NEW YORK (AP) — Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has long worked to bridge divisions, be they fissures between interfaith husbands and wives or political chasms separating the United States and the Muslim world.
The 61-year-old clergyman is now in the midst of a polarizing political, religious and cultural debate over plans for a multistory Islamic center that will feature a mosque, health club and theater about two blocks north of ground zero. He is one of the leaders of the Park51 project, but has largely been absent from the national debate over the implications of building a Muslim house of worship so close to where terrorists killed more than 2,700 people.
Though Rauf has said the center, which could cost more than $100 million, would serve as a space for interfaith dialogue, moderate Muslim practice and peaceful prayer, critics say it will create a base for radical, anti-American Islam. Some critics have also asked where the funding for the center might originate and whether it may come from sources linked to Muslim extremists.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential 2012 presidential candidate, called the backers of the project “radical Islamists.” ”They’re trying to make a case about supremacy” with the center, he said.
The American Jewish Committee has said that while Park51’s leaders have a right to build their center, they must “fully reveal” their sources of funding and “unconditionally condemn” terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology before they can obtain the organization’s support.
Those who know Rauf and have worked with him say that he is anything but extreme in his beliefs or intentions. ?
“He is one of the really important Muslim leaders in America, working for and working with other religions,” said the Rev. James Parks Morton, the former dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine who has known Rauf and his family for more than 30 years. “He’s a very, very conciliatory, intellectual guy.”
During the past few months, Rauf has been in Malaysia, where his family has long-standing ties, and on a State Department-financed goodwill tour of Gulf countries.
Through a spokesman and his wife, he declined to speak with The Associated Press in recent weeks. His few interviews lately have been with local Arabic media during his State Department tour.
He told the daily Bahrain newspaper Akhbar Al-Khaleej on Aug. 24 that he blamed the news media, in part, for strained relations between Muslims and Americans. Rauf said the media “has succeeded in portraying stereotypical images, focusing on the negative and criticizing the other.”
With Rauf largely absent from the debate, opponents have scoured past statements and critics portray the imam as tone-deaf to the sensitivities of families who lost relatives on Sept. 11. They argue he should forthrightly condemn Arab political movements such as Hamas that the U.S. government has designated as terrorist organizations.
Asked in June by WABC-AM whether he believed the State Department was correct in designating Hamas as a terrorist organization, Rauf gave a winding response: “I am not a politician. … The issue of terrorism is a very complex question. … I do not want to be placed … in a position of … where I am the target of one side or another.”
Rauf rarely deviates in his interviews, speeches and books from a core message of the need for interfaith dialogue to resolve religious conflicts. What emerges is a portrait of a man who has passionately argued that Islam is inherently compatible with American life, and that each is enriched by the other.
He has strongly opposed acts of violence in the name of Islam.
“The Quran allows fighting only in defense — when we are attacked or thrown from our homes or denied our basic rights because of what we choose to believe,” he writes in his 2004 book.