September 8th, 2010
06:00 AM ET
Editor's Note: Eboo Patel, Founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based organization building interfaith cooperation and is author of Acts of Faith. Follow him at @EbooPatel. CNN's Soledad O'Brien has an exclusive interview with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf on "Larry King Live" Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET. Submit questions for the imam via iReport here.
By Eboo Patel, Special to CNN
The first time I saw Imam Feisal - the man behind the proposed Islamic center in New York - speak was at a church.
He opened with the line, “My dear brothers and sisters.” His message was clear and simple: Islam is a faith of peace and pluralism, that above all Muslims believe in loving God and in loving our neighbor and that this is the most powerful common ground Muslims share with Christians and Jews.
He quoted from the Quran, the Constitution and the Bible.
The second time I saw Imam Feisal speak was at a Jewish conference.
He opened with the lines, “My dear brothers and sisters.” His message was clear and simple: Islam is a faith of peace and pluralism, that above all Muslims believe in loving God and loving our neighbor and that this is the most powerful common ground Muslims share with Christians and Jews.
He quoted from the Quran, the Constitution and the Hebrew scriptures.
The third time I saw Imam Feisal speak was at a Muslim conference. He opened with the same line, quoted the same sources, got the same response: love and respect.
I have seen Imam Feisal speak a dozen times, from largely Muslim audiences in London, to largely Christian audiences in upstate New York, from an audience of grassroots interfaith leaders in Louisville, to an audience of political heavyweights in Washington.
His message is always the same. His demeanor is always gentle. His audience always leaves enriched and inspired.
I have prayed with Imam Feisal, waking up at dawn to face Mecca and repeat, “In the name of God, the All-Merciful, the Ever-Merciful.”
I have envisioned the future of Islam with Imam Feisal, talking about the emergence of a distinctly American Islam, a faith community that is simultaneously true to its tradition and making significant contributions to its country.
“This is what happened to Catholics and Jews in America,” Imam Feisal would explain. “The change was good for those religions and it was good for this nation.”
He would talk about Jewish hospitals and Catholic universities as models, institutions that had been founded by faith communities but that served the common good of the country.
This is what Muslims have to do in America, too, he would say. We need to put the spirit of our faith - peace, pluralism, mercy, generosity, beauty - into the form of an American institution, one that serves people of all backgrounds.
Imam Feisal has spent much of his time with young Muslim professionals, counseling couples considering marriage, coaxing Muslims to learn more about their own faith and conveying the privileges and responsibilities of American citizenship.
He has lived all over the world and has a deeply personal sense of how special the United States is. Imam Feisal believes that God wants the human family in all its diversity to flourish, that America is the world’s best opportunity to realize this divine possibility and that Muslims have much to contribute to the American project.
Looking back, I can see glimpses of the vision of Cordoba House - Imam Feisal’s proposed Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan - in my conversations with him over the years.
Patterned after a Jewish community center, the Islamic center is meant to be the American institution into which Muslims could pour their energies and serve their country.
It has been shocking to watch that vision twisted, its founder smeared.
But Imam Feisal is not the first person in history this has happened to. Mahatma Gandhi was called seditious, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela branded dangerous communists.
Each of them, in the spirit of their respective religions, forgave their tormenters and achieved their dream.
I have no doubt that Imam Feisal will do the same.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eboo Patel.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.