AsiaViews, Edition: 33/VII/November2010
Feisal Abdul Rauf:
THE imam of the Al-Farah Mosque in New York City, USA, is generally known as a moderate Muslim man. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has written more than a few books on the ideal Muslim community. Yet he is now the target of intense criticism over his Cordoba House project, a new Islamic community center. At the heart of the nationwide dispute in the United States, is that Cordoba House will be located a few blocks from Ground Zero, the site of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center bombing which killed more than 2,700 people.
A number of American media have referred to the project as the Ground Zero Mosque. Rauf claims the project?s detractors come from anti-Islamic groups, who spread alarm and fear without explaining the real objectives of the project. The most vocal critic is the Reverend Terry Jones, who gained the world?s spotlight by threatening to burn the Holy Qur'an during the recent Idul Fitri commemoration.
Despite the obstacles, however, Rauf plans to go ahead with the project. The 15-story building, estimated to cost US$100 million to build, will be more than just a center of Islamic culture. Rauf says it will be opened to communities of all religions. Interestingly, Rauf has indicated that he intends to build Cordoba House not just in New York but in other locations as well. ?Perhaps the next one will be in Indonesia,? said Rauf.
Two weeks ago, Rauf visited Indonesia at the invitation of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to deliver a lecture to his cabinet members and other government officials at the palace. Rauf also spoke at a number of university campuses. But he did spare some time to speak at length with Tempo reporters Yophiandi Kurniawan, Yandi M. Rofiyandi and photographer Dwianto Wibowo. Excerpts:
What is the purpose of your visit to Indonesia?
I was invited by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He has been following our crisis during the past summer over our attempted project to build a community center in Manhattan. The story became big in America. President Yudhoyono was very concerned about this and about the Rev. Jones incident. I received a personal letter from him through Ambassador Dino Pati Djalal, in which he offered suggestions and comments on how we could modify the projects so it would be more appealing to the Americans. He also expressed his concerns about Islamophobia. He also invited me at that time to visit Indonesia and to give a presidential lecture.
How do you see Indonesia?s Muslim society?
The Indonesian Muslim society is wonderful. There is a wonderful cross-section of opinions. You have some excellent thinkers, brilliant people, brilliant minds. It has its own custom, a very rich culture. You know, I grew up in Malaysia for 10 years, so I am no stranger to Indonesian culture, to batik, Bengawan Solo and all those lovely songs. You also have a very strong sense of who you are as a people. The Indonesian people are very passionate and yet they are very soft and gentle. Indonesians take Islam very seriously. Indonesia is seen by many people in the world as a country whose particular understanding of Islam can be effective and able to shape what is now developing globally, on the issue of Islam.
In your lecture, you said that Islam must respect local customs.
What scholars of Islamic law have said is that the Qur'an talks about the eternal definition of iman or faith, about what God expects of human beings. The Sunnah expresses those commands and expands them further and it talks about the expression of this value in the Arab context to some extent, if possible, in the universal context. When you read the writings of Islamic scholars, they also mention that anything which is part of the customs of the people, but is not in contradiction with the Qur'an and the Sunnah, has the power of law. That is when we talk about adat (customs). In Malaysia, you have adat Melayu. So if the adat does not contradict the Qur'an, it is considered acceptable as law.
Historically, Islam spread from the Hijaz to Egypt, Africa, Turkey, Persia, India, Indonesia, where each of these places have their own culture. But they became Muslim within their own culture. Islam came and they expressed the Islamic principles within the culture of the people.
So how to apply it in the American context?
Muslims here pray wearing sarongs, batik or nice clothing. In different countries you see a different way of being Muslim. This is all syariah. You can be 100 percent Muslim through Indonesian clothing, in Indonesian institutions, by Indonesian style of singing, Indonesian culture. This is part of our history, part of our jurisprudence. So now we have to develop our laws, develop our understanding of how to express Islam in America, not to bring it in 100 percent the way Muslims practice it in Egypt. That would be strange. So our goal, our job, is to bring Islam in the context of American culture.
How do you see Islam in America today?
It is a work in progress. It is something that we have to develop, an understanding of Islam which is American. So the way Americans can see Islam is like something that is local. When Indonesians think about Islam, do you think of Islam as an Arabic religion? No. You think of it as an Indonesian religion. It is an expression. Like in Malaysia for example, when I was a young boy, when a person becomes a Muslim they say, ?masuk Melayu? (becoming Malay), they do not say ?masuk Islam? (becoming Muslim) because for them, being a Malay is being Muslim. This was not the case at all 800 years ago, when Malays were Hindus, like in Bali. How do these changes happen? It happens because when Islam began to be practiced in Malaysia it became an expression of their own lives. So now we have to create an American Muslim culture. This does not happen overnight. So the genius of Islamic history is that we express Islam in the culture of our people. It is what we have to do. It is going to take time to do this, but it is what is needed.
You mean that Islam needs time to grow in the West, including in America?
Of course. This has happened before in Egypt, in Persia, in India, in Indonesia, so this will happen in America. This is the part I am involved in. Our history is like that. So why should it be any different? It takes time, it does not happen in a week, in a month or in a year.
What will happen to your plan to build an Islamic community center next to Ground Zero?
Insya Allah (God Willing) it will happen.
Does this show that Americans?New Yorkers in this case?do not accept Islam?
The fact is that we have the right to build the center and we have been supported by the community. The community has voted four times for it overwhelmingly. All the politicians supported it. The mayor, Michael Bloomberg [who is Jewish] has been strongly supportive of our center. Other religious leaders, Jewish and Christian leaders have supported it. So we have the support of our community at all levels, including the US President. The opposition came from a few people who have an anti-Islam sentiment, who utilized the media to somehow create fear. But anytime we were able to explain what we were trying to do, people supported us. There are Christians, there are Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, even atheists. The atheists said that they want to be part of our movement. There are a lot of people who want to see harmony in religious communities.
Are politicians the ones using the media to create fear?
It was a combination of some people who were trying to win the mid-term elections. But it was not many, only a few people who tried to utilize this. And there is certainly a small number of people who are not comfortable with Islam and feel threatened by it.
The Manhattan Mosque is also located near Ground Zero, has it been affected by the controversy?
My mosque is also near Ground Zero, just 12 blocks away, around 2 kilometers. We have been there for the past 25 years. We have been good neighbors with the community and we have had no problem.
What do you think of those Republicans who opposed the construction of the center, and who have now won in the mid-term elections?
The vast majority of the Republican Party is not against us. They are very supportive of religious freedom because it is a very fundamental right in America. No serious politician can be publicly against religious freedom. The people who were against us are only a small fringe. Most of the people who took a very strong position against our project did not win in the elections.
When will the center be built?
If we manage to collect a US$50 million fund right now, we can have it built in three years' time. But we have not actually begun a campaign to collect the funds because we have a lot of things to sort out. We have to finalize architectural plans. That alone can take a year and a half easily. And then once the money is collected, it takes at least two years to build it.
Is the building open to people of different faiths?
Oh yes. Our plan is to build a Cordoba House. The idea of Cordoba House is a center open for everyone. The name is not an Islamic Center, but Cordoba House. It is like the YMCA, a center which is open to everyone and will have athletic facilities: a swimming pool, basketball courts and educational programs for lecturers, swimming courses, cooking classes and an auditorium. So it is like a social center. We are located in the Tribeca area. Robert de Niro started the Tribeca Film Festival and they very often look for places to show special films. So we want to be part of that community in terms of the culture of the community, the culture of New York.
Will there be a place for worship?
Yes, I also want to have this culture of worship. We will have a couple of floors for Muslims to pray in, because we take our prayers very seriously. We will also have places for other faiths to pray as well. We have not yet decided if there is going to be a church, but we will have a place where other people can pray for sure. That is part of our plan. We will also have a memorial for the 9-11 victims. This will be a cultural center which emphasizes both the idea of worship as well as the idea of people getting together to know each other. When you are together and you have a relationship between Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians and other religions, you develop ties and this makes people feel invested together in their society. This is how to build good relationships within different communities. This is what the Qur'an asks us to do. The Holy Book wants us to meet and know each other, to socialize, because when you develop friendships, you will develop partnerships, you will develop bonds. These bonds are important. So our dream is to see Cordoba House everywhere, in New York, in Jakarta, in Mumbai, in Jerusalem, in London, everywhere in the world.
How long have you felt that you need this movement?
I have been working on the Cordoba Initiative since after September 11. People asked me what they can do to improve the relationship between the West and the Muslim world. So we developed the Cordoba Initiative and we launched the Cordoba Movement. Everywhere I go, people ask what they can do, so right now we are trying to rally all groups to support us. People want to improve things but they do not know exactly know what to do so we will give them things to do or ideas and projects to work on. Our board, our staff, our projects involve people of all religions.
How do you face the public when your message is being misinterpreted?
Well, that?s the thing. My friends even said [to the critics] that of all the people you criticize, this is the person that you have been working with. He has been working with us, we have been doing projects together, how can you call him names? See, the reason that this project is come into being is because of the support. If not for the fact that I have been working with the local community, with religious leaders and with politicians with peace, you would not have heard of it.
How did this Cordoba House idea come about and why is it located near Ground Zero?
I have been thinking about this for 20 years. On the matter of location, it is just a product of circumstance. I have been imam of the New York mosque since 27 years ago. For 25 years we have been 12 blocks away from Ground Zero. It is a small building and in the last four years there is no longer enough space. The community is growing. So one of the people in our congregation looked for a property in the neighborhood, found it and bought it in July last year. After that, I told him that this should be a perfect place to have this center and he said it was a great idea. We have been working on it since.
Rev. Terry Jones, who planned to burn the Qur'an, opposed your idea to build Cordoba House. Have you ever met him?
No. First of all his idea was preposterous. When Sarah Palin suggested that maybe he should not burn the Qur'an if we were to move the location, created a hostage dynamics. So my friends, the Evangelical leaders, people I have known for many years, called me up and said ?Listen, we do not know who this person is and we don?t want you to meet him.? So the issue was intercepted. They called me around a week before September 11 when tension was growing. They were concerned that this thing could lead to demonstrations. People are emotional, they can do crazy things. So he was coming up on September 11 and my Evangelical friends, who are real leaders of Evangelical Christians in New York and Washington, DC, met him and they convinced him to back off. This is why I say, that it is important for us to have relationships with other religious leaders because when such things happen, they are the ones who can actually control their own community.
There have been many interfaith dialogs initiated, but the West still seems to fear ?jihad,? which they think can lead to extremism and fundamentalism. What do you think?
The words fundamentalism, terrorism are just ideas. You have to deal with people, with issues. The people who have these ideas usually have certain issues, concerns or frustrations. You have to understand their issues and you solve them. People are not fundamentalists or terrorists by nature, just in theory. There are issues that they have, usually political, economic or societal issues. So it is about addressing those issues.
Do the issues you mention include the Palestine-Israel conflict?
Of course. You have the Israel-Palestine conflict, you have the situation in Iraq, in Afghanistan. These are the issues that are sources of the problems. If you address these problems, the political problems, the social problems, you can solve what people see as extremism and fundamentalism.
Yet these problems were started by the West.
Of course there is a historical aspect to every problem in any country. But you have to look at the current reality and what can be done to solve problems. In general, all I?m saying is that in many of these problems, the religious communities have something important to say. And if they can be brought to be part of the solution, that is what is important. President SBY said yesterday ?I want to be part of the solution.? This is what is important. What people are looking for now are problem solvers.
Do you think President Barack Obama?s plans to reduce conflict between the West and the Muslim World can be realized?
Insya Allah. I can?t predict the future. But what we pray for is a stable Iraq. Every country wants to be politically stable, economically prosperous and have good relations with its neighbors and other countries. That is why we want to bring together the people in our movement, to push for stability, for the betterment of the human race and condition.
How do you see the current US role in resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict?
Many people believed that any peace between Palestine and Israel would require the involvement of the United States. That is why we are very supportive of President Obama?s very strong and robust attempts to try and seek a solution. We certainly recognize that the solution to this conflict would be a major factor in improving relations between the West and the Muslim World and we would like to see that happen.
Do you see any significant differences in the approaches taken by Obama and George Walker Bush?
The most significant thing about President Obama is that he made a very strong attempt to push for a settlement. And we hope that something will happen. There are discussions right now between Palestine and Israel and we hope something will come out of it.
And what do you think of the domestic political support on this issue now that the House is dominated by Republicans?
We hope that the US Congress and its leaders will recognize the importance of pushing towards peace. We hope that it will happen.
Feisal Abdul Rauf
Place & Date of Birth
- BSc in Physics, Columbia University
- MSc in Plasma Physics, Stevens University Hoboken-New Jersey
- Imam of the Al-Farah Mosque, New York City
- Real Estate Businessman
By: Yophiandi Kurniawan, Yandi M. Rofiyandi and Dwiant
Tempo No. 12/XI/17-23 November 2010 photo: Tempo/Dwianto Wibowo