September 9th, 2010
11:21 AM ET

My Take: Imam Rauf is Not a Moderate

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

I have never met the man behind the Islamic community center near ground zero, so my first chance to take the measure of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf came last night when he was interviewed by Soledad O’Brien on “Larry King Live.”

A few weeks ago, the imam’s wife, Daisy Khan, told me during a conference call that moving the center was “off the table for now.” Last night Imam Feisal initially indicated that he would not be moved either.

His main reason for pressing ahead with the “Muslim Y,” as he called it, was “national security”—a possible explosion of anger in the Muslim world. “I am extremely concerned about sensitivity,” he explained. “But I also have a responsibility. If we move from that location, the story will be that the radicals have taken over the discourse. The headlines in the Muslim world will be that Islam is under attack.”

When pressed, however, Imam Rauf said that “nothing is off the table.” He also said that if he had known then what he knows now about how divisive this project would become he would have acted differently.  “If I knew this . . . would cause this kind of pain, I wouldn’t have done it” he said, adding, “My life has been devoted to peacemaking.”

In terms of news, the bottom line is that Imam Feisal seems to be searching for a compromise that will turn down the temperature of the controversy while not giving the upper hand to bigots at home and radicals in the Muslim world.

But the interview wasn’t really about whether this project would go forward at the Park51 site. It was about taking the measure of the man.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” By that measure Imam Rauf, in my view, acquitted himself well.

Supporters and opponents of the project will of course parse his words differently, but any reasonable person can see that he came across as a man both of peace and of principle.

Repeatedly he referred to his Jewish and Christian neighbors, insisting that the clash of civilizations is not between Muslims and non-Muslims but “between moderates on all sides of all the faith traditions and the radicals on all sides.”

And though he invoked peace on more than a dozen occasions, he rightly recognized that there are wrongs that must be addressed forcefully—that lasting peace is never gained by capitulating to prejudice or injustice.

The most revealing moment in this revealing interview came during a discussion about whether the neighborhood in question is sacred ground. This topic has of course been well covered: it is sacred because the ashes of the dead that drifted over its streets have and never will be recovered; yet it is not so sacred because there are strip clubs and sex shops there.

As O’Brien pressed him to admit the sacredness of the site, Imam Rauf spoke up forcefully, more forcefully than he did in the rest of the interview. And this time he spoke not of peace but of justice. And while he addressed O'Brien personally, he also challenged his viewers:

We've got to be fair. You can't say a place that has strip joints is sacred ground. We've got to be just. We've got to speak the truth. We've got to have justice for everybody. We're a country of justice for all, not justice for non-Muslims only or some groups and not for others. This is what America's all about, Soledad.

If you are looking for the face of moderate Islam, this is it. And if you cannot see moderate Islam in his face, you are not looking.

That said, I would not describe Imam Feisal as a moderate.

In Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, Muslims are divided into three camps: a large group of moderates and much smaller groups of fundamentalists and progressives. Moderates and progressives distinguish themselves from fundamentalists by favoring the separation of mosque and state, and by enthusiastically affirming democracy. Progressives distinguish themselves from moderates by speaking out more forcefully for religious pluralism and by drawing more generously on the thinking of intellectuals from Europe and the United States.

On this score, at least, Imam Feisal is a progressive. Repeatedly he spoke of building bridges across religious divides, and he closed the interview not by quoting the Quran or invoking Shariah but by invoking the Sermon on the Mount: “Jesus Christ said blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

And if you are hoping for something better–a representative of Islam who agrees with Franklin Graham about Muhammad or with Newt Gingrich about the Quran–well, it is the real world we are inhabiting. And in the real world, this is about as good as it gets.

If Americans cannot make peace with this man, we cannot make peace with Islam.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 'Ground zero mosque' • Church and state • Interfaith issues • Islam • Leaders • Mosque • Muslim • New York • Opinion

soundoff (62 Responses)
  1. Kim

    Iman Rauf has a speech that CNN covered at the Relations of Foreign Affairs upon which his introduction began with...." I'm very distressed....great tragedy and danger....? Ya know what ? Just not trusting of his intentions or connections and could care less if the State Department is or not. Don't appreciate his language of which is sparking emotional fear ! Here is what will happen if we move the location ? Is it a bird ? Nooooo ! Is it a plane ? Yeah and no radical Islamic terrorist is in it. Ellmer's for Congress in NC just did a great job with Anderson Cooper on this topic. Draw a picture of what an American Islamic phobian looks like and then a xenophobian. What is that a cartoon ? Manhattan Transfers,"Operator, Information"....find a new location. HS Today by Anthony L. Kimery.is an ineresting read . Has Iman Rauf ever done business with the CAIR group who are said to have ties to terrorist organizations ? Who is Gamel and these other gentlemen he's in business with ? We are not getting those questions answered with the national media and think Fox News is on top of Imam Rauf's connections with question and objectivity somewhat more than CNN. Trust but verify and American citizens have a right to know the truth and Imam Rauf is on the American tax payer's dime. Take Donald Trump's offer and find a less controversial location that does not identify with 911. Thislocation is not building peaceful bridges and that's Imam Rauf's objection. We have national security and a strong military and don't need Imam Rauf's opinion on the danger that could happen if the Mosque is moved or Park 51. Again,sense veiled threats or trying to spark fear and there just ani't no chickens roosting in America.

    September 26, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
  2. JPop

    To all who think this is a isolated incident, that this isn't Islams method of gaining foothold in an area they would see as a symbolic victory, you just need to look at what is still happening in London where they are battling the "Mega Mosque". They have been going through the very same ordeal there, and they too have discovered that funding has been accepted from terrorist organizations, a group that has "a key influence on terrorists targeting Britain" and "a common link to a string of attacks and conspiracies"

    September 21, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  3. Paul

    Does Rauf renounce Shariah? Shariah is the Islamic law governing politics, religion, law and relationships. Shariah is absolutely incompatible with Democracy and the values Americans cherish. Under Shariah there is no such thing as a free vote... Allah rules through a divinely appointed Caliphate. Because of shariah, Islam is absolutely incompatible with freedom and democracy.

    September 15, 2010 at 11:52 pm |
    • JPop

      To Paul on if Rauf denounces Sharia Law: Absolutely not, and as a matter-of-fact, his goal is to incorporate Sharia Law. He states “Throughout my discussions with contemporary Muslim theologians, it is clear an Islamic state can be established in more than just a single form or mold. It can be established through a kingdom or a democracy. The important issue is to establish the general fundamentals of sharia that are required to govern.”

      September 21, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
  4. Wha???

    Are we watching the same slippery, slime of a liar here? I really expected something more in this article. Simply more media spew.

    September 15, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
  5. InsertPictureofMohammadHere

    Islam is our friend.

    September 11, 2010 at 10:26 am |
  6. Iqbal khan


    September 10, 2010 at 11:07 pm |
  7. Cantonian

    I think the media should have not given so much importance to terry jones.
    It does not matter if he burns Quran. Because, preservatoin of Quran never depended on paper or any media.
    It depended on learning by heart.
    The prophet (may peace be upon him) was the first person to have learned it by heart.
    Since, his time there have been millions of Muslims in every generation of Muslims, who learned the Quran by heart.
    Even in the US, there are thousands of Muslms who know the Quran by heart. Milloins of Muslm know it by heart through out the world, word for word.
    Many Muslims families raise their kids & they know Quran by heart.
    Muslms recite the whole Quran from their memory in late night prayer in the month of ramadan. And they have been doing it every years since the prophet's time.
    Changez Khan burned millions of books including the Qurans, slaughtered millions of Muslims, and his progeny later became Muslims. it did not affect the preservation of the Quran. The original manuscript is ther in the museum in turkey, and the it is exactly the same what we see today.
    And, it did not make any difference to islam. It looks like the more people do bad things or say bad things about Islam, the more it spreads.
    Books & Quran have been burnt by non Muslims in all ages, during spanish inquisition, but it did not make any difference.
    People know in their heart, you cannot blame 1.7 billion Muslim for the crime done by few criminals on 911.
    Also, it is not the religion that can be blamed, because thing like 911 never happened in the history of Islam. And, I think those who slander muslims & islam know about that, and do it out of hate & bigotry or ignorance.
    We know numericallay & historically non muslms have slaughtered more muslims civilians.
    simply include alll events, like Bosnia, Kashmir, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, spanish inquistion, crusaders killing of Muslims in jerusalem.
    Do you know entire number of combatants from both sides killed during the porphet's 23 years are less than 400.
    Compare it with other evetns like world war1, world war 11, or any other.
    Islam means submiession of your desires (lusts, greed, jealousy, anger, hate.....) to the creator of heavens & the earth, inner peace & patience that result.

    September 10, 2010 at 8:28 pm |
  8. loupgarous

    The later suras of the Qur'an demand that Muslims oppress and kill Christians and Jews. Unless Imam Rauf and the vast majority of Muslims eschew these scriptures and all they command, then you're right – we can't make peace with Islam. It's their call. I say we strike while we have most of the world's nuclear weapons and they do not.

    September 10, 2010 at 6:31 pm |
    • Cantonian

      Quran cannot be used or quoted by anone, even muslims, without knowing prophet's experience, refrerence to the context.
      It is because the Quran is set of revelations related to the events or need of time or situations.
      Without prophet personal experience, you cannot determine the meaning.
      As an example, the Quran does not tell you how ot pray.
      Prophet explained with his example, and companions followed, and Muslims learned it through authentic traditions.
      If you look at prophet' 23 years, it was always the response by the Muslims to threat or attack, Muslims never intiated it in the 23 years.
      The Quran always command to accept peace if the enemy is ready to have peace with you.
      First thing the prophet did when he came to Madina was to enter into a peace agreement with the jews of Madina, and it was first ever contract documented in the history of mankind.
      You know very learned non muslms from all walks life accept Islam because they find out after doiong their research, that all what the non muslms have been accusing was not true.
      And they find that it is a book, though revealed over the 23 years, but still does not have a single error or contradiction and fully comply with prsent day knowledge & Science.

      September 10, 2010 at 8:58 pm |
  9. Carlton

    Jesus said I did not come to bring peace but a sword which means a clear distinction by His Word of those who are believers and followers of Him and those who are not. We are not the same. They serve a false god and some of us serve the only true and living GOD!!! Stop trying to make my GOD a mixture of gods!!! He is GOD all by Himself. Many people can't exept this, but this is clear in the BIBLE!!!

    September 10, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
    • Kate


      Therein lies the problem – Trinity theology is a mix of Gods.

      All it does is turn Jesus Christ into a glorified outsourced message service for God – look at your own words, "believers and followers of him" – you're talking about followers of Jesus, where is God in that?

      And if you reply with anything that says that Jesus is a facet or aspect or anything else of God, then you can't turn around and argue against mixing God(s) – and the theory that Allah, or Yahweh, are other names for the same God, because you've already by <definition argued that God can have multiple aspects – why just the three names for them from Trinity theology?

      Just sayin'

      September 10, 2010 at 4:12 pm |
    • JPop

      Kate...the Trinity IS God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost...three in One. Not separate, but the same. Christ was not an outsourced messager from God, but was God incarnate. Yahweh is also God, but to describe that more from your reference as the "Jewish God", that too is the same God in the Trinity. Could be referred to as the "God of the Old Testament" but in reality He is the God of both.

      Allah in Islamic religion is different than that under Christian faith and Christians usually shy away from referencing God as Allah to avoid confusion.

      So in essence, there is a thread of similarity between these three major faiths with Christianity seeing Christ as the "Truth, Way, and the Life and nobody comes to the Father except by Me", and Islam where Muhammed is the key prophet and Jesus is simply a lower prophet, and the Jewish faith where they feel the Messiah has not yet come to earth.

      Just as an aside, other spin-off's (Latter Day Saints and various others) do not fall under true Christianity as they have altered the original texts to fit their own desires.

      September 21, 2010 at 1:46 pm |

    An addendum:

    The entire pact does not continue in "secular" states like Egypt, but the prohibition on construction, rebuilding and repair of churches does. And that is the point here where Iman Rauf warns us about enraging Middle Eastern Muslims by even discussing the subject of the new mosque.

    September 10, 2010 at 1:56 pm |

    Imam Rauf displays Muslim hypocrisy on steroids. Sharia law has prohibited non-Muslims from building any new houses of worship since The Pact (Covenant) of Umar which implemented Sharia law. The Pact (c. 717 A.D.) was supposedly made (there is some dispute among historians on the exact date and circumstance of its beginnings) between the Umayyad caliph Umar II and "people of the book" (Christians and Jews) in the lands conquered by Muslim jihad. Through the codes of the Pact, Sharia Law enjoins Middle Eastern Christians from even REBUILDING churches destroyed by Muslims. In "moderate" Egypt, the Christian Copts of Minufiya dared not REPAIR their church’s toilet until years of waiting for their petition for repair to be signed by President Mubarak! [Source: Judith Miller, God Has Ninety-Nine Names, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996, p. 53]

    In Egypt (1354) the Sultan al-Malik al-Salih reiterated the Pact of Umar in a "Noble Rescript" with copies sent to the provincial governors and read to the people. It said:

    "A Noble Rescript [of the Pact] to the effect that all the Jewish, Christian, and Samaritan communities in the land of Egypt, the divinely protected territories of Islam, and their provinces, are to conform to the authority of the Pact of the Commander of the Faithful Umar b. al-Khattab—may Allah be pleased with him—which he accorded to their forebears. Namely, they are not to build in the Islamic lands any new monasteries, churches, or hermitages, neither are they to rebuild any such buildings which have fallen into ruin....They may not teach their children the Koran. They may not make any public show of polytheism. They may not resemble the Muslims in their dress. They must wear blue and yellow distinguishing costumes. Their women are likewise forbidden from resembling Muslim women. They may not ride on saddles. They are not to wear swords. They are not to ride horses or mules, but only on donkeys, seated sidesaddle on litters. They are not to sell wines..."

    Furthermore, they are required to wear their special dress wherever they are. They shall bind the zunnar which many not be of silk around their waists. Christian women who appear in public are to wear a linen izar dyed blue, and Jewish women a yellow izar. None of them is to enter a public bath unless he is wearing a sign around his neck which distinguishes him from a Muslim, such as a ring of iron, lead, or the like. They are not to build homes higher than Muslim homes. They many not even be the same height, but only lower. They may only beat the clapper softly and are not ro raise their voices in their churches. They many not be employed in the service of our noble state—may Allah make its foundations firm. They may not serve in the employ of any of its amirs—may Exalted Allah strengthen them. None of them may occupy any position which would give him authority over a single Muslim..." -al-Qalqahandi, Subh al-A'sha, vol. 13 (Cairo, 1293/1918), pp. 378-379, quoted by Norman Stillman, "The Jews of Arab Lands, A History and Source Book," Jewish Publication Society of America, 1975, p. 274

    The Pact continues in full force to this day in the entire Middle East. In Egypt, in December of 2003, Christians obtained official permission to demolish the Brethren Church of Assiout to build a new church in its place. When the demolition was completed the building permits were suddenly and unexpectedly revoked. The Christians were prohibited from rebuilding their demolished church—in conformance with Sharia laws which have never been changed or directly challenged. [Source: Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide To Islam, p. 60] Recent plans of Coptic Christians to enlarge their church in the town of Bamha (15 miles south of Cairo) resulted in leaflets circulated among Muslim townspeople to "defend the religion of Muhammad" by burning down Christian properties in the town. Muslim attackers roamed the town with hatchets and gasoline filled canisters to attack Christians and burn down their buildings. The attacks were inspired by Islamic immams and launched after prayers on May 11, 2007. An Egyptian expert on Coptic affairs called such violence a "recurring problem" whenever Copts try to rebuild or repair their churches. [Source: Noha El Hennawy, Plan For Church Sparks Attack In Egyptian Village, Los Angeles Times newspaper, May 12, 2007, p. A-4] The rest of the Muslim Middle East makes Egypt’s behavior benign by comparison.

    Muslims have built a hundred mosques in New York alone. Yet Rauf warns that Middle Eastern Muslims will be outraged if Americans talk about the location of the new mosque being built adjacent to ground zero? If Rauf truly wants to "build bridges" then he needs to preach to his fellow Muslims about tolerance. They need such high minded preaching more than America does. I would never be so unreasonable to expect him to discuss the concept of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Obviously that is not a Muslim principle of basic conduct and morality.

    September 10, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
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