertation's exploration of this theme, she spent hours at his Friday prayer services and did a long interview with both him and his wife.
She describes him as very "pro-business, pro-development." And, she says, he is "constantly, constantly" describing to Muslims how they can live as Americans and "emphasizing that there are more freedoms here than anywhere else."
As further proof that America is good for Muslims, she says, he frequently brings up the Declaration of Independence, which he says echoes the themes of "right living under God's guidance."