Even Feisal Abdul Rauf, America’s most famous imam since his plan for a so-called Ground Zero Mosque captured the dark imagination of the mediapolitical complex last summer, knows that his optimism sometimes gets the better of him.
Especially when he predicts the inevitable success of his campaign—one hesitates to say crusade—to bridge the yawning chasm between Islam and the West.
“I realize some people think that I’m tilting at windmills,” Rauf tells me in the midst of explicating his rosy scenario of how the breach between the two competing cultures, which frequently has resulted in horrific violence, will ultimately be repaired much like solving a thorny problem in physics or engineering.
But then reality intrudes: Earlier this week, the supposedly sophisticated Aspen Institute think tank and Atlantic magazine, hosting a lunch at which Rauf was the featured speaker during the Aspen Ideas Festival, served slices of roast pork.
Rauf laughs a pained laugh when I ask if he managed to avoid the forbidden pig meat.
“Yes I did,” he says, adding that his friend and lunch partner Bill Schulz, a Unitarian minister and former director of Amnesty International USA, was stunned at this dietary outrage.
Was somebody trying to send him a message?
“It was one of two messages,” the imam good-naturedly replies. “The other one was having me rush immediately from the lunch to do another event when I would rather have stayed and bonded with the people at the lunch. I felt I couldn’t do full justice to that group.”
The 63-year-old Rauf hardly fits the caricature of the “Ground Zero Imam.” A soft-spoken charmer who chats with a mild Mediterranean accent and sports a neatly trimmed silver beard, he is nothing if not gregarious. Savoring a fat cigar on the back patio of his guest suite at Aspen Meadows resort, he fields calls from friends on his cell phone in English and Arabic and greets a besneakered lady walking by with two dachshunds on the lush lawn in front of him.
“Are these yours—or are you hired to do this?” he asks her with a grin, and he listens intently, as though learning the secret of life, as she explains that the unleashed pooch is hers and the leashed one belongs to a friend.
“I remember coming here in 2003 and meeting the former head of the CIA, Jim Woolsey, who told me this Muslim problem is going to take 100 years to fix,” Rauf says. “And I said it can be fixed in 10 years. I remember when Jack Kennedy said we will land a man on the moon by the end of the decade and people said, what is he smoking? People laughed at him. But he knew that we could do it. It just required the resources of this country, the focus of thousands of scientists in Houston and Florida, to reach this particular objective. And we did it.”
Crossing the cultural, religious and political divide between Islamic societies and Western democracies “will require the same man-on-the-moon level of focus and effort,” says Rauf, who fell short of finishing his doctorate in plasma physics before following in his Egyptian father’s footsteps and becoming a Sufi Muslim cleric.
As a measure of his relentless confidence, the imam says he is trying to get Hollywood interested in making three different feature films with feel-good plot lines involving Muslims who’ve had a positive impact on humanity. One movie treatment that Rauf is trying to sell concerns Abdol Hossein Sardari, an Iranian diplomat in Nazi-occupied Paris who saved hundreds of Jews from the death camps by giving them Iranian passports.
Rauf, who lives with his wife and fellow activist Daisy Khan in the New Jersey suburbs and a pied-a-terre on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, founded the Cordoba Initiative seven years ago to create cultural and religious understanding. He travels constantly to spread his message of peace and reconciliation. He was out of the country and caught by surprise, spreading good will in the Middle East on behalf of the State Department, when the mosque controversy exploded last summer.
“Personally, it was extremely painful to be portrayed as the opposite of what you are, when you’re branded as an extremist, as a terrorist, especially when you try to stand up for the principles of high-mindedness and harmony between the faith traditions,” he says. “It was a travesty. This was also a deliberate attempt to use our project as a wedge issue for the midterm elections. Very clearly, right-wing Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin and Peter King [the Long Island congressman who has repeatedly questioned the patriotism of Muslim Americans] and the Tea Party, and that man who was fighting against Andrew Cuomo [GOP gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino] were trying to exploit it.”
At one point, at the height of the media circus, “one of our PR advisers said, ‘The only thing that’s missing is for Donald Trump to jump in.’ And a week or two later, Trump jumped in”—issuing a press release offering to buy the proposed site of Park 51, Rauf’s ecumenical Islamic community center, a kind of Muslim YMCA, a few blocks from where Al Qaeda’s hijacked jetliners toppled the World Trade Center. “Because of all the media attention, it attracted a lot of people who jump on the media bandwagon.”
Before the hullabaloo subsided, the redneck pastor of a tiny Florida church achieved world notoriety by announcing plans to burn the Holy Koran unless Rauf agreed to move the center—causing near-panic at the State Department and the Pentagon, where officials worried about attacks on U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of the fear of riots in various Arab-Muslim countries that are nominal U.S. allies. Rauf reserves special indignation for Fox News and the New York tabloids for stoking the mosque madness.
“What pained me most of all was not only the attack against me, but all the political propaganda masquerading as journalism,” Rauf says. “You know exactly what I’m talking about—Fox News and the tabloids. It was basically a creation of Fox News and the tabloid newspapers that had a particular political agenda that was Islamophobic and anti-Democratic Party… They do it because it increases viewership even though they know in their heart of hearts it is the wrong thing to do. But they are impelled to do it because of whatever—their material objectives, whether it’s money, whether it’s ratings, or even political power.”
The sad irony was that Rauf’s good intentions ended up aggravating relations between the United States and the Muslim world. At this point, the prospects for Park 51 don’t look good. The imam has made little progress in raising the nearly $100 million needed to build the community center—and potential donors have been scared off. What’s more, Rauf and the developers have yet even to sort out a legal and organizational framework for the project.
“In retrospect, one of things we could have done better was to reach out more to the 9/11 community and get them to stand by our side,” says Rauf, who plans to participate in several ecumenical services commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “After the crisis erupted, we did speak to many of them in several meetings and they urged me to go and speak to the American people.”
Which, of course, is what he’s doing.