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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.

The group's stated mission included "strengthening an authentic expression of Islam based on cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration, youth and women's empowerment, and arts and cultural exchange."

After Sept. 11 they also founded the Cordoba Initiative, which includes the Muslim center project, called Park51. The initiative also conducts training for young Muslim American leaders, lectures and something called the Sharia Index Project, which gathers Islamic legal scholars to reach consensus on the relationship between Islamic law -- sharia -- and government. Before beginning his State Department work last week, Rauf was in Malaysia meeting with leaders about the program, his wife said.

He and his wife also serve as spiritual guides for a small community of Muslim American go-getters, holding zikrs in their home as well as doing informal matchmaking and performing marriage ceremonies, including ones for interfaith couples.

Skirting key issues?

In an interview with The Washington Post this past June about the project, Khan said the fact that the land near Ground Zero became available showed "a divine hand."

Yet many questions went unanswered about Rauf and his project, a vacuum that seems to have been filled quickly by people put off by Rauf's apparently liberal political views. In recent weeks, conservative leaders and pundits in particular have lobbed far more questions than specific complaints about the imam. Why was he unwilling to explicitly call Hamas a terrorist organization? When he said U.S. foreign policies fueled the Sept. 11 attackers, does that rationalize terrorism? Whom is he meeting with in Malaysia?

Rauf's decision -- against the advice of some interfaith leaders who support him -- to remain silent in the media storm seemed to fuel some people's worries.

"If [interfaith] is your cause, why not make it an interfaith center?" said K.T. McFarland, a Fox News national security analyst who took a course from Rauf after the 2001 attacks. During the course, she said, he declined to condemn particular Islamic organizations. "He would condemn violence, but not be specific."

His silence has also fueled conspiracy theorists who said the sharia project was on a "hidden Web site" that would reveal his real plan to use the large downtown site "to enforce sharia law in America and worldwide." The sharia project is prominently featured on the Cordoba site.

Rauf has been criticized for days, in the conservative media in particular, for comments like the one he made in June when asked if he agreed with the State Department's assessment of Hamas as a terrorist organization.

"I'm not a politician. I try to avoid the issues. The issue of terrorism is a very complex question," he told New York's WABC radio. "I do not want to be placed, nor do I accept . . . being put in a position where I am the target of one side or another." He went on to say that he sees targeting civilians as a sin in Islam and that he is a supporter of the state of Israel, but the interview is now lore in the anti-Park51 blogosphere.

Interfaith leaders said it's not uncommon to avoid areas of tension in dialogue -- in fact it's a strategy, they said.

Schoolman said that in interfaith discussions, sometimes people say, "Let's talk about what we can do something about. What are the problems in our community? We can't resolve what's going on with Israel and Palestine."

Rauf has apparently not been specific about two controversial imams who worked before and after the 2001 attacks at the Islamic Cultural Center, where Rauf is still a trustee. In the days after the attacks, one suggested that Jews were behind them and the other said that it wasn't clear Muslims were involved, as U.S. officials had concluded.

His wife declined to comment on the controversies, saying she wasn't familiar with the comments or what her husband has said about them, but said "his record on terrorism is very, very clear."

To some Muslim Americans, such intense distrust of a man whose life's work is about interfaith relations shows a double standard, a limit to how far they can go in criticizing U.S. foreign policy, how frankly they can speak about sharia-state relations, a topic of great debate especially among young Muslims around the world.

Meanwhile, more Muslim American voices are surfacing in criticism of Rauf and his handling of the project.

"The fact that the organizers of Park51 did not see Islamophobia as a concern when announcing this proposal is disturbing. It reinforces the idea that they have no vision or leadership," Hofstra University professor and blogger Hussein Rashid wrote Friday. Rauf's supporters fear that a determined peacemaker who could play an important role may wind up destroyed by unrelenting controversy over the very subject he spent his career trying to promote: Islam.

"You have a pair of interfaith leaders who miscalculated the passion this would generate," Benn said of the imam and his wife.

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