Imam Rauf Speaks About Muslim Radicals Hearings

On Thursday, the House Committee on Homeland Security — chaired by Republican Representative Peter King of New York — will hold a hearing on radicalization in the American-Muslim community. The event has angered many American Muslims — including Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Rauf is most known nationally for his association with the planned Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. Host Robert Siegel talks with Rauf about his reaction to the hearing.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Tomorrow, the House Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Congressman Peter King of New York, begins a series of hearing into radical Islam in the United States. Many American Muslims have spoken out against these hearings. And one of them is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of New York, who became nationally famous as the Muslim religious leader most associated with the planned Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. His role in that project has changed. We'll get to that in a moment.

But first, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, welcome to the program.

Imam FEISAL ABDUL RAUF (Chairman, Cordoba Initiative): Thank you very much, Robert, for having me on.

SIEGEL: And I'd like to begin by reading to you what the writer Akbar Ahmed wrote in The New York Times' op-ed page today. While he urges America to realize its pluralist vision by better understanding Islam, he also writes this: At the same time, Muslims must realize that to be truly accepted as "good" Americans - he puts quotation marks around good - they need to more explicitly embrace American identity, culture and history from political debates, like Representative King's hearing, to the ideals of the country's founders.

What do you think of that?

Imam RAUF: Oh, I perfectly agree with that. In fact, one of the projects that I have worked on and have been speaking about for last 20 years, and I've written about it, is the need for American Muslims to evolve from being Muslims in America to becoming American Muslims. By which I mean to evolve an American Muslim identity, institutions, affects of legal interpretations, so forth, because this is actually part of our own history.

And when Islam spread from Arabia to much of the - what we call today the Muslim world - it had to recreate itself in the cultures of ancient Egypt, of Sub-Saharan Africa, of what is today modern Turkey, of Persia, of India and so forth.

SIEGEL: But in all the cases you mentioned, Islam arrived and quickly became the majority religious culture of the country. And that's definitely different here. Are Muslim leaders and is Islam, more broadly, prepare to be a minority culture within a pluralistic society?

Imam RAUF: Well, that is not always the case. In India, you know, Islam was never a majority in India...

SIEGEL: But it was a ruling...

Imam RAUF: It was a minority and in many other places in Africa, from the very beginning, Muslims minorities in Abyssinia. And in very pluralistic societies, and for centuries, Islam was not, you know, even in Egypt, it took more than half a millennium for it to become a majority religion.

But the point is that wherever it has gone to, it has always had to adapt itself. I mean in China, where it's not the majority, there was a Chinese Islamic culture. So the notion that you have to be a majority or a ruling religion is not at all accurate.

SIEGEL: The problem of the homegrown terrorist is much discussed in the news these days, from Fort to Hood to Times Square, we've seen a very small number of disaffected Muslim Americans taking violent action. Because, often because of U.S. actions abroad.

Is there any special responsibility for Muslim leaders to denounce these things? Or should they be dismissed as the acts of individual crackpots or people with their own personal problems?

Imam RAUF: Well, I mean, they are certainly the acts of crackpots or those who've been radicalized. You know, with almost one and half billion Muslims worldwide, we have our share of the unhinged and the crazies, as well, and the crackpots. We also have radicalization, which we recognize and acknowledge. But the real battle front is between the moderates - peace-loving people of all faith traditions - against the radical extremists of all faith traditions.

Which is why I've proposed that if Peter King really wants to do this, he should not use the word Islam, and let's talk about radicalism, the fact that they'll be more instances of radical Muslims is fine. But it comes radicalism per se, rather than have it be seen in the Muslim world, both domestically and internationally, as being the attacks somehow against Islam.

SIEGEL: Back to the Cordoba Center, the planned downtown New York Islamic center, interfaith center that became so controversial because of its proximity to Ground Zero. You recently said that if another suitable location opened up, you would be open to not building at the Park 51 site, as its known.

Can you explain, was that location central to the whole idea because of the proximity to the World Trade Center, or was it simply the propinquity of New York real estate that there was a building available? What's the tie to that space?

Imam RAUF: Well, I have been imam of a mosque just, you know, a dozen blocks from Ground Zero for the last 28 years now, in November of this year - more than a quarter of a century. I have been part of this Lower Manhattan community. They know me. They know our mosque. They know our community. They've accepted us. We are friends.

So if I have had no one really offer a space that is suitable. But should anyone offer a space adequate to the vision, I will immediately act upon it.

SIEGEL: When you say adequate to division, are you speaking in architectural terms? Or does proximity to Ground Zero, is that...

Imam RAUF: No.

SIEGEL: ...part of division or was that just a fact of where the Park 51 site happened to be?

Imam RAUF: Well, it has to be in Manhattan. It has to be in New York City. But we have also had hoped to meet the needs of the Lower Manhattan community, who wants a center like that. So, you know, I mean I'm part of this community. If somebody wishes me to leave this community that's another issue, but anywhere that, you know, would be acceptable and would contribute to interfaith accord and, you know, harmony is what my purpose of life is all about.

SIEGEL: Well, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, thank you very much.

Imam RAUF: Thank you, Bob, a pleasure to be with you.

SIEGEL: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, and a board member of the Park 51 Community Center that is the planned Islamic center for Lower Manhattan.

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