by Zainab Cheema (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 8, Shawwal, 1431)
Who exactly is Feisal Abdul Rauf? This is the question countless people are asking themselves, in the wake of the Park 51 founder’s skyrocketing national profile. The din over the Ground Zero Mosque has somewhat subsided but the Islamophobic hysteria that it produced remains radioactive.
Who exactly is Feisal Abdul Rauf? This is the question countless people are asking themselves, in the wake of the Park 51 founder’s skyrocketing national profile. The din over the Ground Zero Mosque has somewhat subsided but the Islamophobic hysteria that it produced remains radioactive, thanks to Terry Jones’ Qur’an-burning campaign and Republican hate-mongering. Abdul Rauf finally broke his silence in a September 7, 2010 New York Times op-ed after returning from his Middle East trip, but the question of exactly who he is and what he represents for Muslims is no closer to being answered.
Methodology has something to do with the impasse. Using the tried-and-true strategy of combing news from diverse outlets and sources doesn’t really clear up the confusion owing to the act that media commentary on Abdul Rauf is fractured along lines of sectarian interests and preoccupations. Abdul Rauf himself commented on his “awe” of “how inflamed and emotional the issue” of the Ground Zero Mosque had become.
For some Republicans, Abdul Rauf is a radical who is infringing on the hallowed Ground Zero in order to stage a triumphalist coup on behalf of Shari‘ah in the United States. They allege that he has ties with Hamas, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard of Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, ignoring the conflicted relationship between the latter and the two former. After all, for them Islam is a monolith — not a complex social reality with countless individuals who exhibit agency in interpretation and action. The hardline Republi-cans’ objectivity and clear thinking is certainly on display when they extracted some words of praise that Abdul Rauf bestowed on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi at a forum, pairing it with Qaradawi’s comments on the impact of da‘wah on US and European societies to conclude that Abdul Rauf is nesting a program of “stealth jihad”.
For other Republicans, who take a more nuanced approach to working with Muslims in the day-to-day pragmatics of world domination, Abdul Rauf’s position on the Park 51 Mosque issue is one of “taste.” Numerous high-profile Republicans note that he has a right to construct his center on a site he has legal ownership of, but that he should back down out of deference to traumatized Americans who wish to preserve Ground Zero as a hallowed ground. It may be inserted on the side that since the US as a whole has been relentlessly militarized after 9/11, “taste” is really a placeholder for Republicans’ objection to Muslims’ presence in the US. Despite its comparative mildness — at least compared to Newt Gingrich’s slurs of Islamo-Nazism — the “taste” argument takes on some ugly permutations.
The example par excellence is provided by a New York Times op-ed penned by Karen Hughes, former US President George Bush’s liaison with the Muslim world. Here, she compared Rauf’s continuing decision to build at the site of the Burlington Coat Factory with the similar “tastelessness” of the Danish cartoonists of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Hughes said that the issue of the cartoons “pitted those supporting the right of a free press to publish anything, no matter how offensive, against those who took to the streets and threatened death to the cartoonists.” “At that time, I joined with many Muslim friends in saying that while newspapers were free to publish the offensive materials, I hoped they would show respect and restraint and decide against it,” she writes, “That is an instructive model now.” Notwithstanding the imaginary “Muslim friends,” and the tit-for-tat favor she imagines that they now owe her, the view underscores the equation of bigotry as self-referential. There is a strange kind of logic in equating the psychological war on Muslims represented by the cartoons with the social fascism provoked by the Park 51 debate.
Democrats see Abdul Rauf as the dream Muslim: “a moderate” with whom the US government can collaborate in order to educate law enforcement forces in Muslim affairs in order to properly manage the local American Muslim demographic. Abdul Rauf also plays an important role in exporting an attractive perspective on the United States to Muslim countries worldwide. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley defended the US government’s funding of Abdul Rauf’s Middle East trip, noting that “Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been part of what we call our international information program since 2007… He’s a moderate Islamic cleric [and] we want to show people in Muslim majority regions the role that religion plays here.”
Rauf is complaisant with this role. In a speech given on September 13, 2010, he noted that “my goal is twofold: first, to reach out to my brothers and sisters of different faiths in America, to explain and to share my love of my religion; and second, to reach out to my Muslim brothers and sisters all over the world, to explain and share my love of America.”
Finally, for American Muslim leaders, Abdul Rauf is emblematic of the struggles they face to establish institutions and negotiate acceptance in the United States. On September 20, the heads of around 55 Muslim organizations and mosques gathered in New York to defend Park 51’s constitutional right to build a mosque on their chosen location. It was a familiar scene, repeated on every controversy involving Muslims. The Muslim American Society (MAS) and Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) led the pack in advocating interfaith dialogue to ameliorate tensions and sooth tempers. Mahdi Bray, lead spokesman for MAS, called Park 51 “a symbol of reconciliation, a symbol of unity and a symbol of mutual respect” and said that while “none of our organizations is capable of putting money into this… we’re putting ideas and we’re putting social and political support behind it.”
The matter is not helped by Abdul Rauf’s signature ability of changing colors like a chameleon, masterfully altering his rhetoric to suit time, place, and interlocutor. With immense urbanity, he is able to sound like an American “citizen-ambassador,” as he is styled on the FAQ page of the Cordoba Initiative: an academic dissenter of US neo-colonialism, a Sufi mystic, a Sunni respectfully adherent to Al-Azhar scholarship, a US government official; or a spokesperson for the Arab street.
In a joint interview given on September 11, 2001 on 60-Minutes with Hamza Yusuf, Dr. Farid Esack, and others, he noted “we have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world [so that]… in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.” He noted that the Arab reaction to US foreign policy is caused by the contradiction posed by the US voicing support of human rights and democracy but choosing to ally itself with the most oppressive regimes of the Middle East.
However, in the Cordoba Initiative webpage, he abandons his earlier deconstructive perspective to declare: “terrorism must be fought even if Muslims have to fight fellow Muslims to stop it.” In a 2003 memorial given for journalist Daniel Pearl, slain in Pakistan in 2001, he asserted his “Islamic conviction “ in “the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths.” Interfaith dialogue has never meant moral equivalency — in my years of trekking to interfaith events, I have yet to hear a priest or rabbi describe Judaism or Christianity as morally interchangeable with Islam. After all, there are tangible doctrinal and historical differences between the three Abrahamic religions. But on Rauf’s part, the ability to translate Islam so facilely in the theological currency of Judaism and Christianity speaks of blindness to his religion’s distinctiveness. “If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind and soul, Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ahad — hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One — not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl,” he said, addressing Daniel Pearl’s father.
However, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg disdainfully sniffed at the sentiments, even as he pretended to take a different position from “those who would argue that these represent mere words, chosen carefully to appease a potentially suspicious audience.” He commiserated that Abdul Rauf placed his life in danger by doing so. “Remember, Islamists hate the people they consider apostates even more than they hate Christians and Jews,” he wrote.
Certainly, Abdul Rauf’s views are not static — it is always a colossal mistake to assume that a person sticks to the same beliefs and perspectives over a decade, like fossilized chewing gum. It is simply that Abdul Rauf has progressively gravitated to the US government’s orbit over the years.
For instance, the FAQ page of the Cordoba Initiative is a long list of disavowals from various Muslim groups he is accused of belonging to. He repudiates any connection with the Brotherhood, and even declares that he requested Malaysia’s Perdana Global Peace Organization to take down his photograph from their website after some Republican commentators used Perdana’s financial support of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla to link him with Hamas. If we recollect, the Freedom Flotilla represented a global coalition of humanitarians opposed to Israel’s strangling blockade of Gaza and the news of the Israeli commando attack won public sympathy from all but the most fascist or pro-Israeli of contingents. Abdul Rauf’s decision to disassociate himself from Perdana instead of defending his associations reflects an exquisite sensitivity to US government circles, rather than to the public.
After Rauf’s return from his overseas trip, during which the Ground Zero Mosque brouhaha erupted, he profusely apologized for his absence — to the Council on Foreign Relations. The Council on Foreign Relations is a political think-tank that strongly influences US foreign policy; it comprises influential heavy weights including statesmen, high-ranking journalists, policy makers, business leaders, and others. Its Board of Directors boasts of political hawks like Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria (now relocated to Time magazine) and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
In his speech to the Council, Abdul Rauf declared that the “real battle” wasn’t between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between moderates and extremists of all faiths. He seeks a solution to this battle “by creating a coalition of moderates from all of the faith traditions to combat the extremists. And I seek your help.” Some would say that the Council on Foreign Relations has already helped sufficiently in this regard by providing a public platform to war mavens like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Haas, John Abizaid, Leslie Gelb and others to air their views on the imperative of invading the Middle East and securing Israel’s interests.
This enables us to sum up a few round facts. Feisal Abdul Rauf seeks to translate Islam to not just any group of Americans — he aims to translate and interpret it to the influential group that manages the policies, resources, and directions of the country. He meets expectations so well that he has been appointed “a citizen ambassador” to articulate US interests, objectives and desires for the Muslim world to the countries that comprise it. As noted by many Democrats, protesting Republican fear-mongering over Abdul Rauf and Park 51, he was appointed to be a State Department spokesperson by the Bush administration, and that the Obama administration is only continuing the program initiated by the Bush administration.
In the most intriguing of twists, the high-ranking official of the Bush administration that Abdul Rauf had the closest connection with is the same Karen Hughes who complained about the “tastelessness” of the Park 51 project. In the 2006 Doha Conference, Abdul Rauf appeared in a press conference with Hughes and afterwards, maintained steady contact with her. She later forgot this association, saying that she had contact with many Muslim leaders in her job as liaison and that she didn’t recall working with Rauf in particular. It would after all prove inconvenient in the midst of the Republican campaign to fan the flames of Islamophobia in preparation for the midterm Congressional elections.
Other leads emerge to complicate the picture. Of all the trails to follow, the money trail is the most tangible. Online commentators such as The New York Observer’s Mark Ames notes that from 2006 to 2008, the principal donor to the Cordoba Initiative was Leslie Deak, a Muslim convert who describes himself as having a “background in Christianity and Judaism, [with] in-depth personal and business experiences in the Middle East.” Deak provided $98,000 in total, which covered the entire operating budget of Rauf’s organization. However, the Cordoba Initiative publicly reported only one-third of that amount during that time.
In the same period, Deak was donating $101,247 to the National Defense University Foundation, a nationwide network of war colleges and research centers designed to train specialists in military strategy. Deak’s resume lists his role as business consultant for Patriot Group LLC, which lists as its strategic adviser James Pravitt, former deputy director of operations at the CIA. Pravitt notes on his profile that he “managed the CIA’s globally deployed personnel and nearly half of its multi-billion dollar budget” and “served as head of America’s Clandestine Service, the CIA’s operational response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.”
The complex web of links and associations through which the questionable donations to Cordoba Initiative were funneled highlights one thing with certainty — the question of “Who is Feisal Abdul Rauf?” is fraught with complications that yield no easy answers. Certainly, it is worth looking into beyond sectarian political divisions and knee-jerk Muslim defensiveness over the stage-managed climate of Islamophobia.