The Ground Zero Imam's Helen Thomas Moment
08/13/2010 - 13:55
Jonathan Mark

Here is the complete Zion Herald interview from 2002 with the Great Moderate, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, in which he does a Helen Thomas turn, blaming "the way a Western, European Ashkenazi Jewish population created a state of Israel at the expense of the native non-European Christian, Muslim and even Jewish (Sephardic) populations.... Jews have always been welcome in the Middle East, But don't come and invade us. Don't invade our culture and our heritage."

(Excerpt)  ZH: Islamic societies feel they were invaded by the West. Was this
            exacerbated by the immigration of Jews into the Middle East? Was
            that a factor, too?

            FR (Feisel Rauf) : No, the immigration of Jews is not really the primary factor
            because we have had Jews living in the Middle East for centuries.
            All the way from Morocco to Central Asia, every country had major,
            significant, prosperous, very involved Jewish populations. It wasn't
            the immigration of Jews, it was the way a Western, European
            Ashkenazi Jewish population created a state of Israel at the expense
            of the native non-European Christian, Muslim and even Jewish
            (Sephardic) populations. In fact, the second Caliph Umar in 636
            invited Jews to return and live in Jerusalem after they were
            expelled. This was the issue. It was the issue of how the land was
            possessed and how certain people were dispossessed from their land.
            Jews have always been welcome in the Middle East. But don't come and
            invade us. Don't invade our culture and our heritage.


The complete interview:


            ZH Interviews
            Feisal Abdul Rauf

            Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been the Imam of al-Farah Mosque in New
            York City since 1983. Founder of the American Sufi Muslim
            Association and a trustee of the Islamic Center of New York, he is
            Islamic Advisor to the Interfaith Center of New York. He lectures
            regularly at New York mosques, synagogues and churches and at the
            New York Seminary, an institute dedicated to training interfaith
            ministers. He was born in Kuwait and educated in Egypt, England,
            Malaysia and the United States, where he graduated from Columbia
            University. Zion's Herald interviewed Imam Feisal in his New York
            City apartment on September 19, 2002.
            ZH:A basic question: What is an imam, and how does one become an

            FR:The word "imam" means a prayer leader. Anyone can lead the
            prayer provided he or she understands the basic requirements of
            conducting the prayer. There's a sense that the person who leads the
            prayer should be a person who, everything else being equal, is
            relatively more informed about the religion, about the Qur'an and
            the teachings of the Prophet. There is no formal ordination in Islam
            like there is in Christianity or Judaism. There is often a
            democratic process, where someone is selected or elected to be an
            imam of a congregation.

            ZH:This is one of those areas that we in the United States are
            having a hard time understanding Islam. That is, there are no
            clearly defined lines of authority, nobody appointed to speak for
            Islam per se. There's no pope, no bishop.

            FR:You are correct. There is no pope. There is no bishop. There is
            no equivalent of a church in Islam. However, that is only one of the
            problems contributing to Western misunderstanding of Islam. There
            are a couple of other reasons.
            One is the unfortunate history of the Crusades between the West and
            Islam, or more accurately between Christendom, the world of
            Christianity, and the world of Islam, which has led to some degree
            of opposition and created a sense of otherness. Whenever there's a
            sense of otherness, there's alienation. This happens between any two
            groups where there has been some degree of conflict. Differentiation
            occurs, the notion of the "other" comes and then there's a sense
            that these people are alien, that they subscribe to a set of ethics
            believed in the popular mind - often falsely - to be at odds with "our"
            values. That's one reason.
            The other reason is that Islam is just beginning to become a Western
            religion and regarded as such; it had hitherto been seen as alien
            and different. Every society has its language, its vocabulary, its
            worldview and its way of thinking. The challenge that every
            religious tradition has - Christianity, Judaism, whatever - is the need
            to restate its initial impulse in the mindset of the times. This is
            the big challenge of what we today call modernity. But this has
            always existed as people change and generations change. Always the
            question is, how did our forefathers understand and practice our
            heritage, our religion? What does this mean for us today? How is it
            relevant for us today?

            ZH:The effort to translate Islam into Western terms was going on
            even before 9/11. What has been 9/11's impact on that effort?
            FR: Western scholars have sought to understand Islam for the last
            several centuries but not at the level of the popular mindset. It
            was something that was relegated to academics in ivory towers, in
            departments of religion, who studied it like it was the religion of
            natives in faraway lands. But since 9/11 there has been a tremendous
            upsurge in the lay American population to understand, "What is this
            thing?" And the reason for it, naturally, is because Americans want
            to know what were the points of intersection between Islam and 9/11
            so that we can preempt another 9/11 from happening again.
            ZH:When you begin to translate Islam into the Western mindset,
            what is it that you want to emphasize?

            FR:Well, first of all, the religion of Islam as a faith and as a
            practice is identical with the primary and essential impulses of
            Christianity, of Judaism and of every authentic religious tradition.
            The two greatest commandments that Jesus gave—love the Lord your God
            with all of your heart, mind and soul; and the second commandment to
            love your fellow human beings as you love yourself—is the
            cornerstone of Islam. I mean, that expresses the fundamental ethic
            of Islam. Muslims share with the Jewish tradition the notion of an
            absolute monotheism: God is one, single, indivisible. God has no
            parts and no components. That would be the one essential thing that
            comes up in the creed of Islam.

            ZH:There have been critics—I think New York Times columnist Tom
            Friedman would be one of these—who say that Islam, unlike
            Christianity, never went through a reformation or an era of self
            criticism resulting in an adjustment to the modern world and the age
            of reason. Is that criticism just?

            FR:It's inaccurate. Muslims have always applied their reason.
            Muslims from the earliest times adopted and incorporated Greek
            philosophy, Hindu philosophy, Hindu sciences and methodologies into
            a growing perspective throughout their history. As recently as a
            century ago in the late 1800's through the early 1900's there was
            great intellectual ferment in the Muslim world. Many of the great
            names that are familiar to Muslims were people who were raised in
            our tradition but also were educated in the West. Educated in
            Cambridge and in France, they admired many of the aspects of
            European technological development and sought to introduce this into
            the Muslim world. However, this intellectual ferment came to an end
            with the demise of the Ottoman caliphate after World War I. After
            that, the Muslim world was attacked by a wave of militant secular

            ZH:From what source?

            FR:The perception of the Muslim world was that this was inflicted
            upon them by Western anti-Islamic elements or a combination of
            anti-Islam and anti-religion. Kemal Attaturk in Turkey suppressed
            religion, forced people to change their clothing, changed the
            alphabet with which they had written for several centuries from the
            Arabic script to a Roman script. They banned the call of prayer five
            times a day in Arabic and forced it to be done in Turkish for a
            number of years. Many of the Sufi orders, the mystical orders, were
            locked up, were banned in Turkey. This is in Turkey, mind you, which
            up until then was the [Islamic world's] capital. In the psyche of
            Muslims, this was like eliminating the papacy for Catholics.

            ZH:Is this why the issue of the Jewish settlements in the West
            Bank is such an inflammatory issue in the Arab and Islamic worlds,
            because it is a microcosm of this larger invasion?

            FR:They are all packaged in that issue. This is why Osama bin
            Laden, for instance, referred in one of his statements to "for 80
            years." What was he talking about, this 80 years? He was referring
            to the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate at the end of World War I,
            perceived by many Muslims to have been done at the behest of the
            Christian West as part of the continuation of the Crusader attitude,
            denying us our own religious expression. This was blended with
            colonialism, as well, because many of these countries were also
            occupied by European countries. France occupied Algeria, and Morocco
            to some extent. France's notion of colonialism was to make them
            Frenchmen, so much so that when Algeria achieved independence in the
            1960's, most Algerians could not even speak Arabic. They were French
            speaking. The notion of stripping people away from their culture to
            the point where they forced them to dress the European way, to speak
            European languages and even forget their own language was deemed to
            be too much of an invasion of a people's right of self-expression.

            ZH:What has this invasion of Islamic culture and society done to
            Islamic perceptions of Christianity?

            FR:Well, the perception in much of the Muslim world is tied into
            the experience with the Crusades and colonialism that I just
            referred to. I have a personal observation of my own about European
            Christianity, because Western Christianity is a broad subject.
            American Christianity is very different, shaped by Protestantism and
            the American and French revolutions, believing in a more pluralistic
            society. European Christianity was much more shaped by Catholicism,
            by a non-separation of church and state. And I believe that the
            fault line that exists between Rome and the Orthodox Church is the
            same fault line that exists between European Christianity and the
            world of Islam. It's the same exact issues. Now, as I presume you
            know, there is a great animosity between the Orthodox Church and the
            Church of Rome. When the pope visited Greece and Ukraine and some of
            the ex-Serbian countries, many of the Orthodox Church leaders didn't
            even want to meet him. That polarity, in my opinion, is the same
            thing that happened between European Christianity and the Muslim
            world. The Orthodox world, its worldview, is very close to the
            Muslim world.

            ZH:I would take that not to be a statement of good news in terms
            of what's going on today. You're describing a chasm between the two
            cultures that poses very stern challenges on both sides for finding
            common ground.

            FR:What I'm saying is that the problem is less theological than
            attitudinal. I think that, particularly with the current pope,
            there's a desire to change the discourse between Rome and the Muslim
            world. I detect a change, and I think the change will be permanent.
            The change is as a result of what I call American Catholicism or
            what I refer to as American religion. Because, America has had a
            profound influence upon religion.

            ZH:Say more about that.

            FR:When I say America, I am referring to the principles that
            founded this country, especially the principle of separation of
            church and state and the Bill of Rights, which created a sense of
            separation of powers. This meant that state authorities could not
            favor one church or one interpretation of religion and suppress
            others. Until that time throughout Europe and throughout much of the
            world, the state authority was generally an authoritative king or
            monarch who held onto power until he died or he was made to die. And
            the religious authority would try to have a relationship with the
            state authority to make sure that their particular interpretation of
            religion was the only one deemed authoritative. Through American
            Christianity, the notions of separation of church and state and
            pluralism filtered back to Europe. It was, in fact, American
            Catholics who were instrumental in lobbying for Vatican II in the
            1960's. To follow up on this, I am convinced that the next steps in
            the development of an American Muslim community will have a very,
            very profound effect upon the Muslim world in general. They will
            introduce to the larger Muslim world many of the important ideas of
            pluralism. They'll also be an intermediary between the United States
            and the Muslim world just as American Catholics were the
            intermediaries between the principles of democracy and Rome.

            ZH:The separation of church and state has also been seen as
            unleashing the genie of secularism. That is, without state support,
            it's okay to live without the church and even without religion. Do
            you see that dynamic at work, and have a guess about how it might
            affect Islam's development in Western cultures?

            FR:Freedom of religion allows you to do whatever you think is
            right. It does not coerce any person. If you want to live a secular
            life, you may, including living without religion. What the Muslim
            world has experienced, however, has been the lack of separation of
            church and state. In the 20th century it has experienced the
            religion of atheism and secularism forced upon its people by the
            state. In other words, the regimes of the Shah of Iran and Attaturk,
            for example, forced atheism and secularism upon its people. People
            don't like to be forced. So the experience of the Muslim world is
            that it had secularism rammed down its throat.

            ZH:Is Islam experiencing "marketability" in Western culture now,
            especially in the United States? Are you finding it's a marketable

            FR:I believe so.

            ZH:Why? What is the appeal?

            FR:There are a number of appeals. Islam is a very simple religion.
            It's easy to digest. It is not, you know, complicated. If you want
            complexity you can find it in Islam, you can find all the richness
            you want, but it's easy to practice. It has a clear set of
            definitions as to who you are as a human being, your relationship to
            your Creator, and the expectations of the Creator and the
            commitments of the Creator. It speaks about the covenant, not in
            mysterious terms, but in very simple contractual terms. So the
            covenant with Abraham which has been extended to all of humanity
            through Jesus Christ and through Mohammed and through all the
            various prophets is, basically: "Here's the deal. You do these
            things and I will do these things. I, God, will do these things. If
            you do these things and avoid these things, hey, you're going to be
            fine." Simple as that.

            ZH:In light of 9/11, there's the fear that fundamentalist Islam
            also is marketable.

            FR:I'd like to separate fundamentalism and militancy.
            Fundamentalism is when you look at the fundamentals. As in studying
            a stock in the stock market, if the fundamentals of the company are
            there, you'll invest in it. Fundamentalism in that sense is part of
            the authentic desire for religious identity and experience. The
            intersection between Islam as a faith and 9/11 has more to do with
            the geo-politics of the Muslim world. It has to do with the notion
            that Islam has a very strong sense of social justice. And there's a
            lot of social injustice in the Muslim world. Islam has a sense of
            what links us in a social contract. In America, the social contract
            is our Constitution. So, when you feel you have been wronged, if the
            social contract has been violated, as an American you say, "This is
            unconstitutional," and therefore seek to correct it by articulating
            your hurt in constitutional language and terms. When a Muslim feels
            violated in a socially contractual way, he says, "This is
            un-Islamic." The word un-Islamic is the translation of
            "unconstitutional" to an American. When a Christian says it is
            un-Christian, you mean it is uncharitable, unkind and inhumane.
            While this is also part of what is meant by "un-Islamic," there is a
            very strong component of what we call unconstitutional.

            ZH:A violation of the social contract?

            FR:Yes. And therefore the remedy is to establish a constitutional
            society. Translated, that becomes an Islamic society.

            ZH:And yet, what I sense is that, in American society especially,
            when we hear the term, "Islamic society," we hear that as being
            automatically different from or alien to American values of justice
            and freedom and so forth. But if I hear you correctly, that's not

            FR:That's true. In fact, the tragedy and the paradox in the whole
            situation are that Islamic values are American values. The American
            values of pluralism, of human rights, of the proposition that all
            men are created equal, these are Islamic ideas. Even the notion in
            the Pledge of Allegiance of being, "one nation under God" is a
            phrase in the Qur'an. This is why it is so important to me that an
            American Muslim community and our intellectual leadership articulate
            these principles, make them clearly understood to important voices
            in America so that we can eliminate this gap and recognize that, in
            fact, Islam is the best vehicle to further what we call "American
            values" in the Muslim world.

            ZH:So, what you're saying to me is exciting in the sense in that
            maybe there is, after all, a blessing in 9/11. There could be
            opening up a new world of opportunity for American culture to be
            blessed by the Islamic culture and Islamic worldview. Maybe we've
            found that time in history when this conversation can really begin
            in earnest.

            FR:I certainly hope so. Absolutely.

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