Working Toward a More Tolerant Society

Working Toward a More Tolerant Society

At the center of the recent overheated controversy that became – misleadingly – known as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” was Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Newt Gingrich compared Rauf and other supporters of the Muslim community center and mosque to be built several blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, to “Nazis” who have no “right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washington.” But New York mayor Michael Bloomberg defended Rauf. He quoted Rauf’s remarks at an interfaith memorial service for the martyred journalist Daniel Pearl: “If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind, and soul: Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad; Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one. If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one.”

Who is Imam Rauf? In 2004, after the 9/11 attacks but before the controversy that exposed him to such public scrutiny, Rauf wrote “What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West.” (Published by Harper One.) Rauf was born in Kuwait in 1948. His father, Egyptian Imam and Sunni scholar Muhammad Abdul Rauf, moved with the younger Rauf to New York City in the 1960s. The elder Rauf helped establish the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, the first building designed as a mosque in New York City, which took 25 years to complete and opened in 1991. It is little known that the younger Rauf has been an imam of Masjid al-Farah, a mosque operating without controversy only 12 blocks from Ground Zero since 1985.

In his book, Rauf confronts the dilemma that “Islam, a religion I love and that comprises my essential identity as a human being, has become broadly perceived in the United States as a national security threat, while America, a land whose values I cherish, has aroused broad antagonism and anguish in much of the Muslim world.” Rauf believes the dilemma can be solved through education and understanding. “There are valuable truths in the Muslim experience and worldview that it would behoove America to recognize and consider, and there are valuable truths about America that the Muslim world would do well to recognize, appreciate, and adopt.”

Rauf develops at length one of his primary premises that Islam, properly understood and faithfully practiced, is no threat to the security of the United States and the West. “The Quran never allows the killing of innocent people” nor “aggression against others just because of their beliefs.” Rauf is eager to publicize the fact that “Islamic jurists ruled clearly that the attacks of September 11 were not allowed under Islamic law. Those acts of terror were not within the norms of a just war. A number of the Islamic world’s greatest jurists stated this publicly, but unfortunately, this fact received little attention in American news media.”

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In fact, Rauf reprints in an appendix, a fatwa (or authoritative legal opinion), issued on Sept. 27, 2001 by five prominent Islamic scholars from Egypt, Qatar and Syria, condemning “all those who terrorize the innocents” and calling for “the true perpetrators of these crimes, as well as those who aid and abet them through incitement, financing or other support” to be apprehended, brought to justice and punished.

Rauf argues persuasively that the true origins of what is known as “Islamic violence” lie “not in religion but in the politics and economics of the Muslim world.” Unrelenting poverty, frustration, a lack of political participation and centralized economies, usually owned by the state, “leave most Muslims feeling cut off from the economic wealth” of their countries and “create a fertile breeding ground for extremist philosophies and terrorism.”

Driving home this central thesis, Rauf emphasizes that “the popular drawing power of violent Islamist opposition groups derives not from religion, but from their ability to tap into the personal frustrations and feelings of social injustice that are felt daily by millions in the Muslim world. Violent groups have become adept at capitalizing on these frustrations and then addressing them with a religious vocabulary that inspires total commitment in their followers.” Rauf adds that this frustration is due in part to the widely shared perception that the United States, instead of focusing on developing Muslim economies by speeding the adoption of democratic-capitalistic reforms, “has done the precise opposite in the past by supporting regimes that in turn siphoned off their own nations’ resources rather than distributing them equitably and thus raising their citizens’ level of prosperity.”

Rauf urges that “the Israeli-Palestinian problem is one that our nation must face head-on in our traditional role as leader of the free world.” Rauf offers a powerful plea that “[o]ne hundred years of suicide bombings will not drive Israel into the sea. Nor will one hundred years of targeted assassinations and home demolitions by Israel dry up the reservoir of young Palestinian recruits eager to join organizations such as Hamas

At home, Rauf assesses the emergence of the Muslim community in American society. The first Muslims in America were brought here from Africa as slaves, composing 10 percent of all slaves. Today, Muslim immigrants represent about 60 percent of America’s Muslim population.

After tracing the history of Jews and Catholics in America, following an arc from being subjected to bigotry and discrimination to tolerance, acceptance and prominent roles in all segments of society, Rauf anticipates it will take another generation or two before American Muslims can likewise establish their Muslimness “not apart from or in spite of their Americanness, bit precisely in and through it. This brings Rauf to a discussion of the critical subject of separation of church and state. While Rauf’s knowledge of the Quran is comprehensive and sophisticated, his understanding of American constitutional history and First Amendment jurisprudence needs further study. Rauf applauds the U.S. Constitution for guaranteeing separation of church and state as a foundation for religious pluralism.

Thus far Rauf aligns himself with an understanding of the First Amendment, which Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson saw as a “wall of separation.” But then Rauf complains that “the church-state relationship as it exists now in America” is “one of too much distance (more like a divorce).” Relying on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Rauf argues that “the founders intended America to be a religious society and nation, a society whose ethics emanate from our religious beliefs.” Rauf arrives at this theory, not by citing majority decisions of the Supreme Court, but instead the writings of Justice Scalia claiming that our government “derives its moral authority from God.” Rauf should have been alerted to the problem with Scalia’s interpretation since the justice supports his views by citing Christian scripture, apostle Paul in Romans 13:1-5, a sure sign that the church has not been sufficiently separated from the state in his thinking.

It’s six years since Rauf wrote his book, and by now he may well have discovered the danger for the believer in a religion that commands a tiny minority of the population, to embrace the notion that we are a “religious nation,” or as many in powerful and public places like to say, “a Christian nation.” Rauf’s ongoing study of American constitutional law will reveal that at the founding through contemporary Supreme Court interpretation, it was understood that the government should indeed be divorced from religion. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in McCreary County, Kentucky v. ACLU of Kentucky (2005), “[w]hen the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual’s decision about whether and how to worship.”

Rauf co-founded the Cordoba Initiative named for the period between roughly 800 and 1200 CE, when the Cordoba Caliphate ruled much of today’s Spain and when “Muslims created what was, in its era, the most enlightened, pluralistic, and tolerant society on earth.” Calling for an “ecumenical interfaith movement,” Rauf embraces interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who insists that “in our era, religion is not the cause of conflict, although it is often used as the excuse.” For Rauf and Schneier it is essential that “the Cross, the Crescent, and the Star of David become symbols of peace, tolerance, and mutual respect.”

Despite vocal opposition, with no legal obstacles preventing Rauf and his partners from moving forward with the new Muslim community center and mosque near Ground Zero, time will tell whether he can achieve the goals of the Cordoba Initiative here in America by reaching out to the wider community in hopes of fostering a more enlightened, pluralistic, and tolerant society.

Stephen Rohde, a constitutional lawyer and author of American Words of Freedom, is chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace and co-president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

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