Imam Feisal Rauf: Middle East turmoil reflects aspirations of the people

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

On Wednesday March 23, in front of a packed audience at Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, the student organization Jews and Muslims at Yale—commonly called JAM—joined Yale Divinity School in presenting a conversation about Islam, America, and tolerance.

Although Yale’s distinguished Jewish chaplain Rabbi James Ponet led the conversation, the man everyone had come to hear was Imam Feisal Rauf.  Rauf is known throughout the globe because of the controversy surrounding what the media labeled the ‘Ground Zero Mosque.’ Over 20 years ago Rauf had the dream to build Cordoba House, now called Park51, to be located two blocks from the World Trade Center at Ground Zero. Rauf’s intention was to model Park51 off the 92nd St. YMCA, which was originally built to bring together different Protestant sects, but the ‘Y’ also served the community and ended up enhancing relationships among Christians, Jews, and non-Jews.

As founder, CEO and executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, Rauf intends Park51 and other Cordoba Houses to be comparable to YMCAs located across the globe that function to serve the surrounding communities as “a platform around which interfaith coalitions can be built.” Contrary to the media’s portrayal of the situation, Cordoba Houses would not be mosques anymore than YMCAs are churches. Later in the lecture Rauf said that, although he is not certain the Park51 project will succeed, he still has every intention to continue the Cordoba Initiative.

After the ‘Ground Zero Controversy’ was addressed, Ponet engaged Rauf in a series of questions regarding Islam and Muslims in America. Rauf stressed that Islam teaches its followers to expect three things: the oneness of God, prayer and worship of God, and adherence to the golden rule. He described Islamic law as deriving from the same two commandments Jesus gave—love of God and love of neighbor—and, again echoing Jesus, “all of the Law and prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Within authentic Islamic Law, Rauf argued, there should be the freedom to practice religion without any coercion.  “God wants to be loved freely, and this freedom is what gives us our dignity,” he said. Moreover, Rauf claimed the concept of equality found in the American Constitution is derived from the Abrahamic faith traditions, and he emphasized the need to maintain the distinction between religion and the state.

Rehearsing these and other points made in his recent book What’s Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, Rauf declared that the core Islamic values of life, dignity, intellect, religion, and property overlap with core American values. He also stressed the need to create a Muslim-American identity, and he pointed out similarities between the struggles to create a Catholic-American identity—Catholics underwent intense persecution and accusations of being both un-American and unable to distinguish church and state because of the Vatican—with that current plight of Muslim-Americans. To renew the global Muslim identity, Raul stressed, the historical tradition and heritage of Muslims protecting other religious groups must be reclaimed.

In relation to current events, Raul applauded the recent political eruptions in the Middle East as bespeaking “the peoples’ desire for a democracy” and their dream to create an alternative form of government, free from authoritarian regimes. “We are created for a purpose, and part of a purpose is to dream and create,” Raul said, “And we achieve oneness when we are co-creators with God.”

Rauf also insisted that the United States is a country that allows its people to dream and create better than anywhere in the world. But regarding the recent hearings held by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security on the alleged radicalization of the Muslim American community, Raul asserted, “The hearings were packaged in a way to make Muslims look bad . . . The real way to combat terrorism is to work at a genuine understanding of Muslims.”

“The future for Islam in America is positive,” Rauf concluded at the conversation’s end. Just as American Jews and Catholics have created a positive interface between the United States and Jews and Catholics worldwide, Rauf expressed confidence that “American Muslims have an important role to play as interlocutors between America and the rest of the Muslim world.”

Posted: 04/04/2011