The “Ground Zero” Imam

Posted August 23rd, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, leader of the Park51 project (you know, the Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan), kept quiet about the controversy back home during his visit to Bahrain this week. He was on a US State Department trip promoting interfaith dialogue, tolerance, and his long-running project to inject his philosophy of adaptable American Islam into the worldwide Islamic debate. Initially, the State Department tried to shield the imam from publicity, but eventually relented – slightly – by making public one event in each of the three countries Imam Feisal is visiting.

In Bahrain, I managed to secure my own invite to the majlis of Sheikh Salah al-Jowder. He’s an oddity, a moderate salafist who sits on an interfaith dialogue committee in Manama (it’s interesting that such a thing even exists). There, Imam Feisal talked a bit about the center, because his hosts had a lot of questions.

The latecomers to Sheik Salah al-Jowder’s majlis, or weekly assembly, wished peace upon their cousins and shook all the men’s hands before sitting down on the deep striped sofas that lined the oblong reception hall.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, leader of the planned Park51 Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, was sipping Arabic coffee about an hour before midnight Sunday in Muharraq, a crowded neighborhood near the international airport.

On the first stop of his good-will tour, sponsored by the State Department, Mr. Abdul Rauf talked expansively about religious law, the lessons of Islamic history and his mission to build bridges between the West and the Islamic world — any topic, it seemed, but the controversy that lately has made him famous.

About 20 Bahraini men, in flowing white robes and headdresses held in place with braided leather bands, fiddled with their BlackBerrys, drank coffee and fingered beads.

After Mr. Abdul Rauf had spoken, and exchanged pleasantries with his hosts, one of the Jowder cousins raised his voice.

“I know you have the support of President Obama,” he said, almost shouting to be heard over the air-conditioners. “But why don’t we just change the place, to show that Islam is not there to threaten everybody, that Islam is a religion of peace?”

Read the rest in The New York Times.

Imam Feisal is in Qatar now, and will visit the United Arab Emirates before returning to the U.S. in early September. He said he will talk to the American media then. For now, he insists, he wants to focus on the Cordoba Initiative’s outreach project.

A lot of his most controversial ideas – at least in the Islamic world – have to do with his belief that Islam takes a different shape in every host culture. American Islam, Imam Feisal argues to his audiences in the Islamic world, has just as much religious legitimacy as Egyptian Islam, or Persian Gulf Islam, or Malaysian Islam, and so on. He makes his argument quietly, but it’s a position that runs squarely counter to the trends in the Arab world toward a more orthodox view of Islam. Imam Feisal believes that Muslims in Egypt can learn from the way American Muslims interpret their faith, and not just vice versa.

For a sense of those ideas and their origin, you can read Anne Barnard’s fabulous profile of Imam Feisal (on which I collaborated from Cairo). She also parses some of the claims about him circulating in the blogosphere.