Feisal Abdul Rauf and Shirley Sherrod have a lot in common.
At first blush, that might seem a strange assertion. Abdul Rauf is a naturalized U.S. citizen and a Muslim imam in New York City; Sherrod is a black woman from the American South. But they have been both selected as targets by a conservative media machine that is so intent on creating useful villains that it pays little or no attention to concepts such as truth or accuracy. The goal is to create “Objects of Hate” that can then be used to inflame the American public.
Abdul Rauf, for example, describes himself as “both a Muslim and an American citizen, as proud of the important and fundamental principles that America stands for as I am the important and fundamental principles for which Islam stands.”
In fact, Abdul Rauf argues, the reason so many Muslims flee their native countries to come here is because the United States is actually more true to Islamic principles of “human equality, human liberty and social justice” than many so-called Islamic societies.
He proclaims himself a patriotic American, and has harshly condemned violent extremists who cite Islam as their inspiration. September 11, Abdul Rauf says, is “a day that will live in infamy,” noting that “no nation could suffer such an assault without responding in a very robust way.” In the wake of bombing attacks in Great Britian in 2005, he expressed “a sense of deep revulsion,” said that true Muslims “naturally condemn the brutal attacks in London in the most unequivocal terms,” and urged British Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement in identifying and capturing those involved.
Abdul Rauf has also worked tirelessly to promote better relations among the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths. Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the American Jewish Committee’s international interreligious affairs department in Jerusalem, calls him “an important voice of moderation,” and Jewish Week has lauded him as “a key voice of reason among Muslim leaders here.”
In 2003, Abdul Rauf joined Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, along with members of the Israeli Knesset and Palestinian leaders, in an initiative to bring moderate Palestinians and Israelis together to try to find common ground.
In his 2004 book, “What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right with America,” Abdul Rauf writes that the future of Islam will depend on its acceptance of a form of democratic capitalism. Toward that end, he stresses the emergence of what he calls an “American Islam.” Catholic immigrants, he notes, came to this country and in time created a distinctive American Catholicism, which in turn influenced Catholicism as a whole. Jewish immigrants likewise created a distinctly American version of Judaism, which has also influenced the larger faith.
The creation of an American Islam, Abdul Rauf believes, can help modernize Islam globally and in the process ease the strains between his adopted country and his faith.
Abdul Rauf is, in other words, everything that critics of Islam claim they want to see. More importantly, his moderate, pro-American message has proved so appealing to fellow U.S. Muslims that his mosque has outgrown its origins in a lower Manhattan storefront and needs to expand. He and his congregation envision a 13-story complex on Park Street in lower Manhattan, modeled after the 92nd Street YMCA and the Jewish Community Center in New York. The facility would include a community center, auditorium, mosque, swimming pool and restaurants.
The local community board in lower Manhattan, which no doubt includes many who experienced September 11 firsthand, has voted 29-1 to approve the project’s construction, strong testimony to the faith they have in Abdul Rauf’s mission.
“I think they need to establish a place such as this for people of goodwill from mainline Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths so we can come together to talk,” said Father Kevin Madigan of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, located a block away from the proposed facility.
In some circles, however, Abdul Rauf’s proposed mosque has become better known as the “Ground Zero mosque.” (It is actually located two city blocks away from Ground Zero, with no view of the site.) Both Abdul Rauf and the proposed project have become the target of a vicious, concerted smear motivated in part by irrational if sincere fear, and in part by cynical opportunists who hope to profit by that fear.
The ad above, for example, was put together by the Republican National Trust PAC. The group supposedly tried to buy air time to put the ad on CBS and NBC but was rejected. (The Republican National Trust is a major player in the PAC world. In the 2008 cycle, it spent more than $8 million trying to beat Barack Obama, plus another $434,000 helping to elect Saxby Chambliss here in Georgia.)
Interestingly, there is no indication that RNTPAC tried to place the ad on Fox News, which makes sense for a couple of reasons. A rejection by Fox would have undercut the group’s effort to depict itself as a victim of liberal censorship. And besides, why pay for something that you’re going to get for free anyway?
Fox has played a major role in ginning up conservative opposition to the mosque. Sean Hannity has shown the ad on his Fox show, condemning Abdul Rauf as an “extremist” and a champion of “radical Islam.” Sarah Palin has gotten involved, using Twitter to beg “peaceful Muslims” to “refutiate” the mosque, as if to imply that Abdul Rauf must be a member of al Qaida.
Rick Lazio, the GOP candidate for governor in New York, has come out in opposition to the mosque, trying to use the issue to boost his campaign. That led the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association to rebuke Lazio, warning that “for any candidate for public office to politicize Ground Zero shows a lack of respect to the families, who will forever live with the terrible memory of that dark day…. This conduct forsakes the memory of all those who lost their lives on September 11th.”
On NPR, Sam Nunberg of the Center for Law and Justice has warned that approving the mosque “would be like removing the sunken ship in Pearl Harbor to erect a memorial to the Japanese kamikazes killed in the attack.” Pamela Geller, a prominent conservative blogger who appeared on CNN to debate the mosque, called Abdul Rauf a “stealth jihadist” and the mosque itself “an act of jihad.” Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, now retired but once the head of U.S. military intelligence in the Rumsfeld Pentagon, told a conference at Colorado Christian College that the mosque was part of “the incremental taking over of our nation.”
In each and every case cited above, opponents of the mosque have refused to allow a distinction to be made between Islamic extremists and Muslims of demonstrated good faith such as Abdul Rauf. Critics of the Islamic community complain repeatedly that they don’t hear enough from moderates, but it’s pretty clear from this example that they do not hear because they refuse to listen.
Karen Armstrong, one of the most respected religious scholars of her generation, wrote something that now seems all too prescient in her foreward to Abdul Rauf’s book.
“It is vital that we know who our enemies are, but it is equally important to know who they are not. Only a tiny proportion of Muslims take part in acts of terror and violence. If our media and politicians continue to denigrate Islam, accepting without question the stereotypical view that has prevailed in the West since the time of the Crusades, we will eventually alienate Muslims who have no quarrel with the West, who are either enjoying or longing for greater democracy, and who are horrified by the atrocities committed in the name of their faith.”
Finally, I’d like to close with a video of the “stealth jihadist” himself, appearing at a public hearing about the proposed mosque. Watch and listen, then compare Abdul Rauf’s message to the message of the video at the top of this post.
Ask yourself: Who is the purveyor of racial hate and fear, and who is the healer? Who is the extremist, and who is the moderate? Who is the danger to this country, and who is its friend?