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September 17th, 2010
11:40 AM ET

Amid furor, 'ground zero mosque' imam leans on interfaith crisis management team

When Feisal Abdul Rauf learned earlier this month that a fundamentalist Florida pastor was flying to New York in hopes of meeting with him, the imam contacted Christian friends for advice on how to respond.

A handful of Christian leaders discouraged Rauf from meeting the Rev. Terry Jones - who’d threatened to burn Qurans unless Rauf moved his proposed Islamic center and mosque further from ground zero - and organized a phone call with Jones last weekend to urge him to cancel his Quran burning.

Jones had sent mixed messages about the event, first saying he had cancelled the burning but then announcing that he was rethinking whether to have the event.

“Jesus’ love and grace would have never resulted in such a hateful act,” said Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical leader who advised Rauf about the meeting and helped organize the call. “So the faith community unified and mobilized.”

After hearing from Wallis and other Christian leaders, Rauf declined the meeting with Jones, who never went through with his event.

With the controversy over the site and substance of his proposed Islamic center now spanning the globe, the imam is relying on an informal cabinet of faith-based advisors, many of them Christian and Jewish, for crisis management advice and moral support during the most difficult public crisis of his life.

In interviews with roughly a dozen of these advisers, no one claimed to know exactly how the imam planned to resolve the crisis and move forward with his plans for the Islamic center.

But some associates say the controversy has prompted Rauf to take his project in a more pronounced multi-faith direction.

“He’s open to advice and he’s talking to us about creating a true interfaith presence and I hear him forming that now,” said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of the religion department at the Chautauqua Institution, an interfaith study center in New York State.

Rauf declined interview requests for this story.

“Some of our talks are pastoral, since this is a very difficult time for Feisal and Daisy,” said Campbell, referring to Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan. “They are taking a lot of heat and so the question is how you help them when they’re under attack?”

Adds Rev. James Parks Morton, former dean of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine: “Most of the religious leaders in the city are very supportive of him and his vision.  But this has turned into a really very serious thing.”

Rauf’s powerful interfaith support group is a testament to the imam’s robust engagement in global interreligious dialogues over the last decade. The circle of leaders is providing a unified front of support for him and his project in the face of extraordinary public criticism.

But the informal advisory cabinet is populated mostly by proud religious liberals who strongly support Rauf’s Islamic center and who are indignant at much of the criticism aimed at the project, raising questions about the group’s ability to help move the project forward amid the public furor.

“Rauf’s position is coming purely from an interfaith position of ‘you love us, we love you,’ ” says Akbar Ahmed, an influential Islamic studies professor at American University. “He’s not putting the Islamic center in the context of American society and culture today. He’s disconnected from it and he’s not thinking through the consequences of his actions.”

Friends say that some of the imam’s interfaith work is inspired by his father, an Egyptian-educated imam who helped pioneer interfaith dialogue in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s and who helped secure land for Manhattan’s first full-scale mosque.

But Rauf’s friendships with religious leaders whom he’s relying on through the current crisis mostly grew out of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. After 9/11, many influential Christian and Jewish progressives began reaching out to their Muslim counterparts for the first time.

Those Christian and Jewish leaders wanted to better understand Islam and to help combat rising anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. Rauf, who hails from Islam’s mystical and moderate Sufi tradition, emerged as perhaps the nation’s chief explainer of Islam to non-Muslims.

Of course, most critics of Rauf’s proposed Islamic center - which polls indicate include the vast majority of the country - cite the project’s proximity to the site of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center as the basis of their opposition to the project.

But the attacks catapulted Rauf, who was previously focused on interfaith work in New York and on his small mosque in the city’s Tribeca neighborhood, onto national and global stages.

“The events of that day in 2001 pulled me out of the warm mahogany pulpit in my mosque twelve blocks north of ground zero in New York City,” he wrote in his 2004 book What’s Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West. “Inundated with requests to ‘explain the Islamic viewpoint,’ I hurried from one television and radio interview to the next, trying to explain in a few sound bites the depths of the issues.”

At a televised panel discussion on religious fundamentalism in New York shortly after 9/11, Rauf first met the evangelical Wallis, who heads a social justice group called Sojourners.

Rauf discussed Muslim extremism, while Wallis talked about Christian radicalism. Another speaker addressed Jewish fundamentalism, sending a message that Islamic extremism is hardly unique.

A few months later, Rauf was invited for the first time to the World Economic Forum, which had moved from its usual location in Davos, Switzerland to New York as a show of solidarity after the 9/11 attacks. There Rauf met another influential Christian progressive, Interfaith Alliance President Rev. Welton Gaddy, with whom he became friendly through subsequent trips to Davos.

While providing a high-profile support base amid the current firestorm, such friendships have also seemed to shield Rauf somewhat from the public outcry over his proposed center.

“Our conversation was friendly because it was between friends,” Gaddy said of his recent interview with Daisy Khan on his radio show, State of Belief. “I have been very clear with Daisy that if people are opposed to the project on the basis that it is Islamic that that is unconstitutional.”

The circle of like-minded friends and advisors may have also blinded Rauf early on to the project’s capacity for generating outrage. The Rev. James Forbes, Jr. senior minister emeritus of New York’s Riverside Church - one of the country’s most influential mainline Protestant congregations - said that he dined with Rauf on the Fourth of July and that the then-mounting criticism never came up in conversation.

“We just had a wonderful dinner together… discussing the excitement about what he was attempting to do, to build a place that followed our interfaith sensibilities,” Forbes said. “I don’t recall lamenting how awful the reaction was to the idea.”

Rauf has also formed close relationships with progressive Jewish leaders since 9/11, modeling his proposed Islamic center largely on the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and on New York’s 92nd Street Y, an influential Jewish cultural institution.

Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director of the JCC in Manhattan, declined interview requests. A spokeswoman for the 92nd Street Y, Beverly Greenfield, said that Rauf had no formal contact with the institution over his proposed Islamic center, called Park 51.

Some of Rauf’s Jewish allies have taken a behind-the-scenes role helping him through the Islamic center flap, worried that their full-throated support could anger Jews that have criticized Rauf over statements regarding Israel.

“Of all the Muslims I can think of, I can’t think of anyone who’s been more present in the Jewish community,” said a prominent New York rabbi who asked for anonymity out of concern that he’d alienate some supporters.

Some of Rauf’s friends said he appeared to be taking their advice to do a few long-format interviews, including one last week with CNN and an appearance this week at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an attempt to fully explain his vision and to avoid having sound bites taken out of context.

Asked if he’d consider compromising on plans for the center, Rauf told the Council on Foreign Relations Monday that “everything is on the table,” though he has said that moving the center could dangerously inflame parts of the Muslim world because it would look like he was giving into anti-Muslim sentiment.

Plans for the $100 million, 13-story center include a 500 seat auditorium, classrooms and conference rooms, space for social events, a 9/11 memorial, a pool and a gym.

At the Council of Foreign Relations, Rauf continued to stress the project’s interfaith aims, saying it “will be a place for all faiths to come together as partners, as stakeholders in mutual respect.”

Some of Rauf’s friends and supporters in the faith world are convinced that the worst is behind him.

“My hope is that with the pressure of September 11 over and with this crazy, hateful Florida threat averted, there could now be a more thoughtful process on how to implement this great vision that Feisal and Daisy have,” said Wallis. “Now there will be some time to think this through.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: 'Ground zero mosque' • 9/11 • Houses of worship • Interfaith issues • Islam • Mosque • Muslim • New York • United States

soundoff (334 Responses)
  1. whiteknight

    I think what this Imam needs is one well placed shot between his terrorist eyes by a military sniper becuase he's a worthless pile of trash trying to preach peace out one side of his mouth and breed hate from the other side...this mosque should be brought down if it ever makes it to the final build stage.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
  2. Cretaceous1

    Run this guy outta NYC on a rail. He is working overtime to upset this country into the abyss even more by promoting his insane murderous religion on OUR homefront...Why doesn't CNN just report on female orgasm placibo pills that it could push to make a buck rather than tell us all about this ARAB cheapskate putz?

    September 17, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
  3. Edward

    "Everything is on the table" is not a reasonable answer. Near Ground Zero is not a resonable request. If the question is: "Will you move the location of the Center?" I propose this answer. Oh yes, we are already looking for a different location. When I saw the reaction of the American people, I knew there was no other choice. You see, Muslims want to be seen as Americans. Muslims do not want to be seen as going agaisnt popular American opinion. We don't want to be seen as pushing away from the majority and trying to separate from the majority American view. In order to create a better relationship between Muslims and all other faiths I have taken the decision to relocate the Center. We are very proud to live in a country that allows freedom of religion. First generation American Muslims often came from countries where freedom of religion was not allowed. We came to America not to force our idealogy down your throats, but to hold American values. One of those values is respecting our fellow man. In moving this Mosque, I show you once and for all, that Muslims are Americans with American values.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
  4. M&M

    If the Imam really cared, he would be meeting with the people who are hurting the most. Meeting with a bunch of people who also have their own political agenda is not the answer to the massive problem. Maybe they all are tone deaf and can't hear the people.

    They have the nerve to talk about what would Jesus do in the case of the Quran burning. WHAT WOULD JESUS DO IN THIS INSTANCE where so many people are hurting (not talking about the political agenda folks). I'm talking about the real people with real feelings. These are people don't hate anyone or are not against the building of the Mosque...just not at that location. Is that such a difficult to understand?

    September 17, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
  5. dan Kun

    It is good that none Muslims are helping the Iman the problem is, it seem that these interfaith groups are there to help stem anti Islam sentiment? Muslims are the ones who are harboring and promoting anti USA, anti Christian and anti Jews sentiments the interfaith center should first be build in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egpyt, Iran, Afghanistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. The USA have already thousands of Mosques and have no laws restricting Islam, the problem are not Americans, Christians or Jews but Muslims.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
    • Mike

      http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/11/30/why_they_hate_us_ii_how_many_muslims_has_the_us_killed_in_the_past_30_years

      READ THIS ARTICAL

      September 17, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  6. bonnetwagon

    He needs to learn to lean on JESUS the Prince of Peace.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
    • Edgar Friendly

      So do the vast majority of Christians. And, apparently, the vast majority of Americans.

      September 17, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
  7. skytech3

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csYBwZPCleY&w=640&h=360]

    September 17, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
  8. toImam

    Do something good to fix your images rather than disturb us by a mosque

    September 17, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
  9. Concerned

    I seriously question any man who claims to be a "man of god" or 'bridgebuilder" among faiths when he wants to build a mosque within 500 feet of where almost 3,000 lost their lives to an attack by 19 muslims.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
    • KDW

      How do you get 500 feet out of two blocks? I'm not from NYC but I would think that a block is more than 250 ft.

      September 17, 2010 at 8:13 pm |
  10. philip utarid

    this guy is now taking the inter faith crisis team on a ride, knowingly taking full advantage of the tolerance of the american culture to his own advantage, instead of movin elsewhere or disbanding the project after 70 % of the americans did not approve of it.( if he had been a person of honor & integrity.)

    September 17, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
  11. Mohommed is a Woman with a Nice Rack

    The imagination is where the knowledge of god exists.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  12. SHILOH MOHAMMED

    Iman is such an intelligent and thougtful person, I think he is the model human being!

    September 17, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
    • Concerned

      Not in the US. I seriously question any man who cclaims to be a "man of god" or 'bridgebuilder" among faiths when he wants to build a mosque within 500 feet of where almost 3,000 lost their lives to an attack by 19 muslims.

      September 17, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
    • M&M

      He has no feelings for those people who are hurting. Look at the condition he has people living in the buildings that he owns. His tenants are living in squallar while he seeks to build a multi-million-dollar mosque? How godly and good a person is that?

      September 17, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
    • ikala

      Right. How did you come up with this assertion on this man. Are you smoking something pot or what. This man is an arrogant and pedantic fool who goes on national television and tells the world that if he does not get the center built, the Muslim world would be offended. Who cares. He can build it in Medina, Meca or in the middle of the desert. Than was an insult to us.

      September 17, 2010 at 5:46 pm |
    • stephen

      I agree. He is a very thoughtful... a behalf of Muslims. For New Yorkers, I am not so sure about that.

      September 17, 2010 at 6:21 pm |
  13. illuminated Genius

    The Imam is a idiot, build the monument for Satan because this ground zero mosque is only going to take him and the radical muslims who support this evil project straight to hell where they all belong. What a disgrace to the victims of the 9/11 families. Shame on the US government for not taking into consideration the events of 9/11 and the sensitivity of the families before they allowed this Islamic conquest terrorist training mosque to be build. This mosque will be the sign of Islam downfall in the world along with the rise of the anti-Islam movement which rejects political militant Islam and its political ideologies promoting totalitarianism and fascism.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:23 pm |
  14. illuminated Genius

    How ironic that the muslims are using Christians and Jews to promote this monument for Al-Qaida only to stab them in the back later on by attacking Christianity and Judaism and other religions which are not of Islam. It is quite obvious that most muslims have this mentality, for these reasons this project is already a huge failure and it is a inflammatory gesture that shows the arrogance of the muslim world and complete lack of respect for the dead and sensitivity for the families of 9/11 victims of the religion that inspired muslim terrorists to kill them in the attacks of 9/11.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
    • CheyneyBush

      Ha Ha Haa! What a bunck of Ignoramus and empty brains !! Zionism + TeaPart@@sm=Bull

      September 17, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
  15. philip utarid

    u guys still havent figured it this guys intentions.........he has already made a deal with his counterparts in the mid east that they fund this project near ground zero (as thats the vee sign of islams conquest of america,they build mosques over their conquered sites) , history is very clear on it.........this imam is tryin to cover up the real issue of islam domination of america with politics (which u guys dont seem to understand) .so either dont build another mosque as u already have enough, or move it 5 to 10 blocks away.its all upto u guys to figure it out.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
    • Mike

      http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/11/30/why_they_hate_us_ii_how_many_muslims_has_the_us_killed_in_the_past_30_years

      September 17, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
  16. illuminated Genius

    With all due respect if this guy has any brains he should not build this offensive mosque on ground zero. I think he should build a interfaith center in that racist city of high intolerance Mecca and then we will see if he is serious about bridge building. The ground zero mosque project stinks, and because people want to give criticism to Islam itself is because they have a right to do so. It seems anyone who criticizes Islam is called a racist or Islamophobe. I strongly disagree, Islam is not a race it is a ideology which fuels hatred under its label of hypocrisy. With all due respect those who say they want to separate the extremists from Islam, if Islam did not exist to begin with we would have no muslim extremists with that brainwashed mentality for violence and Jihad holy war to blow people up as suicide bombers.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
    • I. Chow

      I am a Muslim woman. I teach 4th grade students in New York City. I work hard and pay my taxes! Why should I be punished for the actions of a few? 9/11 was caused by extremists but 99% of Muslims living in the US are average people working hard to simply have a better life for themselves! So tell me what did I do to be bashed by my fellow citizens for being Muslim? Just like you, I have every right to pray where ever I choose!! One thing this country stands for is FREEDOM of RELIGION!! Don't turn your back on this! Because one day your religion/rights may also be under attack!! So please stop bashing Muslims because the majority of us are average people like you!!

      September 17, 2010 at 6:56 pm |
    • WorldIsRound

      Chow, you refuse to acknowledge that the problem is with Islams and Muslims. And continue supporting the religion which form the ideological backbone of terrorism all around the world including those perpetrators of 9/11.

      September 20, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  17. Loren

    The Imam is taking advantage of those poor Christians and Jews on his interfaith crisis management team. They don't understand that Islam is not just a religion, but also a political movement. By helping him, they are heping further the political goals of Islam, the elimination of all competing faiths. What fools these mortals be.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
    • Jnana

      You are correct.

      September 17, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
    • I. Chow

      wow it's idiots like you that make American look so stupid to the rest of the world, open a book and try to learn something before making such stupid comments!!

      September 17, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
  18. TX_MBell

    No surprise here. The ideology has thrived on leaning on people and other faiths to get their way.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
  19. Jnana

    By the way,

    The term Islamophobia is offensive.

    "Islamophobia: an irrational fear or prejudice towards Islam and Muslims." – Wikipedia

    Fear of and prejudice toward Muslims is not irrational, based on recent Muslim behavior. It is prudent.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • stephen douglas

      100% correct, thank you! There is no such thing as "Islamaphobia" because a phobia is an irrational fear, and being fearful of Islam is not irrational.

      September 17, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
    • Jay

      Wow...you do realize that fear itself is an irrational response mechanism, designed to override our rational thought system in times of crisis?

      September 17, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
    • stephen douglas

      Jay...WOW, did you know fear is a defense mechanism that allows us to make life saving decisions quickly? Obviously your mechanisms need oiling because they are so slow.

      September 17, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
  20. Ninja's with no Brains

    americanthinker uhm com /2010/09/crawling_out_from_under_the_ra
    Time to pack his bags and leave.

    September 17, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
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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.