A Discussion with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Chairman of the Cordoba Institute
Background: As part of the Future of Track-Two Diplomacy Undergraduate Fellows Seminar, in fall 2010 Saaliha Khan interviewed Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Chairman of the Cordoba Institute, about the intersections of US foreign policy, religion, and Track II diplomacy.
Interview Conducted on May 22, 2011
(These notes have been synthesized from various sources including Imam Rauf’s Berkley Center sponsored conference speech, evening lecture at Georgetown University, and a personal interview).
Does the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy impact the way you perceive the freedom of religion principle in the U.S.?
Park 51 was a victim of political objectives… It was not about freedom of religion; rather, it was a result of the midterm elections as it was used to arouse political support for the extreme right wing party against the Democrats using misunderstanding of Islam in the U.S…whipping emotional fervor as if it were part of political football.
What are some lessons you have learned as a result of the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy?
I have learned that there are different kinds of correctness – emotional, ethical, social, sartorial, legal, religious, political, logical, and intellectual, among many others. And success is balancing all of these areas of correctness. We were accused of being short of the emotional kind. The name of the game is optimally meeting all of these kinds of correctnesses.
Can you speak about your background and how these experiences have brought you to your current work? Can you talk about how faith has affected your career and life?
I moved to the U.S. at seventeen years old and began my journey to self-definition: Who am I? What is Feisal? Moving from place to place, I had always been an outsider… Searching for some kind of continuity in my ID, I realized my Islamic faith, ethics and principles were always an integral part of who I was. My spiritual journey helped me to develop a sense of self that keeps me going; I define soul as the core, and the self ‘I’ as the locus of my will. I realized that my overall objective is to practice and fulfill faith: to love lord with your all and love others.
What path did you take to founding the Cordoba Initiative?
I always had the vision to create a Muslim YMCA so the Cordoba Initiative is an organization dedicated to “improving understanding and building trust among people of all cultures and faith traditions.” The Park51 community center was a cornerstone of this project. It was intended - like a Muslim version of a YMCA – as a place where people of faith could gather together for socializing, entertainment, and worship.
In your experience, have you seen intersections of religious identity and faith with certain topics, regions, or policy issues? You were sent by both Presidents Bush and Obama to be an American ambassador to Muslim nations. How did your recent trip to the Middle East enhance US Muslim engagement?
We must find solutions without stepping on each other’s foots. An important factor to consider is the perceptions of people in all different parts of the world. During my State department trip, people in the Middle East were pleasantly shocked to know that the Jewish mayor in the largest Jewish city in the world, New York, approved the Park51 mosque. I also shared that we had felt happy to see letters of support from all fifty states in the U.S. and forty-six countries, including Israel.
President Obama supporting the Cordoba Initiative is the kind of headline we need to see [around the world, particularly in the Muslim majority communities]. Imam Rauf further provided the example that people in Egypt were happy to see the headline “Obama supports Ground Zero Mosque” in the Egyptian newspapers.
What are some lessons you learned as part of this U.S. Department of State sponsored tour across the Middle East?
I discovered there are several components to consider: political problems (U.S. foreign policy impacts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine), theological discourse (concept that the West is solely secular and that Muslims do not believe in separation between Church and state/want to implement Sharia), issues of social identity (marginalization and isolation among minorities particularly prevalent in Europe), and perceptions on each side of the ‘other’ created by events in the media, which presents only a skewed representation. The media perpetuates and arouses a sense of hostility among the different groups by merely focusing on radical extremists.
In your opinion, what kind of work needs to be done to shift perceptions?
We must change and manage perceptions – what and how you say affects perceptions so I had to be very careful so narrative was understood on all sides. It is easy to destroy, but really difficult to build.
How do we deal with changing people’s perceptions? What are some recommendations you would offer to better engage civil society in track-two diplomacy?
That is exactly what I’m doing. I would tell them to join my organization. Let people meet each other, when people understand who you are and what you are doing, then they will start supporting each other, especially because Americans believe in what is right, just, and have a sense of doing the right thing. The Quran verse this notion refers to states: “God created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other).”
What role should the U.S. play in regards to the recent events/uprisings that occurred in the Middle East?
It’s seminal. There are huge repercussions for U.S.-Muslim relations as this marks a turning point globally. Now, US foreign policy must be for the people, not for the authoritarian regimes. We must unpack what we mean by democracy – it’s not just about voting in elections, it’s about upholding a set of principles and the fundamental concept of “We the people—by, for and of the people.”
What is religion’s role in society and in politics?
The U.S. was established on the principle of religious freedom. The issue is what is the right balance of power, powers of that state, and where should the government’s attention be… government officials having an understanding of religions helps the big picture issues. Religion should not be illegitimately used against minorities in any society. There should be the right balance between religion and politics in any given society.
Some people suggest that within the U.S. government there are many obstacles to learning about religion as well as barriers to engaging with religious actors abroad. What has been your experience? In your opinion, are there intersections between religion and politics? Do you consider the execution of diplomacy to be a strictly secular affair?
Church and state are not always separate… There is a problem in making definitions. This is why we have a separation of religion and politics. There are no firewalls between them; history proves this. There are relative roles and powers and we must unpack where each of these belong.
According to you, how should we work on defining the relationship between religion and politics/ church and state?
n one of my books, Islam: A Sacred Law, I discuss the principles of Sharia law that spell out this relationship. To further this kind of work, I started the Sharia Index Project, which brings together clergy and religious leaders across the Muslim nations to figure out how to define the Islamic State.
Can you please tell me more about the Islamic state and Sharia law?
An Islamic State presupposes a relationship with a creator articulated by creators of the Declaration. It is one governed by a supreme divine sovereignty manifested on Earth through the notion of the caliphate, which is that we the people are expressers of divine sovereignty; as a check, it must also have rules of God. So there must be a balance between the judiciary and the will of the people. The Sharia Index Project concluded that there are six main principles/objectives/deliverables of Sharia include the protection of: life, dignity, freedom of religion, property, family and intellect.
What do you see as the role of the individuals in the masajids (mosques) and religious communities in promoting reconciliation?
We must carefully engineer solutions to promote peace in our society and in our world. We must understand the science, physics, dynamics that define variables and concepts in accurate ways so we better understand the causes and effects so our solutions work effectively. By creating programs through for example the Cordoba House/Initiative multi-faith center. Cordoba Initiative’s mission is “Uniting people, inspiring change” through improving relations between the West and Muslims by harnessing a harmonious, pluralistic society to celebrate, as stated by divine scripture.
Could Islam and Muslims be compatible with the West and reconcile with each other?
The core principles of Sharia are analogous to the core principles of the Constitution. The U.S. is like a perfect Islamic state in terms of construct, ideals, and worldview; however, it must work on creating such a reality that fosters and fully complies with these ideals. As for the Muslim nations, some things take time but the ideals have to be identified, discoursed, and then build towards that.
What factors within the Muslim world will work to advance religious freedom? What are the prospects?
First of all, the Muslim world is not monolithic. Nomenclature is important so it must be changed and used accurately and wisely. …Many times Muslim voices are not heard loud enough. People, particularly the media, has an issue of monolithizing Muslim-- Islam=terrorism. This concept has been so beaten up that there was an unwillingness of Americans to differentiate this monolithic picture. People should not Islamize things. …My advice for all people would be to understand your own faith and that of others to change perceptions positively and promote peace.
The role of U.S. society is that it is a model of religious and political processes and the growth of American Muslims shows that they can help promote perceptions. U.S. Muslims have role as instruments of change—already happening rapidly, with social medium. The Muslim world is impacted by the West and vice versa. We must utilize the very mechanisms that people regard in order to bring understanding of what Islamic rules really are. Islam is about protection of ethnic minorities, women, etc. These actors can be included for fostering positive change.
Accordingly, we must engage beyond the domestic state. U.S. influence is so great – substantive ways in which we live that people want to live. This shows the natural tendencies of people – following one’s heart and consciousness, which is exactly what Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) advocated for.
How will the U.S. engage with Muslims? Share your reflections on Islam in the U.S. in years to come:
Very positively! We, U.S. Muslims, have the rights and opportunities to lead any kind of life we want and this sends the right message to Muslims globally. We are living at a turning point of U.S. – Muslim relations domestically and abroad when President Barack Obama [during last month’s State of the Union Address] boldly stated, “American Muslims are a part of our American family,” met with a standing ovation from all sides in Congress.