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. Ex Muslim in the UK

    Hope you don't mind, if somebody from across the pond puts his pennies worth.in.
    You see I was born into an Islamic family in the 1960s. Lucky for me (well so I think so) It was the 60s and not many Muslims lived in our town. So I grew up with white people (Christians/Mormons etc..) However after school we (my sister and I) were supposed to walk a few miles everyday in which to be taught the koran. Now as an Asian child (In the UK the collective term for Muslims is Asian) growing up with 100% non-Muslims I didn't want to go to the mosque so instead i would play at the park with my friends, until my father would come and collect me and give me a good hiding all the way home.
    To cut a long story short my sister and I were taken into care because of the physical abuse we received at home and instead of find sanctuary with an Asian family not one would take us in becasue we had brought shame onto the community. At school we were ostracised and since the 70s I have had no contact with any Muslims from my home town because to them I no longer exist.
    Now I also have another sister who was brought up by my mother after she and my father divorced. The first time i met her was in the 90s when she came looking for me and we kept in contact until she got married. She invited me (now a non-muslim) to visit for Eid which i did and all I got from her family was I had to go to the mosque to pray. Well seeing as I don't subscribe to any faith I refused and the fact that at the time I had over 15 years in the British army I wasn't somebody you can just push around. They all went to the mosque except my brother-on-law who asked if I wished to watch him pray (I kindly refused) the next day my phone rang and my sister in tears stated that her family had informed her to cut all ties with me as I wasn't a muslim. I respected her wishes because why should I ruin her future life. She has my address and in over 10 years she hasn't made contact.
    That people is how Muslims in the Uk treat their own. How do you think they treat those who are different?
    So when I see people trying to tell the world that Islami is a religion of peace that it is tolerant and that it respects others. I smile. You see all I have to say to these people if that is so why is the faith that demands respect by the threat of force the world over wish to build a Mosque near the site of the WTC when you can bet your bottom dollar they would scream blue murder if you tried to build a church in Gaza/Iraq or even Afghanistan.
    Now if that example is too much then answer this one, why don't Islamic women marry out of the faith?

    September 17, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
    • honestanon

      @ Ex

      Well said. A personal thank you, that's all.

      September 18, 2010 at 5:50 am |
    • Demosthenes

      That is a sad story. I feel for you.

      September 18, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  2. Voice_of_reason

    WoW I don't dislike Muslims I don't know all or really any. I don't dislike Christians again I don't know all or many. I don't dislike Jews don't know all of them or many.
    I dislike people who disrespect others in any way. The Mosque is a bad idea and disrespectful to all involved. Its set up for failure. There will be riots. Fires even bombs. Fear brought to too many. The building will never stand. People will die in the streets. The Iman knows this. With the same passion he wants it up tens of thousands will want it pulled down.
    If he is truly a man of peace and this outcome is clear. He would rethink regroup and move the Mosque. Why would a man of peace chose to bully a city with his so called healing effort. Why would a man of peace not want a peaceful ending.
    Some times in life you have to pick your battles. This is not a wise decision.
    Then give a hidden threat that the Islamic people of the world are watching.
    Let them it is time to stop the madness!
    Just move it show you are a man of peace. Back down walk away. You have nothing to lose now and all to gain.
    Continue and all hell will break lose on the streets of NYC.
    Any blood shed will be on your hands. Go in peace.....

    September 17, 2010 at 8:25 pm |
  3. Reality

    What Imam Rauf and all other Muslims really need to HEAR!!!

    The Five Step Method to Deprogram/"Deflaw" 1400 years of Islamic Myths-

    Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    "1. Belief in Allah"

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your cleansing neurons.

    "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".

    "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

    Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

    Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

    "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)

    Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave attended to by his wives before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.

    Accept these five "cleansers" and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

    There is a similar program for saving Rev. Wallis and his fellow Christians from 2000 years of Christian myths!!!

    September 17, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
  4. No way Joe

    When is CNN going to stop glorifying this terrorist? Probably not until their Boss calls from the white house and tells them to.

    September 17, 2010 at 7:44 pm |
  5. Ryan Patrick

    Come on now.......................Can't anyone see what this man is trying to do? He bought the building for 4 million, made
    threats to open a mosque because he knew it would create a fire storm in the press, then he offers to sell the building
    for 18 million.........................................despite his threats, he does not have the money or the backing to complete this
    mosque so he is hoping that a bunch of investors will come forward and pay him the 18 million he is looking for. I say call
    his bluff and let him try to build it. Everyone, stop getting hysterical over nothing!!!!!

    September 17, 2010 at 7:40 pm |
  6. JollyRoger

    Imagine, Heads of state from Islamic nations, known to openly support terrorism, while visiting the UN making a stop into this Cordoba mosque to pray and praise the martyrs that brought the Twin Towers down. Imagine the wonderful things they'll say about how Islam has rooted itself right in the heart of America's devil economic heart.

    September 17, 2010 at 7:29 pm |
  7. Toby

    Nice PR move on the Imam's part.

    September 17, 2010 at 7:27 pm |
  8. dee clary

    I would like to see the ulemas worldwide declare suicide bombers as apostates. That would discourage the heinous crimes and the bombers would no longer feel assured of heavenly "rewards".

    September 17, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  9. sixtransistor

    Yet another pro Muslin story from CNN. Need to change network name to MNN

    September 17, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  10. hal

    The ground zero mosque parallels Skokie, Ill. First ask the Imam if he believes the historical accounts of the Holocaust. That is the only way to understand if he can even see the parallel poke in the eye. But this poke is to the vast majority of the whole nation.

    September 17, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
  11. 4America1

    My advice to the iman is : get out and stay out og America.

    September 17, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
  12. Kalz

    I would like to think deeply and ask yourself the question: was 9/11 in the interest of Muslims, or the enemies of Islam? Muslims are being victimized the most from the consequences of 11/9, therefore, I always wonder who are the enemies of Islam (double agents) who planned this attack with radical Muslims under the name of Islam to manipulate the international opinion against Muslims!!!!

    September 17, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
    • Toby

      I think you have it precisely backward-Islam is the enemy of Muslims, and to that I would add the free world. Islam (not unlike Christianity) discourages autonomy of thought, inquiry, and personal opinion. Islam is not open to new ideas because its foundational text has never (and will never) be modified. Are most Muslims peace-loving individuals who value individuality and open dialogue? Certainly most make this claim, but the facts speak to a different conclusion. A recent poll of British Muslims shows that 36% feel justified in using violence against those who insult or subvert their religion. Now, how on earth can you have open and honest dialogue with those who not only resist, but openly refuse to consider other perspectives? Now we have the proposal to use inter-faith dialogue to mediate this current dispute. If that isn't the "blind leading the blind" I don't know what is.

      September 17, 2010 at 7:34 pm |
  13. Fernando

    Where were these inter-faith peace lovers before 911. Was it a secret that there was extremism in Islam. Why not really make a statement and go and build this peaceful mosque in Mecca, with an interfaith room there? Oh let's be sensitive we say, but what about the Imam. We are not asking to close all mosque's, just don't poke a fresh wound by putting one so close to ground zero.

    September 17, 2010 at 7:11 pm |
  14. Androloma

    Subversion of a foreign culture will rely on subtle infiltration by various members of the invading organization into their target using subterfuge as a tool, by misrepresenting publicly stated goals. The commies tried it, and failed. Islam is now trying it, to insinuate their way in to Western cultures as a means of converting the infidel. Infidel Castro is outraged. We all should be.

    September 17, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
  15. stephen douglas

    From the Qur'an.."fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem of war; but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them...blah, blah, blah.

    Fight, kill, BELEAGUER, and when you have worn them down and they give in and convert, make nice with them. That is the way of Islam; it has been this way since the time of the murdering child molester Mahammad.

    Right now, Rauf is beleaguering us, hoping we will give in, waiting us out. Surprise, the longer you wait, the more it supports what this passage is saying. The only solution to this is to move the location. Period. Get on with it – take Trump's cash offer instead of saying you don't think it is a serious offer (even though it is on the world wide web!), and then go pay the fines you owe to New Jersey and fix up the apartments you have rented out.

    September 17, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
  16. C#Eddie

    The government should treat the Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim and etc, etc equally.
    Christian should be able to build a church, the Jews build a sinagogue, a Budhist build a temple anywhere they want.

    And Imam Rauf can build his Mosque/Islamic center anywhere he wants. The issue here is why is he insisting on building is so close to ground Zero when he is well aware of the controversy that it is going to create. He can claim that America should treat its citizen equally regardless of religion and I agree with him. But why not build it farther down, does Mohammed cares if his mosques is 6 or 7 blocks away from ground zero.

    September 17, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
    • Androloma

      Can I build a Church of Satan in Jerusalem? How about in your hometown? How far do we want religious freedom to go?

      September 17, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
    • skytech5

      this is one in cal. and this is a freedom of religion counrty

      September 17, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  17. Rajan

    Imam, please prove your point. Put space for Christian, Hindu and Jewish People.

    September 17, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
  18. musikmaker

    Dana, how do you know he doesn't support sharia law? Are you a mind reader? If he has reservations about calling hamas terrorists after all the innocents they have killed, he supports terrorism and you are an idiot. We have been fighting islam since Thomas Jefferson's day. The Marine Hymn mentions halls of montezuma and shores of tripoli, it was written while we were fighting muslims then. Was that a consequence of our conduct abroad or a consequence of islamic terrorism as was 911?

    September 17, 2010 at 7:08 pm |
  19. Ranjeet

    Imam make it very simple, stand for what you said. Just have space for church, hindu temple and a jewish temple in the community center so that every one accepts this as their place.

    Prove to your point that you want this to be a common faith center.

    Please make it simple

    September 17, 2010 at 7:07 pm |
  20. ckcgye

    Oh, the irony ...


    September 17, 2010 at 7:06 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.