Who is this Imam Fooling?

September 8th, 2010 at 12:01 am | 124 Comments |

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With the ongoing “Ground Zero Mosque” firestorm and the bigger battle over Islam in the United States, rx the founder of the proposed mosque/cultural center, Imam Abdul Feisal Rauf, has become one of America’s most debated figures.  In one narrative, Rauf is the very model of a modern Muslim moderate: a brave champion of peace, tolerance, and Islam with a human face.  In the other, he is a stealth jihadist who offers a friendly façade to gullible Westerners while preaching extremism to other Muslims and pursuing a hidden agenda of replacing the U.S. Constitution with Koran-based Sharia law.

But the portrait that emerges from Rauf’s actual record differs from both these versions – and illustrates some pitfalls of the quest for moderate Islam.

The first narrative, embraced by some passionate opponents of radical Islamism such as Jeffrey Goldberg, has plenty of evidence on its side.  Rauf has long been known as a champion of a pro-freedom, pro-democracy, pro-American, even pro-feminist Islam (in his own mosque, women can lead prayers and the sexes can mingle).  His commitment to interfaith bridge-building has taken the form of such moving acts as his eulogy at the funeral of Daniel Pearl, the Jewish journalist slain by Islamic fanatics, in which he declared himself a Jew.   He has condemned not only suicide bombings but attacks on Christian churches in Muslim countries.  If this is an act, it’s a mind-bogglingly elaborate one.

Some charges leveled at the imam are wildly off-base – such as the claim, made most recently by columnist Deroy Murdock, that Rauf “wants the U.S. to be ‘sharia compliant.’”  In fact, Rauf’s argument, advanced in his 2005 book, What’s Right With Islam is What’s Right with America,  is that the U.S. already is “sharia compliant” because its legal and political system is rooted in what he says are the fundamental principles of Islamic law – respect for life, property, family, religion and justice.  Murdock also speculates that Rauf might support such sharia-based barbarities as executions for adultery, homosexuality or apostasy, or punishments for women who violate strict Islamic dress codes.  That seems doubtful, given that Rauf’s own mosque does not require female head covering and participants in his “Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow” program include openly lesbian feminist Irshad Manji.   A 2008 blogpost by Rauf’s wife and partner in the Cordoba House project, Daisy Khan, stresses that many Muslim authorities now reject the criminalization of apostasy.

Rauf’s controversial statements about the West and terrorism – calling the U.S. “an accessory” to the September 11 attacks, asserting that “the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaeda has … of innocent non-Muslims” due to deaths related to the sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1990s – have drawn far more justified ire.  But do they convict the imam as a radical Islamist in moderate’s clothing?   The view that our foreign entanglements helped make the U.S. a terrorist target has been voiced by quite a few people on the left and right – including one of Rauf’s loudest detractors, Fox News talk show host Glenn Beck.  The second statement is far more troublesome, since it equates deliberate mass murder with a United Nations-enforced policy whose probably exaggerated death toll is first and foremost on Saddam’s head.  But this particular form of America-blaming, however wrong-headed, is not exactly a litmus test for Muslim extremism; plenty of Western liberals and leftists with no connection to Islam have said similar things.

The biggest hole in the “stealth jihadist” narrative, however, is in plain sight:  Rauf’s dubious comments were not made to Muslim audiences away from Western eyes and ears, but in Western and very public venues.  A stealth jihadist who blows his cover on 60 Minutes – where Rauf made his “accessory to September 11” comment – really needs some lessons in stealth.   Likewise, the remark about Muslim blood on U.S. hands was made in a public lecture at the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Center in Australia, to an audience that included Australian public officials and members of parliament – some of whom chided the imam for not being more critical of the West.  So far, attempts to unearth more damning quotes in Rauf’s Arabic-language record have turned up nothing; indeed, it seems that while addressing Muslim audiences abroad he often has to fend off charges of shilling for the Americans.

Writing in The New Republic, Israeli scholar Yossi Klein Halevi gently rebukes Imam Rauf for trying to “be all things to all people” and choosing to “simply deny the resulting dissonance.”  This take on the “real Rauf” is far more plausible than the caricature of a cleverly camouflaged radical hell-bent on bringing Americans under the jihadist yoke.  But the very real smears against Rauf do not negate the equally real problems with his brand of “bridge-building.”

Rauf’s Big Tent approach, which seeks to embrace Muslim modernists and traditionalists alike, translates into in a deplorably accommodating stance toward some very nasty forms of authoritarian Islamism.

Christopher Hitchens, who has harshly criticized the anti-mosque backlash, has also blasted Rauf for a rather repugnant article (featured on the Cordoba Initiative website) on the 2009 elections in Iran.  The good imam hailed the almost certainly rigged vote as part of Iran’s “evolving democracy,” barely mentioned the brutal suppression of the protests, and urged President Obama to publicly express respect for “many of the guiding principles of the 1979 revolution” – among them “a just government, based on the idea of Vilayet-i-faqih, that establishes the rule of law.”  Rauf translates this term, the brainchild of the Ayatollah Khomeini, as “the rule of the jurisprudent”; but he also admits that it establishes “the rule of Islamic law.”  In practice, it amounts to the “guardianship” of Muslim clerics over politics, government, and private life.

Moreover, this is not the first time Rauf has had kind words for the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.  In What’s Right with Islam, he suggests the United States “might well have maintained excellent relations with Iran” if we had helped Khomeini come to power.  Bafflingly, he elides the incontrovertible fact that Khomeini’s “democratic” revolution represents the opposite of the liberal ideals he himself advocates.

While Wahhabi fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia receives a more critical treatment in the same book, the criticism is respectful and subdued.  Rauf mentions “Wahabbism’s excesses” such as the tragedy in which several girls died in a fire at a boarding school because the religious police would not let them exit the burning building unveiled – but never even raises the question of whether state-enforced mandatory veiling is acceptable under less drastic circumstances.  His discussion of women’s status in the contemporary Muslim world drips with “nobody’s perfect” false equivalency: “[I]n most countries the world over, the reality for women does not match the ideals we all know are right and just.  As American women are fighting for equal pay for equal work, for reproductive rights and affordable childcare, Muslim women are fighting for compulsory education (in Afghanistan), the right to drive (in Saudi Arabia), and the right to cover their hair (in France and in Turkey).”

Let’s leave aside the sheer absurdity of comparing complex issues such as pay equity and child care to basic rights such as schooling and driving.  Strikingly absent from Rauf’s account are far grimmer issues affecting women in many Muslim societies: honor killings, genital mutilation, being stoned to death for adultery (sometimes due to a rape) or whipped for wearing attire judged insufficiently modest.  The sad reality is that in recent decades, women’s rights in a number of countries have suffered serious setbacks due to the rise of militant fundamentalist Islam.

The same see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil mindset pervades Rauf’s approach to many other issues.  He has, on a number of occasions, mentioned Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi as a “highly regarded” top Muslim scholar and jurist, mainly in the context of praising his fatwas condemning terrorism or allowing Muslims to aid American forces in Afghanistan after September 11.  Yet Al-Qaradawi also approves of suicide attacks on Israeli civilians and American personnel in Iraq, justifies the execution of apostates and homosexuals, makes hateful pronouncements about Jews, and sanctions the “light” beating of unruly wives.  He was one of several “theologians of terror” listed in a 2004 petition signed by over 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from 23 countries urging the U.N. to ban public dissemination of religion-based incitement to violence.

There is no evidence that, as Andrew McCarthy claims in one of his anti-Rauf polemics, Imam Rauf regards Al-Qaradawi as “a guide.” But surely a man who positions himself as a leader in the movement for moderate Islam should recognize that there is a serious problem when one of the leading authorities in his faith – and one regarded as relatively progressive – upholds such abhorrent views.

Finally, Rauf’s strong anti-terror message is diluted by his insistence, in his book and in some speeches, that radical Islamic terrorism cannot end until the West addresses the grievances and social ills that help produce it.  Again, this is not an unusual view among Western liberals.  But surely a man of God should be saying that terrorism – particularly terrorism in the name of his faith – must end with no preconditions, simply because it is evil and ungodly.  (Plenty of groups around the world do not turn to terrorism despite arguably legitimate grievances.)

There have been many extreme claims made recently on the right about the impossibility of a moderate Muslim faith compatible with a free society.  It is reckless and inaccurate to assert that Islam is beyond reform.  But any reform movement must honestly confront the existing problems, not minimize them – and that is something even genuine moderate Muslims have often fallen short of doing.  Muslims who embrace freedom, pluralism, tolerance, and modernity will have to fight a battle for the soul of Islam, and speak out loud and clear against fanaticism, hate, and the denial of human rights.  Imam Rauf, who unabashedly calls himself a “visionary,” has been in a position to do that.  Unfortunately, however noble his intentions may be, his “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach to differences within Islam is a clear failure of vision.

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124 Comments so far ↓

  • Slide

    Wrong analogy. Let’s try another. Nhthinker and some of his pals visit my city. They get off the wrong train station and find themselves in a black neighborhood. One of nhthinker’s friends is an avowed racist and starts yelling at the group of black youths that happen to be in the area. “Hey, you effing n*****s, you are a bunch of assholes. You all deserve to be lynched you bunch of monkeys”

    Now I am sure that nhthinker would applaud his friend’s exercise of his First Amendment rights and would not in any way find him culpable when they all get their asses handed to them

  • CentristNYer


    Slide can answer for himself. I can only respond to nhthinker’s posts, which invariably contain silly, cartoonish attacks on liberals as America-hating monsters. If that’s all his so-called “thinking” can produce, he might be better off posting at redstate.com.

  • nhthinker

    Let’s try another analogy.

    I was actually beaten up for my skin color. I was only 9 years old at the time and at a public park and I had walked a quarter-mile to a water fountain and was set upon by a group of 6 youths I had never seen in my life. I did not say a word and I did not take a swing at any of them.
    But I guess Slide would say I was culpable because my face was white that day.

    Many times, irrational behavior does not need culpable provocation.

    Is the woman accused of adultery partially culpable for her sentence of being stoned to death????

    Why do you have trouble answering such questions?

  • nhthinker


    Feel free to run away from an argument when you have no answer to reasonable questions:

    Do you feel the pastor will be at least in part culpable for the rioting and murdering in the aftermath of the Koran burning, (just not legally so)?

    Do you think that the woman that is accused of adultery and scheduled to be stoned to death is in part culpable for the scheduled stoning?

    This place is much more fun than red state.

  • jakester

    This burning is taking place in a bastion of white Christian supremacy on his own church’s property, not in Jeddah or Teheran

  • CentristNYer

    Sorry, “thinker,” but you’ve missed my point entirely, which is about your insistence on making ad hominem attacks on libruhls, as if they’re the enemy. You repeatedly set up straw men arguments insisting that “leftys do this” or “liberals think that,” even when it’s clearly not true.

    It’s a stupid, childish debating ploy that reveals how empty your arguments are.

    What I think about the pastor’s culpability or people being stoned has absolutely no relevance to my criticism of the tone of your posts.

  • nhthinker


    Too timid to answer straightforward questions that are pertinent to understanding the thinking of liberals on this board for the topic in questions and likely exposing the clear hypocrisy in thought process?

    You assert that you understand how I think- It makes me chuckle.

  • Slide

    jakester // Sep 9, 2010 at 4:56 pm Slide
    This burning is taking place in a bastion of white Christian supremacy on his own church’s property, not in Jeddah or Teheran

    In the age of YouTube, that is irrelevant.

  • Fairy Hardcastle

    It’s all moot now. The reverend has called it off. But probably jihadists were riled up enough from the mere plan to burn the Koran that they are planning to suicide bomb somewhere.

  • Slide

    Fairy Hardcastle // Sep 9, 2010 at 5:37 pm “It’s all moot now. ”

    Until the next right wing radical wants his 15 minutes of fame. Don’t get any ideas now nhthinker.

  • nhthinker


    The US military burns Bibles instead of sending them back to the church that sent them.

    I’m sure Slide will demonstrate great outrage about the burning of the Bibles, especially by the US military…
    Yeah, right!

    The US military’s position is all about perceived threats and nothing at about about respect for the holy symbols of all religions.

  • Slide

    Really nhthinker, you are some piece of work.

  • nhthinker

    Still waiting for that demonstration of outrage.
    How long should I wait for your statement of how deplorable this example of the US military burning Bibles was?

  • Slide

    Was the purpose of burning the bibles to disrespect and insult Christanity? If it was then I would deplore it but obviously that was not the intention so no I’m not outraged in the slightest. Let me ask you, are you outraged if a Flag is burned to dispose or it by the VFW?

    Your question really shows that you are an unserious person. You look for debating points to win that you are oblivious to how idiotic you sound.

  • nhthinker

    The Bibles were either considered holy books or they were not.
    They were not treated by the military as holy books. Do you even pretend to think that the US military would dispose of misplaced Korans in that fashion?
    (Tell me when I should stop laughing)

    You are clearly a piece of work. A truly entertaining piece of work.

  • Slide

    I am an atheist. Neither the bible nor the Koran are ‘holy’ books to me. It is of course not the actual burning of a book that is offensive it is burning a book for the express purpose of insulting the people that venerate that book. The military Had no intention to insult anyone. They did not publicize the burning of the bibles nor did they video tape their destruction for YouTube. If you can’t see the difference between those two acts then I can’t help you. To suggest that the US military is somehow anti-Christian is absurd. But quite expected from birther nhthinker who sees conspiracies behind every corner.

    I know you are disappointed that your little book burning party got cancelled but don’t worry I am sure there will be others to give you a little woodie.

  • nhthinker

    That you would totally ignore considering whether the US military would burn Korans with the trash as opposed to handing them over to Imams says a lot about you.

    Thanks for playing.

    Compartmentalization is a typical fault in the rationalizations of liberals.

    We still haven’t got one liberal to tell us whether the woman accused of adultery is at least partial culpable for the sentence of stoning that she received.

  • nhthinker

    One more analogy.

    Slide spends the night out drinking with his buddies and ends up at an acquantances’ house. Slide’s acquaintance’s wife starts yelling at him about being worthless drunk and having worthless friends. The acquaintance tells the wife to shut up or he’ll shut her up. The wife continues yelling.

    Is the wife culpable if Slide’s acquaintance hauls off and beats her unconscious?

    Does a wife-beating drunk deserve to be harassed?

    Does a irrational Muslim radical deserve to be harassed?

  • Slide

    nhthinker // Sep 9, 2010 at 9:21 pm: Slide, Still waiting for that demonstration of outrage. How long should I wait for your statement of how deplorable this example of the US military burning Bibles was?

    You are going to wait a rather long time since I don’t think any outrage is warranted whatsoever.

    From a Catholic website that answer’s readers questions:

    Q: What is the appropriate means to dispose of an old Bible?

    A: There is no specifically mandated means of disposing of old Bibles. Some Catholics follow a custom of disposing of religious articles that have been blessed either by burying or burning them, but even that is not mandated by law. If the Bible has been blessed you might choose to follow that custom. If not, dispose of it as you would any other book. If it’s still in fair condition, you might put it on a book donation table to benefit someone else.


    So the preferred way to dispose of a Bible is by burning. The military burned the bibles to dispose of them. They did not burn the bibles publicly in an effort to depict the religion they represented as a “devil religion” as the pastor down in Florida intended.

    Again I use the analogy of a protester burning the US flag to show hatred for our country and the burning of a US flag by the VFW to dispose of it as per proper flag etiquette. Are they the same thing? Of course not.

    The fact that nhthinker doesn’t understand this very important difference and wishes, for the sake of scoring debating points, to conflate these very very different acts just justifies my rather low opinion of his intellectual honesty.

  • nhthinker

    So Slide continues to be silent on whether he thinks the US military would treat the handling of Korans with greater care and respect than putting them out with the trash, and then burning them. These were not old unusable Bibles that we are talking about.

    Slide is obviously having trouble about being open and honest about this.
    But the lack of openness is still entertaining.


    The thoughts on the treatment of the Bible vs the Koran by the US military is starting to get noticed by American Catholics.

  • Fairy Hardcastle

    nhthinker, maybe the military is trying to get jihadists used to the idea that your faith does not disintegrate merely because a book is burned. Wouldn’t that be a great step forward for a monotheist?

  • medinnus

    “We still haven’t got one liberal to tell us whether the woman accused of adultery is at least partial culpable for the sentence of stoning that she received.”

    Well, I’m not a liberal, as such – at least I don’t self-identify as one, but as a thinking, humanist-oriented Conservative (and as such, characterized as a “RINO” or a “dirty Libruhl” by the Right fringe lunatics here). As such, I’ll answer.

    If one lives in a country where the sentence for adultery is death, and one chooses to commit adultery, then I feel that person is responsible for the consequences of those actions, whether or not the consequences are unreasonable and barbaric. Its kind of a version of “Doctor, it hurts when I do this!” “Well, don’t do that then…”

    I am assuming that she did the crime of her own free will, mind you, and it wasn’t a variation on rape or coerced sex; its like if an Iranian militia rapes a prisoner arrested for protesting, and then charges her with adultery as well…

  • nhthinker


    By the same token, can we externd your view to the idea that if the law in a country is blacks can’t drink from white folks water fountains that the black person IS responsible for the consequences of the action of taking a drink?

    Thanks for being so forthright on how you view the responsibility to comply with a law no matter how unjust and inhumane.

  • nhthinker

    “maybe the military is trying to get jihadists used to the idea that your faith does not disintegrate merely because a book is burned. Wouldn’t that be a great step forward for a monotheist?”

    More likely that military wanted jihadists and conservative Muslims to know that the US military will treat unauthorized Bibles just as disrespectfully as conservative Muslim governments do. The Saudis typically shred them before burning them.

    The US military would NEVER consider doing such a thing to Korans.