The man behind the controversial Islamic Community Center in lower Manhattan, Feisal Abdul Rauf, aims for tolerance, but stirs up fear and regret.
While I have been observing Feisal Abdul Rauf’s actions and reactions to the public controversies surrounding his work as the the chairman of the Cordoba Initiative and the imam of the Farah mosque in Lower Manhattan, I have been thinking a lot about my book, Civility and Subversion: The Intellectual in Democratic Society. I think that in democracies, intellectuals are talk provokers who help the general public confront and address serious political problems by informing discussion. I think that they do so by civilizing differences so that enemies can become opponents and opponents can become collaborators, and by subverting commonsense that hides problems, so that these problems then can be discussed. I, of course, know that no one intellectual is always a subversive, and no one intellectual is always an agent of civility. Yet, certain key intellectuals have primarily played one or the other role. This for example is how I think about the intellectual work of Malcolm X versus Martin Luther King Jr.
The tragedy of Feisal Abdul Rauf is that he has intended and has dedicated his life to the role of civility, while more brutal figures in our public life, perhaps Newt Gingrich is the primary culprit, have intended to turn the persistently patriotic imam into a subversive. He has been labeled an agent of Islamic, indeed radical Islamist, subversion of the good moral order, just when he has done everything in his public pronouncements and actions to support the good pluralistic moral order that he understands, along with many of his fellow Americans including his President, to be the great American achievement.
Thus consider deliberately Feisal Abdul Rauf’s words in his recent op-ed piece. He is even willing to see this episode in which he has been systematically and viciously slandered as a positive development in the project of civil religious interactions:
“Lost amid the commotion is the good that has come out of the recent discussion. I want to draw attention, specifically, to the open, law-based and tolerant actions that have taken place, and that are particularly striking for Muslims.
President Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg both spoke out in support of our project. As I traveled overseas, I saw firsthand how their words and actions made a tremendous impact on the Muslim street and on Muslim leaders. It was striking: a Christian president and a Jewish mayor of New York supporting the rights of Muslims. Their statements sent a powerful message about what America stands for, and will be remembered as a milestone in improving American-Muslim relations.
The wonderful outpouring of support for our right to build this community center from across the social, religious and political spectrum seriously undermines the ability of anti-American radicals to recruit young, impressionable Muslims by falsely claiming that America persecutes Muslims for their faith.”
Yesterday, in an interview on the ABC news program, “This Week,” the imam expressed his dilemma. He is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, and therefore he states if he had known the controversy he has provoked would happen he would have never proceeded. He wanted to civilize differences, instead he has provoked them. He has against his own sensibility revealed the ugly virus of hatred, as he was trying to nurture civilized understanding. This is tragic for him as an individual, but reveals something critical for us, his fellow citizens.
In order for us to be true to our principles, Park 51 must be built, as President Obama suggested in his most recent remarks at his news conference.
“With respect to the mosque in New York, I think I’ve been pretty clear on my position here, and that is, is that this country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal; that they have certain inalienable rights — one of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely. And what that means is that if you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site.”
I fear that this clear message we should tell ourselves and others about ourselves may not be sent. American civilization warriors, those who seek a war with a world religion, may get their way. It may be suggested that moving the mosque just a bit uptown is a reasonable compromise, a small price to pay for social peace at home. This is the “modest proposal” (in the sense of Jonathan Swift in my opinion) of Governor David Paterson. (link)
But as an American, as a New Yorker, as someone who works in lower Manhattan and lost a dear friend in the World Trade Center, I think this is exactly wrong and not moderate at all. We will not only be less safe as a result, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s major concern, we will also be diminished as a country dedicated to fundamental civil and democratic ideals.