The Moderate Imam Behind the 'Ground Zero Mosque'

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Tom A. Peter / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf stands in the al-Farah mosque, located not far from Ground Zero

The last legal hurdle to the proposed Islamic center near the site of the World Trade Center has been removed, but ignorance, bigotry and politics are more formidable obstacles. The unanimous vote Tuesday, Aug. 3, by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission means the building that currently occupies 45-47 Park Place can be torn down, clearing the way for Park51, a project known to its critics as the "Ground Zero Mosque." Criticism spans the gamut, from the ill-informed anguish of those who mistakenly view Islam as the malevolent force that brought down the towers to the ill-considered opportunism of right-wing politicians who see Islam as an easy target.

(Ironically, Islam's roots in New York City are in the area around the site of the World Trade Center, and they predate the Twin Towers: in the late 19th century, a portion of lower Manhattan was known as Little Syria and was inhabited by Arab immigrants — Muslims and Christians — from the Ottoman Empire.)

With city authorities now out of the way, it is the people spearheading the project who must bear the enormous pressure to give up their plans and scrap the building. They are being accused of sympathizing with the men who crashed the planes on 9/11 and of designing the project as, in Newt Gingrich's reckoning, "an act of triumphalism."

And yet Park51's main movers, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, are actually the kind of Muslim leaders right-wing commentators fantasize about: modernists and moderates who openly condemn the death cult of al-Qaeda and its adherents — ironically, just the kind of "peaceful Muslims" whom Sarah Palin, in her now infamous tweet, asked to "refudiate" the mosque. Rauf is a Sufi, which is Islam's most mystical and accommodating denomination.

The Kuwaiti-born Rauf, 52, is the imam of a mosque in New York City's Tribeca district, has written extensively on Islam and its place in modern society and often argues that American democracy is the embodiment of Islam's ideal society. (One of his books is titled What's Right with Islam Is What's Right with America.) He is a contributor to the Washington Post's On Faith blog, and the stated aim of his organization, the Cordoba Initiative, is "to achieve a tipping point in Muslim-West relations within the next decade, steering the world back to the course of mutual recognition and respect and away from heightened tensions." His Indian-born wife is an architect and a recipient of the Interfaith Center Award for Promoting Peace and Interfaith Understanding.

Since 9/11, Western "experts" have said repeatedly that Muslim leaders who fit Rauf's description should be sought out and empowered to fight the rising tide of extremism. In truth, such figures abound in Muslim lands, even if their work goes unnoticed by armchair pundits elsewhere. Their cause is not helped when someone like Rauf finds himself being excoriated for some perceived reluctance to condemn Hamas and accused of being an extremist himself. If anything, this browbeating of a moderate Muslim empowers the narrative promoted by al-Qaeda: that the West loathes everything about Islam and will stop at nothing to destroy it.

Rauf and Khan have said Park51 — envisaged as a 15-story structure, including a mosque, cultural center and auditorium — will promote greater interfaith dialogue. The furor over the project only underlines how desperately it is needed.