Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf spoke and answered questions today with Quakers--and many others interested in interfaith--from around the Washington, DC, area on Sunday, February 27. A good part of the afternoon in the meetinghouse of Friends Meeting of Washington (FMW) was taken up by conversation between the Friends and the imam, rather than his speech, which, though brief, was most compelling and deeply introspective. The event was initiated and coordinated by the Friends Committee on National Legislation of Washington, DC (FCNL), and cosponsored by the DC Interfaith Peace Initiative. Attendance was estimated at one hundred.
The author of three books and an activist advocating more rapport and understanding between the West and Islam the world over, the imam has located his religious center since 1983 at the Masjid al-Farah mosque in TriBecCa. Imam Feisal is head and spokesperson for Cordoba House, the controversial project of establishing a Muslim community cultural center that is very "multifaith" oriented, two blocks away from Ground Zero. The issue became a media hotspot last year after May, stirring up conflict at the national and international center. In so many words, the imam said that the whole world was watching and the United States, as focal point, did not seem aware of this wider attention. "We lose sight of how people see us," he said.
The imam described his project as part of his dedication to bridge society and eliminate the Islamophobia that has been festering since 9/11. Cordoba House was planned as a community center similar to the Ninety-Second Street Y, the Chataugua Institution, or the Jewish Community Center, that is, focused on athletics, education, and religion, with spaces dedicated to worship. He went from place to place explaining his project, reaching out to 9/11 families, whose reaction was mixed, as well as to the general public.
It's been a rocky road spreading the word about what has been called, very misleadingly, the "Ground Zero Mega-Mosque" by opponents.The community board in Lower Manhattan approved the project, for which the property, called Park51 because of its location on Park Place, was purchased in 2009 in a location already in use by the Muslim community, and wide support ensued until May of 2010. The imam said that had he known such a massive conflict would erupt, he'd have moved Cordoba House somewhere else. The location is in a nonsectarian area. Once (and if?) the project is settled and activated, the imam would like to open up other Cordoba Houses throughout the country. Chatauqua, New York, was one place he specified. Opposition to the project comes from a variegated demographic in this country.
Speaking of the celebrity/notoriety that attended him after the controversy was publicized, Imam Feisal referred, with a laugh, to his "new normal"--being chased by paparazzi.
As to the inevitable abuse he absorbs, he said, he expanded on a joke shared with the audience by Joe Volk, head of FCNL. Joe had quoted the saying, "one who throws mud loses ground." The imam said it may also be the case that "he who gets mud thrown at him gains ground."
The event at FMW began with silence; the imam's soft voice breaking it after a few minutes by noting that "before creation all was silence." He thanked FCNL and the Quakers for their "tremendous support," for example, obtaining seven thousand signatures in support of his project, by way of a petition entitled "We Stand with American Muslims."
He jumped to a subject at the forefront of all of our minds--the revolutions taking place all over the Middle East. He defined these events as a "demand for what we have here--jobs [unemployment in the Middle East is among the highest in the world--ed.] and other forms of well-being that they lack: religious and intellectual freedom, "certain inalienable rights" endowed by our Creator, as specified in the Declaration of Independence. We are a "nation under God." We all deserve to be recognized as "human beings in the highest and deepest sense."
The United States is not founded on the idea that one religion must dominate, the imam added, also praising the separation between church and state that exists here.
God announced to his angels that he would create us as his successors, khalifas, said the imam. This inspired the introspective portion of his message--how he came to this country forty-five years ago after having lived in England, then Egypt, Indonesia, and ultimately the United States. He had gone through many changes, as we all do, and had received a vision of God at the age of fourteen: he realized the gap between being and doing, and that doing is so much more important than being.
There was something timeless within him, he realized. The boundaries of his ego dissolved. Fully conscious nonetheless, he felt one with everyone and everything around him. He experienced "love and power and knowledge of the Creator."
For him, such religious experience is "fundamental to knowing who you are."
He wanted to be the best possible mirror of what God wants, and the most powerful step in this direction is silence, learning to communicate without speaking. This emphasis on silence at the beginning and end of his talk resonated well in the Quaker environment that welcomed him.
In response to the question what keeps him going in the face of the hostile aspect of his mission--what keeps him so positive, he said that the more you work on yourself the harder the demands become. This very spiritual journey keeps him going, being true to his mission and walking in the footsteps of the prophets, to the point of being a pleasure and delight to God.
"The greatest jihad is within ourselves," the imam said. Religious work is the most difficult of all, because of all the crazy people [I think that's the terminology he used--ed.] you come upon in this endeavor.