NEAL CONAN, host: We're broadcasting today from Ault, Colorado, and the Aspen Ideas Festival. We're talking this hour about the challenges of talking about differences. Religion presents another level of complexity, another subject that can lead to fear and misunderstanding, another subject that can sometimes be left as the elephant in the room. Last fall, a debate over a proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan left many people angry and confused.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was at the center of that controversy. He is the - was the spiritual leader and public face of the center at that time. He says it was always meant to be a place for community activities that would bring people of all faiths together. Some erroneously called the community center the Ground Zero mosque, and to them it became an intolerable insult to the families of 9/11 victims and to the United States. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf joins us here at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

We'd like to hear from those of you who've had difficulties talking across differences of religion. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our Website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the founder of the Cordoba Initiative, and nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you, Neal. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And you've spent your entire career trying to bridge interfaith differences. I suspect you've learned a lot this past year.

RAUF: Yes, I have.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Can you describe some of your lessons?

RAUF: Well, there are a lot of people who are not interested in the truth. I think I heard Michele say facts don't count. It's people have their narratives. And I think that's certainly a lot what happened last year, is that there was a group of people who really didn't care about the facts, didn't care about the truth and just insisted on their narrative and used it to whip up a lot of negative emotion. Which was really sad and, at the same time, more importantly, dangerous and not helpful to improve relationships between the United States and the Muslim world, which represents more than 20 percent of the global population today.

It is important that we bridge this difference. The United States and the Muslim world have a lot mutual interests, geopolitical interests, military interests, economic interests, energy interests. And these are mutual. Both sides want to see a better relationship and need to see a better relationship. And this is why I believe that the preponderance of effort will militate towards a better relationship.

In the meantime, I'm hopeful that the fears that each side has of the other will be mitigated and addressed. But it will not happen unless we, who want to see a better outcome, play an active role in making this happen.

CONAN: Was this controversy a teachable moment or was this a moment, after it seemed to spin out of control, at which it was better just to, hey, let's be quiet for a little while and wait till blows over?

RAUF: Well, everything has a cycle, and the news cycle had its cycle and we knew this would not last forever. But there was certain positive outcomes of it. The branding of the opposition by calling it a Ground Zero mosque - which was, in fact, intended all along to be a community center, just like the YMCA, open to membership to people of all faith communities or even none - was an unfortunate branding in terms of arousing negative sentiment towards us in America. But it served a very positive purpose in the Muslim world.

The branding of a Ground Zero mosque, supported by the Jewish mayor of what is deemed to be the largest Jewish city in the world, New York City, and supported by the president of the United States, really improved American stock value in the Muslim world. The fact that America, in spite of what happened about 9/11 and deeming it to be an attack by Islam against America, to be able to have the largeness of heart to have a Ground Zero mosque struck people in the Muslim world as an act of American generosity. So it really played a very positive role, which was why the navigating the issues of staying or leaving and how to craft the narrative moving forward was extremely challenging at that time.

CONAN: Would it help if the community center was actually built at the site at which it was intended to be?

RAUF: From the point of view of the perception in the Arab Muslim world, yes, very much so.

CONAN: Will it be?

RAUF: I don't know. I don't have the funds yet. We need to raise a fair amount of money. Then there are also, you know, desire has been expressed by some very dear friends of mine to have it a true multi-faith center, where in addition to having a prayer space for Muslims, have prayer space for Jews and that, you know, prayer space for Christians, whether you call it a synagogue and a church, as well as a community center, which would require much larger space, which would therefore mean that we'd have to move somewhere else.

But if the narrative is controlled and shaped and a true multi-faith center that demonstrates the effective cooperation between Muslims and members of other faith communities working together to address the - their substantive issues which divide us, would be a very powerful statement to make, and that we in New York - American Muslims, American Jews, American Christians, American atheists, American agnostics, whatever, American Buddhists and Hindus - really showing the way for how the world wants to move forward, because we live in a world today where we're increasingly interlinked.

And we're interlinked not only by virtue of the media but interlinked economically, interlinked in the way we think about issues even more and more and more, the same today around the world.

CONAN: We want to hear about those of you who've had difficulties talking across religious lines. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Delaura(ph), I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, calling us from Boulder.

DELAURA: Yes. Hi. You pronounced it correctly. My story is I'm married to a Christian man and we've been married for three years. We have quarrels and a lot of discussions about religion, and now both of us became very moderate. He's a very moderate Christian. I'm a very moderate Muslim. We have a baby, and we're happy. The problem is his family is very strong Christian. And this summer we're going to Montana to visit them, and I'm dreading it because I know that they will try to convert me into Christianity.

They have no idea what Islam is. They never take time to figure out what that is, but they just push Christianity on me, which is really hurting. It hurts me a lot.

CONAN: I wonder, Imam, if you have any advice for our caller.

RAUF: Well, first of all, patience is always important, but also to explain to people that we're not that different. The origin of Jesus, the origin of Muhammad, the origin of Moses is basically one and the same - to worship the one God and to love each other. These are the two commandments that were mentioned both in Deuteronomy, I think Leviticus. And when Jesus was asked, what is the greatest commandment, he said to love the lord thy God with all of your heart, your soul, your strength and your mind (unintelligible) that order.

But - and then the second commandment, which he said is equal - is to love your neighbor as yourself. And it's — this is what it's about. It's about love. It's about a love that is transformative. It's about a love that is patient. It's about a love that is willing to teach and to explain, that we have far more in common than what differs us. And what differs — what differentiates us is very often language and terms and not substantive reality. And if you can stay and live in that space, we can transform other people.

CONAN: Delaura, you were trying to get back in there?

DELARA: Yeah. I absolutely agree with that. I wish people could hear that. I notice that a lot of people here try to look at differences, and they concentrate on differences so much that they make enemies out of each other. I wish we could try to see more in common than different.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. I think amen is what we can say to that.

RAUF: Indeed.

DELARA: Yeah. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's go to the microphone here at the Hotel Jerome.

MELANIE DOBSON-HUGHES: My name is Melanie Dobson-Hughes(ph), and I'm a pastor ordained in the United Methodist Church. And I also agree that I worship and follow a god of love. However, I do want to say that in conversations of interreligious dialogue, a lot of times very-well meaning folk will say, well, we're all the same, and we all worship from the same source. Yet I think that obscures important particularities that are within religions and obscures the potential for real dialogue. So I wanted to ask how do you talk about specific particularities while at the same time honoring people's traditions.

RAUF: By doing just that. But the real work, the way I see it, is to have coalitions among people who are different, coalitions of Christians and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus teeming together around the issues that have divided us. Because the real divide is not between Islam and America or Islam and Christianity and so forth. But the real divide is between the extremists of all faith traditions against the moderates of all faith traditions. Therefore, we moderates who believe in a god of love, who believe in the principles of respect and respecting differences, have to team up together and develop strategic and tactical plays in the field, as a I call it, to address those particular issues which divide us. And this has been the defining aspect of my work over the last 10 years. I founded an initiative called the Cordoba Initiative to do just that.

And, I mean, what made us survive in the last year was the friendships and coalitions that we had built with people in the Christian - Christian leaders, Jewish leaders. Those who came to my defense against Abe Foxman when he said I should move was Rabbi Irwin Kula, who comes to Aspen a lot, and Brad, his colleague and partner, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. So the - and it is these relationships with the mayor's office, with our political leaders around the issues, which we have to cooperate together to effect positive change. So that is where I believe the work that will provide the healing will come. And, of course, we do not believe that there are no differences between Muslims or Jews, just as there are differences among different, you know, Christian sects and Muslim opinions of, you know, Shia and Sunni and so forth. But these variations are wonderful. The prophet said in a very important Hadith, (unintelligible) that differences of opinion in my community are a rahma, are a mercy or a compassion from God. Unfortunately, we behave as if these differences are not a compassion. And in the process by trying to close differences, we're being actually discompassionate.

CONAN: We're talking - thanks very much for the question. We're talking with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf about interfaith dialogue. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we have this email from Richard in Houston: While there is a lot of talk about bridging the faith, I haven't seen any effort at all toward any toleration for my beliefs. I'm a member of one of the last groups who can be legally discriminated against — an atheist, who has never seen any evidence for any gods — yet I have to pretend to have some faith, otherwise I lose my job and get ostracized by my community.

RAUF: No, I think that certainly the principle of(ph) freedom is a cardinal principle. And the Quran is quite specific on that, that there shall be no compulsion in religion. There shall be no compulsion in faith. And when I include moderates of all faiths, including those who are atheists, because there are moderate atheists and there are extremist atheists. The Soviet communists, for example, are extremist atheists who brooked no different belief set. The whole idea of what defines America - and our nation was founded on a principle of religious freedom - but what it means is belief freedom, the freedom to believe whatever you want to believe and to protect that right and to structure a society in such a way that those differences of belief are not corrosive to the harmony within society. And that's the challenge which society has had. And even our American society has been challenged by these differences, whether differences is in the matter of the nature of God or whether - in whether you should allow people to, you know, to have abortions and when. I mean, these things have been very divisive to societies.

And every society had its set of divisive questions. One of the challenges that we have, and certainly atheists are - have a right to their belief, although I question the, you know, principle that there's no evidence for the existence of God, I believe otherwise very strongly, but that's certainly a matter of your own conscience.

CONAN: You cited some words from the Quran, very compassionate towards people of other faiths. There are others in the Quran which are not so compassionate, as there are - we mentioned Leviticus earlier, and there are parts of Leviticus that people would not find very compassionate today either. How do you present the moderate views that are in those passages and deal with those who say, wait a minute, it's all the word of God?

RAUF: Well, I mean, God speaks to us through the Quran. And God very, very clearly condemns ideas which he disagrees with. However, God, at the same time, allows us to practice what we do believe. And if you look at the practices of the earliest Muslims and by, you know, of - the practices of Muslims throughout the centuries until a century ago, we always protected the rights of other people to believe. (Unintelligible) many, many Christians and Jews and Muslims also do not seem to have forgotten or don't even know that it was Muslims who brought Jews back into Jerusalem.

It was a caliph, Umar Al-Khattab, the second caliph, who upon the conquering of Jerusalem in 638 of the Common Era, invited 70 Jewish families to take up residence in Jerusalem after they had been banished by the Romans in 70 A.D. And when Jews and Orthodox Christians and Muslims were massacred in the First Crusade, it was when Saladin re-conquered Jerusalem that Christian(ph) Orthodox and Jews came back to live in Jerusalem. And throughout our political regimes until the end of the Ottoman Caliphate a century ago, we - all different religious interpretations existed and were protected by those regimes. There's a difference between what we do to people and the rejection of a particular wrong belief.

CONAN: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the founder of the Cordoba Initiative, with us here at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Thank you very much.

RAUF: Thank you.

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