Imam Behind NYC Islamic Center Absent Amid Debate

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf i i

hide captionEarlier this year, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf addressed a gathering about a proposal for an Islamic center, including a mosque that Rauf would lead, two blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Craig Ruttle/AP
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

Earlier this year, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf addressed a gathering about a proposal for an Islamic center, including a mosque that Rauf would lead, two blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Craig Ruttle/AP

In all the debate over the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan, one voice has been noticeably silent: that of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque.

Right now, the imam is traveling, and in his absence, opponents are using past statements to criticize future plans.

Rauf already has a mosque in lower Manhattan. Masjid al-Farah is about 12 blocks from ground zero, and for 15 years the mosque has struggled to accommodate people in its small prayer space. In an interview about his plans for the new building earlier this year, Rauf said having a Muslim presence so close to the site lets him reach out to non-Muslims and counter the terrorists' ideology.

"By participating in lectures, by having sports together, this is how people bond across the religious divides, and this has been a very important factor in bridging relationships between the various factors of the Christian and other Abrahamic faith traditions," Rauf said.

Rauf practices Sufism, the mystical form of Islam. Since coming to America more than 20 years ago, he has worked in Muslim outreach, founded interfaith organizations and written books on Islam in contemporary Western society. Dalia Mahmoud of the Muslim Public Affairs Council says he's also a New Yorker, and strongly invested in the city.

"I would say he's dedicated 95 percent of his life to trying to foster peace and understanding between the different groups," Mahmoud says.

But those who doubt Rauf's intentions point to his own words during a 60 Minutes interview shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. He told the late Ed Bradley that American foreign policies are strongly criticized in the Muslim world.

"I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened," Rauf said. When asked to clarify how the United States is an accessory, he said: "Because we've been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the U.S.A."

It's that quote that has repeatedly come up in this debate.

"You either do or do not believe that whatever grievances one has, it is wrong to express them by murdering other people's children," says Cliff May, a conservative commentator who heads the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "If you agree that's wrong, you're against terrorism. If you say, 'Well, not in all cases,' then whatever else you can say about yourself, you're not clearly, unequivocally opposed to terrorism."

May criticizes Rauf for refusing to say whether he believes the Palestinian group Hamas is a terrorist organization. And like many others, he wants assurances that money for the $100 million project isn't coming from groups with ties to terrorism.

Reza Aslan, a Muslim author and scholar, says Rauf's attempts to explain terrorist actions are not the same as supporting them. Aslan says government officials do the same thing.

"I know this not only because of my own personal interaction with counterterrorism, CIA, the White House. I know this because I read the 9/11 report and it says the exact same thing," he says.

Rauf is embarking on a speaking tour to the Middle East on behalf of the U.S. government — something he also did during the Bush administration. The State Department says Rauf will speak about religious tolerance and what life is like as a practicing Muslim in America.

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