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. Itsaboutthemoney

    CNN asked Donald Trump why he offered to buy the property + 25% and all cost associated to dissolve this issue. The offer was rejected on the basis that it wasn’t enough or at least 4 times the amount in which Rauf is asking for quote, “its worth 20+ million”.

    This is telling me that its not the about Islam, it’s about the money. He’s not concerned about the Islam faith center, if he was, he would have taken the Trumps deal and moved to another location and built his Islamic center. He wants the big money and is holding out until he gets it.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:29 pm |
  2. Logan

    This Imam Rauf is nothing but a disgusting slumlord, who has no care or concern for public health or safety. Just ask his former tenants. He conned his way out of a felony conviction by paying off people. New Jersey is glad he is gone.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:29 pm |
  3. Arizona Yankee

    My advice is for this insensitive thief, and slumlord, is to deep six his fool harted idea, and then pack up and leave the country. Would also be very nice if he took his friends, Bloomberg, H. Clinton, and Islamobama with him. He would really be doing the country a favor.....

    September 17, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
  4. Boot

    scared children assuming 1.6 billion are killers. use some reason once in a while

    September 17, 2010 at 6:25 pm |
    • honestanon


      Coming soon, to an enclave near you...

      September 17, 2010 at 10:39 pm |
    • honestanon

      Coming soon... to an ethnically-cleansed enclave near you...

      September 17, 2010 at 10:43 pm |
    • peace2all


      For those of us who have been on these blogs since they first started having discussions....There is a new comer

      @HONESTANON--He is an agitator and inciting hatred while also attempting to squelch free speech of the rest of us.

      @HONESTANON is acting much like HITLER....

      Listen to him if you will, your choice, but this is the same techniques and rhetoric that HITLER and the Nazis' used.

      For the rest of you.... I wish you peace...

      September 19, 2010 at 1:14 am |
  5. Czar

    This is so frustrating that this imam was so out of touch with mainstream media as crisis was brewing. There was nobody else who could field the questions regarding the project when he was out of country?? Imam and the management for this Park-51 project need to get their heads out of the sand and tackle the issue head on in the media to contain it further. They have completely dropped the ball in crisis management. This thing has been going on for nearly two months, not once thy have called press conference to tell their view and plans the cultural center. This should clear up lots of doubts, fears and misinformation that are going around. They have clearly lost to the GOP propaganda war by not publicizing their genuine intentions of build interfaith religious center.

    When things were getting out of control, they should have taken clear stand in the media by,

    1. Clarifying that this NOT a "Ground Zero Mosque" (as media and right wing has twisted it for their own political gain) but it is a Islamic cultural center that includes prayers halls for all three faiths.
    2. Should have shown empathy towards 9/11 victims families highlighting a memorial for 9/11 victims in the project.

    Having a dialogue with leaders of other faiths or seeking advice from them is helpful but will not avert the PR disaster at their hands. This is the information age and people are brain washed with 24/7 media, the Imam and his teams will have to manage the crisis in this environment.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:25 pm |
  6. Wazzup

    What's up with this guy and eyeliner?

    September 17, 2010 at 6:22 pm |
  7. CDogg

    So amazing... All this furor about building this mosque, yet in Islamic Lands it's ilegal to bullid a church. Here's an idea: REBUILD St. Nicholas Church, the church that was destroyed during 9/11 before even of thinking of pandering to this guy. "We want to promote dialogue". It's not what they want. They want to claim victory and they want Sharia law. And Sharia law means NO freedom of Religion!

    September 17, 2010 at 6:21 pm |
  8. misanthropicus

    "Imam Rauf Accused of Being a Slumlord by NJ Town" –

    What a gross farce is CNN perpetuating – and can we be surprised that they haven't yet noticed that Rauf is being sued (and rightfully so) for his base greed and contempt for americans?
    This guy is a total jerk, a rapacious Muslim slumlord, and CNN is still pushing his cause, together with the crew of multifaith "useful idiots" that "advice him and give him moral support" –
    What buffonery – boy, do I love to see the democrats and the liberals going deeper and deeper in the swam –
    As far as Rauf, we'll see the "multifaith" crew later, when Rauf will be proven the rotten being that he is in the court – 'till then, below is the link to the piece in cause –


    September 17, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
    • honestanon

      Research the man's background.
      What did he study in college?
      What did he do when he got out of college?
      Did he ever work in his degree field?

      I'd like to be more specific, but CNN is censoring me again.
      Imagine That.

      September 17, 2010 at 8:16 pm |
    • honestanon

      Here's a start...

      Plasma Physics

      September 17, 2010 at 8:55 pm |
  9. edmundburkeson

    Why doesn't he find a Muslim country where they could actually learn something about religious tolerance?

    September 17, 2010 at 6:19 pm |
  10. Willy Brown

    Take the hint Swami GET OUT!

    September 17, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
  11. George

    People in America who think you can embrace everyone of any persuasion and live happily ever after, are naive. Look at Europe. As the Muslim population grew, so did the violence. This is true all over the world.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
    • honestanon

      How about Swedish TV? Think they know anything?


      September 17, 2010 at 6:19 pm |
  12. Peace


    September 17, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
  13. George

    America wake up. Open your eyes. They are already here to kill you. Molly Norris had to change her name and go into hiding, never able to live the life she was born into. Soon they will be blowing themselves up in your neighborhood schools and kindergartens, and the news media will interview their neighbors who will say, 'They were quiet respectful people who kept to themselves, or helped out a neighbor when needed, I never would have thought they would do this'!.....TOO LATE !

    September 17, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
  14. Peace

    Reverse behavior? No Church for Christians in Indonesia?...I hope this will serve to create understanding


    September 17, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
  15. George

    I'm calling on all Americans to flood Washington D.C. with emails, letters, phone calls and visits, to demand an end to Muslim immigration to the U.S. This MUST be done as a war measure. We will wait until some moderate Muslim detonates himself or herself in a kindergarten full of your kids before we do something. That's always the American way.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
  16. 9/11 survivor

    So, if he wants to create an interfaith presence, call it, and make it, an Interfaith Center.

    As long as it's an Islamic center, all other faiths will be present in dhimmitude.

    And if they play the muslim call to prayer five times a day over loudspeakers from the top of the proposed 100 million dollar Islamic center, causing pain and suffering to non-muslim mourners at the WTC nearby, who know the hijackers answered the call religiously, then it will also be a de facto memorial to the 10 terrorists, devout muslims all, some of whose ashes probably fell about the so-far unmovable location for this missionary outpost. The other muslims who died on 9/11 became martyrs to the spread of Islam because they were killed by devout muslims engaged in jihad against infidels.

    If the center is moved there will be terrorist attempts. If it's not there will be terrorist attempts. If you convert to Islam and it's not the kind the terrorists support, they will be happy to make you a martyr to their brand of Islam.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
  17. honestanon

    Tell me something... If 'radical' muslims are a fringe of all of islam, WHY DOES THIS MAN HAVE THREE MICROPHONES IN FRONT OF HIM? If I'm not mistaken the large blue one is Al Jazeera. And, notice the audience during the cutaway at 5:10... They don't look like a bunch of rag-tag, dusty, bedraggled jihadists... They look pretty spiffy... like a bunch of middle eastern businessmen....

    Can't say this strikes me as 'fringe' anything.... Looks more like mainstream... something.

    The more I research this, the more concerned I become.


    September 17, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
    • ash meer

      oh right, and your research consists of youtube searches? back when I was in college, the definition of research was a little more rigorous.

      September 17, 2010 at 7:08 pm |
    • honestanon

      Deny what he's saying and to whom he's saying it, and that islamic broadcast media in not covering it.
      Deal with the FACTS
      Typical – Deflection, Finger Pointing, Denial, Personal Attacks.

      I've been out of college a long, long, time.
      There's a ton of research. I encourage all American to undertake a complete investigation of there own.
      CNN PROHIBITS listing more than one web site per post. It will get you the dreaded "Your comment is awaiting moderation" flag. That familiar to anyone else?

      September 17, 2010 at 8:29 pm |
    • honestanon


      September 17, 2010 at 8:38 pm |
    • honestanon

      Happy to provide all the research I can (at least until CNN cuts me off)

      So let me just drop this here...
      Scroll down to pg 16 if you don't read arabic.


      September 17, 2010 at 8:41 pm |
    • honestanon

      remove $ signs. Sorry. Have to get by the CNN word abuse engine...

      September 17, 2010 at 8:42 pm |
  18. Halides

    Interfaith Crisis Management Team??? What an @ss. 70% Of New Yorkers want this guy gone, but does he leave? No. Instead he digs in like a tick, whining to cherry-picked sympathetic Christian and Jewish leaders to convince us we "need" his monstrosity, while he lectures us non-believers on how gloriously peaceful Islam is and that if we don't allow it to be built we're bigots and we'll incur the wrath of even more dangerous Islamic terrorists. Sure. Get over yourself Rauf and just move the stupid project.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
  19. bangboy

    We need an orgazmatron and some more female orgasm pills!

    September 17, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
  20. Chicago Nick

    How much did the Imam "donate" for the nice little PR image piece here ? unreal.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
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About this blog

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.