x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

In New York, imam builds cultural bridges

From his mosque just a few blocks away from ground zero, Feisal Abdul Rauf hopes to narrow the gap between faiths within 20 years.

Feisal Abdul Rauf was the son of a prominent New York scholar and grandson of an Egyptian imam.
Feisal Abdul Rauf was the son of a prominent New York scholar and grandson of an Egyptian imam.

NORTH BERGEN, NEW JERSEY // Like millions of people around the world on Sept 11 2001, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was staring goggle-eyed at a television, awed by the spectacle of the World Trade Center's blazing twin towers billowing with smoke.

But, as the head of a mosque only a dozen blocks from New York's skyscraper targets, the Kuwaiti-born scholar was already thinking beyond the calamity for hundreds of doomed office workers. "You see a disaster that day and you think of the people in the buildings and how tragic that was," Mr Rauf said. "Then, over the succeeding few days, hoping and wishing that it was like Oklahoma City, that it wasn't Muslims who were behind it.

"We knew that, should it be associated with Muslims, we would naturally be seen as a national security threat - which is the way we became seen, and still are, in some circles of the United States." Many lobby groups have criticised the treatment of Muslim and Arab Americans after al Qa'eda agents hijacked jets and ploughed them into targets in New York and Washington. The Arab American Institute reported on "grave civil liberties concerns" following counter-terrorism initiatives, such as the USA Patriot Act, which made immigration procedures stricter for people arriving from the Middle East.

In May, Doudou Diene, the UN's special envoy on racism, began a three-week investigation of Islamophobia and other forms of racism across the United States, on which he will report next year. But for Mr Rauf, there is an "untold story" of support from non-Muslim Americans that started when downtown Manhattan had been cleared of rubble, and he returned to his mosque, Masjid Al Farah, in the trendy Tribeca district.

"It was about three weeks before I was able to visit our mosque, and there were letters taped to the door sending us wonderful wishes and expressing sentiments of unity and support," said the father of four. "That is the untold story, the many, many instances of non-Muslims reaching out to their Muslim neighbours. Teenage girls knocking on doors volunteering to go shopping for Muslim families that were too scared to leave their homes.

"You don't hear about the letters of support; you only hear about the incidents of violence. But for any incident of violence, there were 100,000 incidents of support." Born in the Gulf and educated in England, Malaysia and Egypt, Mr Rauf, 59, needed no lessons on relations between the West and the Islamic world when he arrived in the United States in the 1960s. At that time, tensions between Muslims and non-Muslim Americans were heightened by a civil rights campaign in which Malcolm X delivered firebrand speeches for the Nation of Islam while demanding equality for black Americans.

Mr Rauf, the son of a prominent New York scholar and grandson of an Egyptian imam, used his position in the Manhattan mosque from the 1980s to challenge "the perception of Islam as being alien to America". In 1997, he founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement to "forge an American-Muslim identity from the tapestry of both immigrant communities and the local American community". The September 11 attacks, which took the lives of some of the members of the imam's 600-strong congregation, spawned a surge in demand for lectures from Muslim leaders and saw Mr Rauf co-operate with US officials and investigators.

The campaign against Islamic extremists saw his mosque infiltrated by agents posing as worshippers to secretly record his sermons, he said. But the price was worth paying because the majority of New York Muslims were pleased to rid their community of hardline "rabble rousers". In 2002, he launched a second project, the Cordoba Initiative, with offices in the United States and Malaysia, to tackle "the underlying issues that fuel what has been called the divide between the West and the Muslim world".

His time frame is ambitious - Mr Rauf hopes to bridge the gulf between the civilisations within 20 years, he said during an interview at his home in North Bergen, a leafy New Jersey suburb across the Hudson River from Manhattan. His projects examine political issues that "have a very profound impact on the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims" such as Israelis and the Palestinians, Iraq and Afghanistan, and others that address how media reports "exacerbate and deepen" tensions, he said.

Meanwhile, he is taking the message back to the Islamic world and challenging what he calls the "politicisation of Islam", which has seen the religion merged with nationalism over the past century "to massive detriment". His book, What's Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, argues that pluralism and tolerance are fundamentals of Islam, and was rated by the Christian Science Monitor among the top five non-fiction titles of 2004.

Harkening back to the multicultural and cosmopolitan Golden Age of Islam - the centuries in which Muslims governed a vast region of diverse faiths - Mr Rauf is enlisting the support of modern-day Muslim leaders to deliver an Islamic renaissance. In his bridge-building enterprise, he counts among his advocates such reformist leaders as Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia's prime minister, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

"We know that our societies are not what we want them to be, but we are trying. And that is one of the good things about our societies, we are trying to make them better," Mr Rauf said. "The modern rulers of the Muslim world are increasingly of that mindset, that they are responsible to their communities. "There is a famous saying from Imam Ali, the Fourth Caliph, which is, 'Bring up your children for a time different from your own'. And that is what we must all do now. We must bring up our children for a different time."

@Email:jreinl@thenational.ae