Imam Rauf: Mosque planner has been mostly silent during noisy debate

The imam leading plans for an Islamic center near the Manhattan site of the September 11 attacks says he hopes to draw attention during his trip in the Middle East to the common challenges to battle radical religious beliefs.
By Michelle Boorstein
Monday, August 23, 2010

To pundits skeptical of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the New York imam is a wolf in sheep's clothing who claims to be building a monument to tolerance near Ground Zero but is actually an apologist for radical, anti-American Muslims.

To people who have worked with him in the interfaith community, the white-bearded Sufi is a visionary for peace and progressive Islam, an American patriot who has toiled for decades to build bridges between this country and like-minded Muslims around the world.

Unquestionably, the 61-year-old Rauf (pronounced rah-oof) is the product of some strange circumstances.

Rocketed to prominence after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by government and interfaith leaders interested in promoting the voices of moderate Muslims, the former industrial filter salesman won a book contract and gigs representing the State Department in the Muslim world and teaching FBI agents about Islam. He was asked to become a member of the World Economic Forum and invited to speak with the likes of Antonin Scalia and Karen Hughes. In just a few years, he went from an ambitious, well-liked leader of a small TriBeCa prayer group to a world player.

"After September 11, when we were all afraid, Imam Feisal was one of the people who stood up for American Muslims who totally rejected terrorism. He built a significant network of Christian and Jewish supporters," said D. Randall Benn, a D.C. lawyer and interfaith activist who has worked as Rauf's Washington adviser for about two years. "It was where he was, and the power of his ideas, that made him big."

Ironically, the same symbolic power of Ground Zero that elevated Rauf now threatens to take him down.

At the center of a global firestorm of debate, Rauf is absent, sticking to his commitment to lecture for the State Department in Bahrain about, of all things, "how we emphasize religious tolerance in our society," department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters last week. Rauf's wife said he would not be available for an interview until next month -- though he told a gathering at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Bahrain on Sunday that the attention generated was a "sign of success" and could bring about greater understanding.

Though now largely invisible, Rauf seems to have become a proxy for Americans' anxiety about Islam and its legal system, sharia. The intense reaction against Rauf's proposed project and some of his political views have laid bare Americans' fragile acceptance of its Muslim minority.

'Builder of bridges'

So far, debate has been framed around whether a $100 million, 15-story Muslim community center and mosque should be built two blocks from where Islamic radicals brought down the World Trade Center. But interviews with people who know Rauf suggest that the project isn't much more than an idea and that Rauf's most controversial trait may be his ambition.

While he portrays himself as someone who runs two influential interfaith nonprofits (his Web site says he is "regarded as one of the world's most eloquent and erudite Muslim leaders"), neither one has a staff, and the project that has inspired outrage hasn't even begun fundraising, said Rauf's wife and work partner, Daisy Khan.

Appearing Sunday on ABC's "This Week With Christiane Amanpour," Khan made clear that she and her husband intend the project to go forward and -- for the moment -- at the same site. But she also said, "We understand the pain and the anguish that has been displayed throughout the country."

Khan evaded the question of whether they had been in talks with New York Gov. David Paterson about moving the center to another location. Asked twice about it, Khan said her side wants to meet first "with all the stakeholders who matter, who are the New Yorkers. The community board has overwhelmingly supported this. . . .

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