Feisal Abdul Rauf defends his plan for an Islamic center near Ground Zero.

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Aug. 31 2010 8:21 AM

The Imam Speaks

Feisal Abdul Rauf defends his plan for an Islamic center near Ground Zero.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Click image to expand.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, is traveling through the Middle East at the request of the State Department. As part of this ambassadorial tour, he has given an interview to the National of Abu Dhabi, published yesterday, in which he responds to questions about the U.S. uproar over his project. Are his answers adequate? Let's take a look.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1. Much of the reaction is just politics. "There is no doubt that the election season has had a major impact upon the nature of the discourse," the imam says. This implies that the intensity of the backlash will subside once the November elections are over—and that time is what's needed to cool the resistance. We'll see whether this bet proves wise.

2. The backlash is normal. "The struggles we are going through today are of the same genre as what the previous faith communities had to face," he says. "Jewish immigrants, Catholic immigrants had to face even worse attacks against their communities." But "as the second generation establishes itself and is rooted in the United States they articulate an expression of who we are as Americans and [are] seen decreasingly as alien." This point is similar to the previous one: Time will dissolve much of the resistance. But here, the imam is no longer talking about a single election. He's talking about generations. He's saying that after the election is over, the remaining, underlying distrust of Muslims will ultimately be healed only by the slow process of integration. The upside of this prognosis is that in the long run, history favors healing.

3. This is a local matter. "The local community board recognizes and understands the vision, the politicians in New York understand the vision, and there is broad-based support for these objectives," says the imam. In a separate talk in Bahrain, he told a questioner, "The opposition to us has come from outside the community." He's right, but this is a risky tack. A man who was born outside the United States (he's a naturalized citizen), speaks English with an accent, and preaches a minority religion that was invoked by the 9/11 plotters is claiming insider status against Christian, native-born Americans. This might work in the ethnic mixing bowl of New York. But in the broader United States, it sounds pretty crazy.

4. He probably should have picked a different site. Abdul Rauf never says this. But the National reports, "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." Translation: Oops! Similarly, in a CBS News interview that aired Monday, the project's developer, Sharif El-Gamal, has this exchange:

Q: Did it occur to you when you were putting this together that that was two blocks too close to a place that many, many people feel very strongly about?
El-Gamal: Not at all. It did not even cross my mind once.
Q: Why not?
El-Gamal: Because I did not hold myself or my faith accountable for that tragedy.

The takeaway from these interviews seems pretty clear: Neither man appreciated the political risks of the site they chose. If they had, they would have handled things quite differently.

5. The real fight is between moderates and radicals. Abdul Rauf says the struggle now "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." He says Muslim radicals and anti-Muslim radicals "feed off each other and need each other to sustain themselves. So we need right now to combat the radical voices." This is the crux of the whole debate, and here, the imam is exactly right. Witness the eerily similar, mutually reinforcing fulminations of Osama Bin Laden and Newt Gingrich. When Abdul Rauf returns to the United States, this is the point he needs to emphasize: In the mosque debate, we should side not with one faith against another, but with moderation against radicalism.

6. The backlash justifies going ahead with the plan. "The fact that there has been this misunderstanding shows the need for the project," says the imam. Well, yes. But does it show the need for building the project at the presently planned site? It's safer to point out simply that the backlash is unjustified and that the project will help ameliorate the underlying distrust.

7. Religious pluralism is Islam. Our basic rights, enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, reflect a "foundational viewpoint of America" that "is exactly what Islam is," says the imam. He asserts that the American principle "that religious liberty is a fundamental protected right" is "a value which lies at the very core of the Quranic value."

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    Really? Freedom of religion is at the core of Islam? That strikes me as wildly implausible. It certainly isn't true of Judaism or Christianity. These are religions, not neutral referees. They try to run your life. The imam, too, believes that Islam should run the lives of Muslims. Yet he suggests that Islamic law is a perfect fit, if not a synonym, for American pluralism. Gingrich disputes this, and here, Gingrich seems to have the better argument. When the imam returns, he has a lot of explaining to do. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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