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The Ground Zero Imam’s Helen Thomas Moment

The Ground Zero Imam’s Helen Thomas Moment

Associate Editor

Here is the complete Zion Herald interview from 2002 with the Great Moderate, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, in which he does a Helen Thomas turn, blaming "the way a Western, European Ashkenazi Jewish population created a state of Israel at the expense of the native non-European Christian, Muslim and even Jewish (Sephardic) populations…. Jews have always been welcome in the Middle East, But don’t come and invade us. Don’t invade our culture and our heritage."

(Excerpt) ZH: Islamic societies feel they were invaded by the West. Was this
exacerbated by the immigration of Jews into the Middle East? Was
that a factor, too?

FR (Feisel Rauf) : No, the immigration of Jews is not really the primary factor
because we have had Jews living in the Middle East for centuries.
All the way from Morocco to Central Asia, every country had major,
significant, prosperous, very involved Jewish populations. It wasn’t
the immigration of Jews, it was the way a Western, European
Ashkenazi Jewish population created a state of Israel at the expense
of the native non-European Christian, Muslim and even Jewish
(Sephardic) populations. In fact, the second Caliph Umar in 636
invited Jews to return and live in Jerusalem after they were
expelled. This was the issue. It was the issue of how the land was
possessed and how certain people were dispossessed from their land.
Jews have always been welcome in the Middle East. But don’t come and
invade us. Don’t invade our culture and our heritage.

The complete interview:


ZH Interviews
Feisal Abdul Rauf

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been the Imam of al-Farah Mosque in New
York City since 1983. Founder of the American Sufi Muslim
Association and a trustee of the Islamic Center of New York, he is
Islamic Advisor to the Interfaith Center of New York. He lectures
regularly at New York mosques, synagogues and churches and at the
New York Seminary, an institute dedicated to training interfaith
ministers. He was born in Kuwait and educated in Egypt, England,
Malaysia and the United States, where he graduated from Columbia
University. Zion’s Herald interviewed Imam Feisal in his New York
City apartment on September 19, 2002.

ZH:A basic question: What is an imam, and how does one become an

FR:The word "imam" means a prayer leader. Anyone can lead the
prayer provided he or she understands the basic requirements of
conducting the prayer. There’s a sense that the person who leads the
prayer should be a person who, everything else being equal, is
relatively more informed about the religion, about the Qur’an and
the teachings of the Prophet. There is no formal ordination in Islam
like there is in Christianity or Judaism. There is often a
democratic process, where someone is selected or elected to be an
imam of a congregation.

ZH:This is one of those areas that we in the United States are
having a hard time understanding Islam. That is, there are no
clearly defined lines of authority, nobody appointed to speak for
Islam per se. There’s no pope, no bishop.

FR:You are correct. There is no pope. There is no bishop. There is
no equivalent of a church in Islam. However, that is only one of the
problems contributing to Western misunderstanding of Islam. There
are a couple of other reasons.
One is the unfortunate history of the Crusades between the West and
Islam, or more accurately between Christendom, the world of
Christianity, and the world of Islam, which has led to some degree
of opposition and created a sense of otherness. Whenever there’s a
sense of otherness, there’s alienation. This happens between any two
groups where there has been some degree of conflict. Differentiation
occurs, the notion of the "other" comes and then there’s a sense
that these people are alien, that they subscribe to a set of ethics
believed in the popular mind – often falsely – to be at odds with "our"
values. That’s one reason.
The other reason is that Islam is just beginning to become a Western
religion and regarded as such; it had hitherto been seen as alien
and different. Every society has its language, its vocabulary, its
worldview and its way of thinking. The challenge that every
religious tradition has – Christianity, Judaism, whatever – is the need
to restate its initial impulse in the mindset of the times. This is
the big challenge of what we today call modernity. But this has
always existed as people change and generations change. Always the
question is, how did our forefathers understand and practice our
heritage, our religion? What does this mean for us today? How is it
relevant for us today?

ZH:The effort to translate Islam into Western terms was going on
even before 9/11. What has been 9/11’s impact on that effort?

FR: Western scholars have sought to understand Islam for the last
several centuries but not at the level of the popular mindset. It
was something that was relegated to academics in ivory towers, in
departments of religion, who studied it like it was the religion of
natives in faraway lands. But since 9/11 there has been a tremendous
upsurge in the lay American population to understand, "What is this
thing?" And the reason for it, naturally, is because Americans want
to know what were the points of intersection between Islam and 9/11
so that we can preempt another 9/11 from happening again.

ZH:When you begin to translate Islam into the Western mindset,
what is it that you want to emphasize?

FR:Well, first of all, the religion of Islam as a faith and as a
practice is identical with the primary and essential impulses of
Christianity, of Judaism and of every authentic religious tradition.
The two greatest commandments that Jesus gave—love the Lord your God
with all of your heart, mind and soul; and the second commandment to
love your fellow human beings as you love yourself—is the
cornerstone of Islam. I mean, that expresses the fundamental ethic
of Islam. Muslims share with the Jewish tradition the notion of an
absolute monotheism: God is one, single, indivisible. God has no
parts and no components. That would be the one essential thing that
comes up in the creed of Islam.

ZH:There have been critics—I think New York Times columnist Tom
Friedman would be one of these—who say that Islam, unlike
Christianity, never went through a reformation or an era of self
criticism resulting in an adjustment to the modern world and the age
of reason. Is that criticism just?

FR:It’s inaccurate. Muslims have always applied their reason.
Muslims from the earliest times adopted and incorporated Greek
philosophy, Hindu philosophy, Hindu sciences and methodologies into
a growing perspective throughout their history. As recently as a
century ago in the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s there was
great intellectual ferment in the Muslim world. Many of the great
names that are familiar to Muslims were people who were raised in
our tradition but also were educated in the West. Educated in
Cambridge and in France, they admired many of the aspects of
European technological development and sought to introduce this into
the Muslim world. However, this intellectual ferment came to an end
with the demise of the Ottoman caliphate after World War I. After
that, the Muslim world was attacked by a wave of militant secular

ZH:From what source?

FR:The perception of the Muslim world was that this was inflicted
upon them by Western anti-Islamic elements or a combination of
anti-Islam and anti-religion. Kemal Attaturk in Turkey suppressed
religion, forced people to change their clothing, changed the
alphabet with which they had written for several centuries from the
Arabic script to a Roman script. They banned the call of prayer five
times a day in Arabic and forced it to be done in Turkish for a
number of years. Many of the Sufi orders, the mystical orders, were
locked up, were banned in Turkey. This is in Turkey, mind you, which
up until then was the [Islamic world’s] capital. In the psyche of
Muslims, this was like eliminating the papacy for Catholics.

ZH:Is this why the issue of the Jewish settlements in the West
Bank is such an inflammatory issue in the Arab and Islamic worlds,
because it is a microcosm of this larger invasion?

FR:They are all packaged in that issue. This is why Osama bin
Laden, for instance, referred in one of his statements to "for 80
years." What was he talking about, this 80 years? He was referring
to the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate at the end of World War I,
perceived by many Muslims to have been done at the behest of the
Christian West as part of the continuation of the Crusader attitude,
denying us our own religious expression. This was blended with
colonialism, as well, because many of these countries were also
occupied by European countries. France occupied Algeria, and Morocco
to some extent. France’s notion of colonialism was to make them
Frenchmen, so much so that when Algeria achieved independence in the
1960’s, most Algerians could not even speak Arabic. They were French
speaking. The notion of stripping people away from their culture to
the point where they forced them to dress the European way, to speak
European languages and even forget their own language was deemed to
be too much of an invasion of a people’s right of self-expression.

ZH:What has this invasion of Islamic culture and society done to
Islamic perceptions of Christianity?

FR:Well, the perception in much of the Muslim world is tied into
the experience with the Crusades and colonialism that I just
referred to. I have a personal observation of my own about European
Christianity, because Western Christianity is a broad subject.
American Christianity is very different, shaped by Protestantism and
the American and French revolutions, believing in a more pluralistic
society. European Christianity was much more shaped by Catholicism,
by a non-separation of church and state. And I believe that the
fault line that exists between Rome and the Orthodox Church is the
same fault line that exists between European Christianity and the
world of Islam. It’s the same exact issues. Now, as I presume you
know, there is a great animosity between the Orthodox Church and the
Church of Rome. When the pope visited Greece and Ukraine and some of
the ex-Serbian countries, many of the Orthodox Church leaders didn’t
even want to meet him. That polarity, in my opinion, is the same
thing that happened between European Christianity and the Muslim
world. The Orthodox world, its worldview, is very close to the
Muslim world.

ZH:I would take that not to be a statement of good news in terms
of what’s going on today. You’re describing a chasm between the two
cultures that poses very stern challenges on both sides for finding
common ground.

FR:What I’m saying is that the problem is less theological than
attitudinal. I think that, particularly with the current pope,
there’s a desire to change the discourse between Rome and the Muslim
world. I detect a change, and I think the change will be permanent.
The change is as a result of what I call American Catholicism or
what I refer to as American religion. Because, America has had a
profound influence upon religion.

ZH:Say more about that.

FR:When I say America, I am referring to the principles that
founded this country, especially the principle of separation of
church and state and the Bill of Rights, which created a sense of
separation of powers. This meant that state authorities could not
favor one church or one interpretation of religion and suppress
others. Until that time throughout Europe and throughout much of the
world, the state authority was generally an authoritative king or
monarch who held onto power until he died or he was made to die. And
the religious authority would try to have a relationship with the
state authority to make sure that their particular interpretation of
religion was the only one deemed authoritative. Through American
Christianity, the notions of separation of church and state and
pluralism filtered back to Europe. It was, in fact, American
Catholics who were instrumental in lobbying for Vatican II in the
1960’s. To follow up on this, I am convinced that the next steps in
the development of an American Muslim community will have a very,
very profound effect upon the Muslim world in general. They will
introduce to the larger Muslim world many of the important ideas of
pluralism. They’ll also be an intermediary between the United States
and the Muslim world just as American Catholics were the
intermediaries between the principles of democracy and Rome.

ZH:The separation of church and state has also been seen as
unleashing the genie of secularism. That is, without state support,
it’s okay to live without the church and even without religion. Do
you see that dynamic at work, and have a guess about how it might
affect Islam’s development in Western cultures?

FR:Freedom of religion allows you to do whatever you think is
right. It does not coerce any person. If you want to live a secular
life, you may, including living without religion. What the Muslim
world has experienced, however, has been the lack of separation of
church and state. In the 20th century it has experienced the
religion of atheism and secularism forced upon its people by the
state. In other words, the regimes of the Shah of Iran and Attaturk,
for example, forced atheism and secularism upon its people. People
don’t like to be forced. So the experience of the Muslim world is
that it had secularism rammed down its throat.

ZH:Is Islam experiencing "marketability" in Western culture now,
especially in the United States? Are you finding it’s a marketable

FR:I believe so.

ZH:Why? What is the appeal?

FR:There are a number of appeals. Islam is a very simple religion.
It’s easy to digest. It is not, you know, complicated. If you want
complexity you can find it in Islam, you can find all the richness
you want, but it’s easy to practice. It has a clear set of
definitions as to who you are as a human being, your relationship to
your Creator, and the expectations of the Creator and the
commitments of the Creator. It speaks about the covenant, not in
mysterious terms, but in very simple contractual terms. So the
covenant with Abraham which has been extended to all of humanity
through Jesus Christ and through Mohammed and through all the
various prophets is, basically: "Here’s the deal. You do these
things and I will do these things. I, God, will do these things. If
you do these things and avoid these things, hey, you’re going to be
fine." Simple as that.

ZH:In light of 9/11, there’s the fear that fundamentalist Islam
also is marketable.

FR:I’d like to separate fundamentalism and militancy.
Fundamentalism is when you look at the fundamentals. As in studying
a stock in the stock market, if the fundamentals of the company are
there, you’ll invest in it. Fundamentalism in that sense is part of
the authentic desire for religious identity and experience. The
intersection between Islam as a faith and 9/11 has more to do with
the geo-politics of the Muslim world. It has to do with the notion
that Islam has a very strong sense of social justice. And there’s a
lot of social injustice in the Muslim world. Islam has a sense of
what links us in a social contract. In America, the social contract
is our Constitution. So, when you feel you have been wronged, if the
social contract has been violated, as an American you say, "This is
unconstitutional," and therefore seek to correct it by articulating
your hurt in constitutional language and terms. When a Muslim feels
violated in a socially contractual way, he says, "This is
un-Islamic." The word un-Islamic is the translation of
"unconstitutional" to an American. When a Christian says it is
un-Christian, you mean it is uncharitable, unkind and inhumane.
While this is also part of what is meant by "un-Islamic," there is a
very strong component of what we call unconstitutional.

ZH:A violation of the social contract?

FR:Yes. And therefore the remedy is to establish a constitutional
society. Translated, that becomes an Islamic society.

ZH:And yet, what I sense is that, in American society especially,
when we hear the term, "Islamic society," we hear that as being
automatically different from or alien to American values of justice
and freedom and so forth. But if I hear you correctly, that’s not

FR:That’s true. In fact, the tragedy and the paradox in the whole
situation are that Islamic values are American values. The American
values of pluralism, of human rights, of the proposition that all
men are created equal, these are Islamic ideas. Even the notion in
the Pledge of Allegiance of being, "one nation under God" is a
phrase in the Qur’an. This is why it is so important to me that an
American Muslim community and our intellectual leadership articulate
these principles, make them clearly understood to important voices
in America so that we can eliminate this gap and recognize that, in
fact, Islam is the best vehicle to further what we call "American
values" in the Muslim world.

ZH:So, what you’re saying to me is exciting in the sense in that
maybe there is, after all, a blessing in 9/11. There could be
opening up a new world of opportunity for American culture to be
blessed by the Islamic culture and Islamic worldview. Maybe we’ve
found that time in history when this conversation can really begin
in earnest.

FR:I certainly hope so. Absolutely.

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