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The imam behind the New York mosque enjoys his megaphone

By Dana Milbank
Monday, September 13, 2010; 3:28 PM

It's difficult to think of somebody who has done more harm to the causes he purports to represent than Feisal Abdul Rauf -- the so-called Ground Zero Imam.

He claims he wishes to improve the standing of Muslims in the United States, to build understanding between religions, and to enhance the reputation of America in the Muslim world. But in the weeks since he -- unintentionally, he says -- set off an international conflagration over his plans to build an Islamic center near the scene of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in New York, he has set back all three of his goals.

Still, there is another cause that has flourished during the controversy -- that of Feisal Abdul Rauf. Here he is on the Larry King show; there he is writing an op-ed in the New York Times; that's him, again, on ABC's This Week. On Monday morning, he addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in New York (I listened in via conference call), offering many thoughts on what appears to be his favorite topic.

"Allow me, please, to begin by telling you my story," Rauf said, before delivering various self promotional tidbits to the audience:

"I came to America by boat when I was only 17 years old."

"I got my bachelor's in physics at Columbia University."

"I had a number of occupations: a high-school teacher, a salesman of industrial products, and a struggling writer."

"My own niece currently serves in the United States Army."

"I'm a Giants fan."

Congrats on the win over Carolina, Imam. But what about the mosque?

Rauf hinted that a compromise is being worked out. "We are exploring all options as we speak right now, and we are working through what will be a solution, God willing, that will resolve this crisis, defuse it."

This willingness to cool the tensions is of recent origin. Just days ago he was telling CNN's Soledad O'Brien: "If we move from that location, the story will be that the radicals have taken over the discourse. The headlines in the Muslim world will be that Islam is under attack."

There has been general agreement across the ideological spectrum that Rauf has the constitutional right to build the mosque. I, like many others, have opposed the bigoted speech of some of the mosque's critics. But Rauf, by exploiting the controversy, has made it worse. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that 66 percent of Americans oppose the building of the mosque in Lower Manhattan (53 percent oppose it strongly), as a growing plurality of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam.

He further aggravated the situation Monday morning, putting opponents of the mosque on equal footing with Muslim extremists. "Every religion in the world has extremists; sadly, Islam is among them," he said. "All faiths have among their members those who distort and twist the core values for their own agendas." The imam, who said he had seen in recent weeks "how destructive the power of extremist acts and language can be," pronounced that "the real battle that we must wage together today is not between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is between moderates of all the faith traditions against the extremists of all the faith traditions."

It was a neat formulation. On one side: Osama bin Laden, Sarah Palin and Franklin Graham; on the other side, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. When Council president Richard Haas challenged this parallelism with an observation that "ninety-nine percent of the world's most dangerous terrorists are Muslims," Rauf blamed the Arab Israeli conflict and the "presence of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has expanded the amount of terrorist acts."

Conveniently, Rauf sees himself taking a leadership role in this fight against extremists of all stripes. He would build "a coalition of moderates from all of the faith traditions to combat the extremists -- and I seek your help."

This amounted to a commercial for the organization Rauf leads, the interdenominational Cordoba Initiative. "In every crisis," the imam told his audience, "there's an opportunity." The opportunity this time: "I need a space, I want a space where the voice of the moderates can be amplified┬┐. In a paradoxical sense, or maybe in a poignant sense, this is an opportunity that we must capitalize on so that those who teach moderation will have a megahorn to preach."

Rauf is already enjoying his "megahorn." When Ted Sorensen rose to draw a comparison to John F. Kennedy's efforts 50 years ago to build understanding between Protestants and Catholics, the imam joked: "Fortunately, Ted, I can't run for U.S. president, since I was not born in this country."

Certainly, the New York mosque controversy has gotten Rauf the amplified voice he seems to crave. But has it been worth stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment at home and anti-American feelings abroad?

"Is it worth all this firestorm?" the imam asked himself yesterday. "The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is a categorical yes."

danamilbank@washpost.com

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