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.