The white flag hasn’t reached the top of the flagpole yet, but Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf all but surrendered on Monday morning in his battle to build a Muslim interfaith community center with a prayer room two blocks from Ground Zero. At an unusual meeting Monday morning at the Council on Foreign Relations in midtown Manhattan, Rauf said that he wanted to find a “solution” to the furious imbroglio over the planned center, which opponents say is inappropriate, insensitive to the memory of those who died in the 9/11 attacks, and likely to inflame tensions rather than build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims. Saying that his advisors were “looking at every option,” including a suggestion that the project be delayed until it could win greater support and become less divisive, the imam pledged to “do what’s best for all.”
“Everything is on the table,” he told the more than 300 members of the group, which rarely holds on-the-record meetings and normally focuses on foreign affairs and national security rather than domestic or urban issues. In fact, the imam this morning was acknowledging the obvious: the project has been on de facto hold for weeks because of the numerous obstacles it now faces—first and foremost, a lack of funding.
“In the words of Jerry Maguire: ‘Show me the money!’” said Fouad Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins, as he emerged from the hour-long question-and-answer session with the imam. Ajami, a Lebanese-born Shiite Muslim and staunch defender of the war in Iraq, predicted that supporters of the project would be unable to find sufficient funds to build the ambitious $100 million center, which is said to include a gymnasium with swimming pool, a prayer room, classrooms for cultural lectures, and space for interfaith dialogues. Saudi Arabia and other traditional financiers of such mosques and Islamic centers would not underwrite such a controversial project, Ajami said. And public pressure has forced Rauf to rule out raising funds from foreign governments or such militant sources as Iranian foundations or Palestinian Hamas.
The project still has no architect, nor are there blueprints for the 13-story building. Nevertheless, Imam Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, who also attended the packed session today, insisted that work would go forward and that canceling or moving the center, as New York governor David Paterson has wisely proposed, would exacerbate tensions among religious communities and prompt Muslims overseas to view America as anti-Islamic. He also repeated his suggestion, unwisely, that moving the mosque would endanger American national security, though he added that he had not meant this as a threat. “The world will be watching what we do here,” he said.
Rauf sounded alternately defensive and belligerent when, answering one of the few tough questions he got all morning, he scoffed at the notion of the World Trade Center site as “hallowed” ground. “It is absolutely disingenuous, what many have said, that that block is hallowed ground,” Rauf replied. “There are strip joints around the corners, and betting parlors. . . . I want a space where moderates can be heard,” he insisted, asserting that Muslim extremists had hijacked not only his religion but its discourse.
Rauf lashed out at journalists and Republican politicians who used their opposition to the center, he claimed, for political or financial gain. These opponents had deliberately spread “misinformation and harmful stereotypes” to advance themselves or their agenda. He also asserted that there was no inconsistency between his belief in the U.S. Constitution and sharia, or Islamic law. He said that sharia was intended to “uphold” life, the family, and the practice of religion, and called its differences with America’s secular laws “small and minor.” Above all, he said, sharia instructed Muslims in non-Muslim-ruled countries to “follow the laws of the land.” He did not address the barbaric corporal punishments that some countries have enacted in its name—such as the stoning to death of adulterers, amputations of the hands of thieves, and the killing of designated apostates.
Rauf conceded to moderator Richard Haass, the council’s president, that he might never have launched the center had he known what a firestorm it would ignite. But he contradicted Haass’s suggestion that Islam itself might need some reform. Should Muslims not address the fact that while not all Muslims were terrorists, Haass noted, a disproportionate number of the world’s terrorists were Muslim? Rauf seemed to bridle. There was nothing wrong with Islam, he insisted, only with those who distorted it.
Strangely, considering the venue, no one in the audience pressed the imam about earlier incendiary statements in which he appeared to blame the United States for having brought 9/11 upon itself through its unwise Middle East policies, or about his apparent refusal to denounce Hamas, which Washington has declared a terrorist organization. Over the weekend, Rauf tried to distance himself from those earlier remarks by explaining their context and by apologizing to Christiane Amanpour, now of ABC News, for what he called “not a very compassionate use of words.” Pressed by Amanpour to explain why he said soon after 9/11 that the United States had more innocent Muslim “blood on its hands” than al-Qaida did, Rauf explained that he had been referring to America’s support during the 1980s for the militant Islamists who, with American arms and aid, had helped eject Soviet troops from Afghanistan. But he now added, “I regret having said that.”
In his prepared remarks and in fielding questions from council members, Rauf portrayed himself as the quintessential American immigrant and devotee of that all-American sport, football. Saying that he had come to the United States when he was only 17, he still remembered seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time—that “beacon of freedom rising majestically in the harbor.” Insisting that he needed to build the center to show the world that American tolerance extended to Muslims, he said he was willing to do whatever was necessary to get the project (using a football metaphor) to a “first down”—even if that meant searching for a “Hail Mary pass.” A Hail Mary pass, said moderator Haass, might be a bridge or a metaphor too far.
Rauf’s remarks did not seem to change many minds this morning or allay the concerns of his critics. M. Zuhdi Jasser, a medical doctor and former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander who contends that the imam is no moderate and calls the project ill-conceived, said in an interview that constructing the most expensive Islamic structure in the country was an unwise use of resources. Rather than building such a costly structure so close to such a sensitive site, Jasser said, “America needs to be leading a war of ideas in which not only terrorism itself is condemned, but the ideas that underlie and feed such actions.”
Whether Rauf is politically tone-deaf or trying to play all sides of the issue to appeal to multiple constituencies, his many public statements have failed to inspire public confidence. He has long been known for advocating dialogue and closer ties between Muslims and people of different faiths, and he has admirably denounced violence and engaged in interfaith dialogue—going so far as to proclaim himself a Jew in spirit at the funeral of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded in Pakistan by Islamist terrorists. But the fight over the Islamic center at Ground Zero raises questions about whether Rauf’s project is likely at this stage to advance that noble goal.