ABU DHABI // The imam behind a controversial plan to build an interfaith centre near the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York said yesterday that there was no struggle between Islam and America, or between religions, but between moderates and radicals. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said opposition to the project was being led by a "tiny, vociferous minority" but he trusted the wisdom of Americans to act in the spirit of the US constitution.
In an interview with The National, Imam Feisal emphasised the silver lining uncovered in the furore as leaders of all faiths have come out in support of the project. Muslims in the Middle East, he said, could witness how freedom of worship and the protection of all religious viewpoints were enshrined as core principles of the American worldview. Imam Feisal said he intends to address the row over the plans to build the community centre when he returns to the United States this week.
He is on a US State Department-sponsored visit to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE as part of a programme to promote interfaith dialogue and to discuss the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world and Islam in America. He has made little public comment about the Park51 project - formerly known as Cordoba House - in recent weeks as the debate was propelled onto the national stage, with Republican leaders such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich speaking against it, and the New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, offering passionate support.
Some opponents of Park51 say the location of the project is insensitive, while others say it would be a monument to the attacks, essentially conflating Islam and extremism. But proponents argue that the centre would be a conduit to inter-faith dialogue. Imam Feisal , an imam in the area for 27 years, said the struggle "is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between moderates of all the faith traditions and the radicals of all the faith traditions. So what is required is a coalition."
Christian and Jewish leaders have spoken in support of the project, he said, and are in favour of positive, interfaith discourse. "However, there are also those very small, loud and vociferous voices who are beating the drum for the opposite kind of discourse. So the question becomes which discourse will dominate, not only in the short term but in the long term." He suggested that part of the opposition was politically motivated.
"There is no doubt that the election season has had a major impact upon the nature of the discourse," he said. Opposing or supporting the centre has evolved into a campaign issue ahead of congressional midterm elections in the US in November. The project's creators have also been criticised for not effectively participating in the media debate over the centre, but Imam Feisal rejected that criticism.
"We have been saying from the very beginning what the vision and objectives are. I've said it repeatedly on many television shows," he said, adding that religious and political leaders have also spoken forcefully about the merits of the project. "But, as I said, there is a small minority that doesn't want to hear this. "The fact of the matter is the local community board recognises and understands the vision, the politicians in New York understand the vision, and there is broad-based support for these objectives."
When asked about whether he would have chosen a different location for the project if he knew in advance about the controversy, Imam Feisal said the Prophet Mohammad instructed Muslims not to dwell on past decisions and wonder about alternative outcomes. Imam Feisal said he plans to address the controversy directly when he returns to the US, saying he preferred to do it "when I'm in my homeland and speaking to my people and my fellow Americans".
"As it is, my trust and conviction in the wisdom of the American people and political leadership and the American people at large is that they will act in accordance with the highest principles of our constitution and the fundamental American belief in justice and protection of everybody's rights," he said. The imam said that religion is enmeshed in American life, and the Arab and Muslim world must realise that protection of religious freedom is part of the "American creed".
The inalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, endowed by the Creator and laid out in the US Declaration of Independence, are "a very deeply embedded vision ? in the American people. This particular existential viewpoint and foundational viewpoint of America is exactly what Islam is. "America was created by people who fled Europe seeking religious freedom and religious liberty. So it is an essential part of the American worldview and creed, that religious liberty is a fundamental protected right," he said, adding that the role of government is to protect all religions.
"This is something which I believe the Muslim world insufficiently appreciates about America. I'd like to see them understand that better, recognise that better. And recognise that in that is a value which lies at the very core of the Quranic value," he said. The imam also spoke of an "evolving American Islamic identity", and the need to avoid equating Islam with extremism, a concern that "has been going on for quite some time now".
"And this is why it is important, the issue of radicalism is a threat to all of us. We have radicals in the Muslim world and we have radicals in the other faith traditions as well." "The radicals feed off each other and need each other to sustain themselves. So we need right now to combat the radical voices. That's the only way we can win this struggle, and establish a peaceful world order, which is what everybody wants and everybody needs."
"We are evolving an American Islamic identity, and the struggles we are going through today are of the same genre as what the previous faith communities had to face - Jewish immigrants, Catholic immigrants had to face even worse attacks against their communities," he said. "But as time goes on and as the second generation establishes itself and is rooted in the United States they articulate an expression of who we are as Americans and to be seen decreasingly as alien and being local."
That goal is being strengthened through the increased presence of Muslims in fields such as law enforcement and government, as well in more traditional occupations such as dentistry or driving a cab. "In perceptions between the Muslim world or the Arab Muslim world and the United States in particular, it is an ongoing picture, it is dynamic," he said. "There are issues and events which take place that shape people's perceptions in both directions, whether positively or negatively."