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The Ground Zero Imam
Feisal Abdul Rauf says he’s a "peacemaker," but critics question his agenda for an Islamic center near Ground Zero
 
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf stepped into the public realm after 9/11.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf stepped into the public realm after 9/11.
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Where is Rauf from?
He was born in Kuwait, but became an American citizen three decades ago, at the age of 32. Rauf’s father was an Egyptian cleric educated at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the pre-eminent center of mainstream Sunni scholarship. The elder Rauf moved his family to Britain, where he studied at Cambridge, then to Malaysia, where he was rector of an Islamic university, before arriving in 1965 in New York. The family lived above a small mosque in Manhattan, and Feisal Abdul Rauf studied physics at Columbia University. There, he branched out from the conservative Islamic world in which he’d grown up; he had a wide circle of non-Muslim friends and developed a taste for cars and girls. Jewish friends remember Rauf striving to understand the Six Day War’s meaning for American Jews. “There was a genuine openness,” said a classmate, Alan Silberstein.

What kind of Muslim is he?
An unorthodox one. As a young man, Rauf shed his father’s conservative faith and embraced Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam that seeks a direct experience of God through spiritual practices and acts of love and charity. In 1983, Rauf left his job selling industrial filters to lead a small Sufi mosque in downtown Manhattan, just 12 blocks from the World Trade Center. Women at the mosque are not required to cover their heads, indicative of a liberal approach to Islamic customs, and as an imam, Rauf made a point of reaching out to Christians and Jews. He stresses the common foundations of the three “Abrahamic” faiths, and says America is extremely compatible with Islamic law, because citizens rule themselves through democracy and the Constitution protects the right to worship freely.

What’s his stance on Islamic extremism?
Rauf has made several statements that critics say show he’s no moderate. After 9/11, he said U.S. foreign policy was an “accessory to the crime.” In a 2005 speech in Australia, Rauf said “that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims,” citing the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis during U.S.-led sanctions of the country. He also once dodged a question about whether Hamas is a terrorist organization. In an interview last week, Rauf clarified that stance, saying, “I condemn everyone and anyone who commits acts of terrorism. And Hamas has committed acts of terrorism.” He’s also sought to clarify his statement about U.S. complicity in 9/11, saying that the U.S. made “a mistake” in supporting authoritarian Islamic regimes and in financing Osama bin Laden and the nascent Taliban in the 1980s, when they were fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. 

When did he become a public figure?
After 9/11. The Bush administration, seeking to prove that the U.S. was at war with al Qaida, not Islam, began to seek out moderate American Muslims. Rauf seized that opportunity. Soon, he was speaking at events alongside senior Bush aide Karen Hughes and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. An eloquent speaker, Rauf made himself available for goodwill trips, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, to speak in Muslim lands, and he also trained FBI agents in Muslim sensitivities. Government officials and Christian and Jewish clerics who know him well insist he’s sincerely committed to building bridges between Islam and the West. “To stereotype him as an extremist is just nuts,” said the Very Rev. James P. Morton, of the Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, who has known Rauf for decades. Indeed, many conservative Muslims here and abroad view Rauf as a pro-American “accommodationist,” and say he is not representative of their faith. “He’s not a political leader of Muslims, yet he now somehow represents the Muslim community,” says Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic studies at American University. “So this mild-mannered guy is in the eye of a storm for which he’s not suited at all.”

How did Rauf create his mosque plan?
Rauf had long dreamed of opening a Muslim community center in New York along the lines of the 92nd Street Y, a prominent Jewish cultural center that attracts a wide range of intellectuals and speakers. With his newfound prominence, Rauf last year began to set an ambitious plan in motion, a plan he now describes as a $100 million, 15-story Muslim community center, with a swimming pool, basketball court, cultural events, and separate spaces dedicated to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim prayer.
 
Where will Rauf get the $100 million?
Who knows? Though he pledges that financing will be “transparent,” he so far hasn’t raised a dime, either here or abroad. His two interfaith nonprofit organizations have no staff. He has no architect. In fact, all Rauf has is a run-down building that formerly housed a Burlington Coat Factory, two blocks north of Ground Zero. The building was purchased by 37-year-old Sharif El-Gamal, a developer who is a member of Rauf’s congregation. But El-Gamal is unknown in New York real estate circles, and has never handled a project of such magnitude. “I don’t think either one of them has the capacity or resources or anything else to pull this off,” says Rabbi Leonard Schoolman, a Rauf supporter who nevertheless calls the community center plan “amateur hour.”

The origins of a furor
On Dec. 8, 2009, The New York Times published a front-page story about Rauf’s plan for a Muslim community center near Ground Zero. That same month, Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, was interviewed about the plan by Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who told Khan: “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it.” But after the project was unanimously approved on May 5, everything changed. Why? Four days earlier, a dud car bomb had been discovered in Times Square, and American Muslim Faisal Shahzad was soon arrested for the crime. Pamela Geller, a blogger and leader of the group Stop Islamization of America, has been widely credited with igniting and organizing outrage against Rauf’s plan, which she has called the “911 monster mosque.” Rauf’s hidden agenda, Geller claims, is “Islamic domination and expansion.”

 

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