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. 4950bhs

    This guy sucks..he is trying to create more division rather than mending fences,Islam has nothing to offer for democratic civilized society..

    September 17, 2010 at 7:02 pm |
  2. MotoChris

    This is so stupid. What is the urgency that he must build it now? People aren't over 9/11 yet and this guy is showing no sensitivity whatsoever, like the mosque takes precedence over a national tragedy!! shameful.

    p.s – this guy's track record absolutely stinks

    September 17, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  3. RSM

    Read about the various forms of 'TAQIYYA'

    September 17, 2010 at 6:57 pm |
  4. woody

    I wonder how people survived back in the days of the pyramids without modern religion ? Why is it it seems people of religion are at war with one another and people of no religion seem to do just fine ? Just a thought.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:57 pm |
  5. RSM

    To the Muslim the kafirs have three choice ... yield, pay taxes or die.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
  6. TheRationale

    The best religious dialogue is explaining to a person of X religion why (their) religion is fundamentally flawed. Then is real progress made. Everything else is just shuffling the cards. Gods and magic/miracles and supernatural forces do not exist, and pretending they do does not make them so.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
  7. RSM

    Political Taqiyya is what this mosk is ... Islam trophy over the kafirs

    September 17, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
  8. ImNotDeadYet

    CNN, you're dead to me

    September 17, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
  9. Matt

    Problem is not Imam. But US economic, which made people sitting in their computer and writing about everything. America wake up and stop focusing on fellow citizen, focus to find job and role US econimic forward. Any religon as whole is an obstacle to progress in any nations, specially when it beome radical.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
  10. RSM

    Muslim operate under the concept of 'Taqiyya' there are many forms. This form is political. It allows Muslims to lie cheat deceive the kafirs. Until people read the Koran and learn its actionable methodologies they will continue to believe it's about love and tolerance. In the USA they teach their children non muslims are pigs and donkeys. It is accepted and taught in schools by the so called 'moderates'

    September 17, 2010 at 6:49 pm |
  11. I. Chow

    FREEDOM OF RELIGION!!! Let's not turn our backs on what this country stands for!!

    September 17, 2010 at 6:48 pm |
  12. jamesnyc

    He already has a mosque in Tribeca that is plenty close. Move this thing before someone else does or worse. This man is not an American Muslim. He is worried about the Musilms overseas. In that sense, he does not serve the American Dialog

    September 17, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  13. Juil

    Since he wants the Jew to come to his aid, how about putting a Synagogue on top of that building. Yeah like that would happen.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  14. jon

    i agree it should not go ahead .why build in that area. remember when towers went down a lot of muslins in usa cheered. they have a right to build it but not there. if anyone thinks the muslin world doesnt what to make every country muslin they have their head in the sand .

    September 17, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  15. NoMoooooslimsAllowed

    This moooooslim POC needs to be thrown out of the country along with all of his fellow moooosims. They all have only one interest and that is to see the U.S. be a mooooslim hotbed!

    September 17, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  16. KingTut

    Wow CNN. 2 winner big news items you have today. John Stewart crap (sadly gen x'ers think and believe he IS news) and an Imam spreading the loving peaceful message of Islam (sarcasm note). Great job! I sense zero political or social slant at all in your articles CNN.

    Seriously, we need a real news site. Not CNN, MSNBC, Headline, Fox etc.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:39 pm |
  17. Brad

    I just don't understand why the Imam insists on building the "community center" 2 blocks from group zero. If the guy is as compassionate and empathetic as he claims, he'd simply put himself in the shoes of the victims of 9/11, their families, and the American people. Do you think if something like 9/11 happened in a Muslim country that the government of that country would welcome a Christian or Jewish "community center" 2 blocks from the scene. My guess is know. The fact that the Imam is saying it's a threat to U.S. national security if we don't let him put the "community center" there is a joke? Have a thought on this issue. chime in here and let your opinion be heard: "Freedom of religion is one thing. Blatantly rubbing salt in victims wounds is quite another." http://bit.ly/9bewOE

    September 17, 2010 at 6:37 pm |
  18. paladin63

    I believe The Iman is looking to start some type of violence over the Mosque issue in brooklyn, he wants trouble thats why he picked this location, if they did not want the trouble and were truly tolerant they would do this project else where. but he would lose his terriost funding, another issue he wont disclose.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
  19. SmellsLikeAllahBS

    If this guy is supposedly about tolerance why don't they go into Mecca and build a Jewish/Christian there since for a long time Manhattan or the rest of the US is light years ahead of the Muslim nations with regards to demonstrating tolerance through the comparatively large number of Mosques, Synagogues, and Churches spread around US _and_ Manhattan. Do a similar tally in their mono-cultural metropolises (reporting CNN fails to do) and you'll find far fewer if any.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:33 pm |
  20. Mike, formerly from Syracuse

    If he really wanted to 'manage' the crisis, he'd move the mosque a few blocks.

    September 17, 2010 at 6:31 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.