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A Conversation with Feisal Abdul Rauf

Speaker: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Chairman, Cordoba Initiative
Presider: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
September 13, 2010, New York
Council on Foreign Relations



RICHARD N. HAASS: Good morning to everyone, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Richard Haass, and I'm the president of this organization. And today, as you all know, we are host -- we are hosting Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is the founder and CEO of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. And he is also the imam, as I expect you all know, of the Masjid al-Farah mosque here in New York City.

That's, however, only part of who he is. Imam Feisal is the founder and chair of the Cordoba Initiative, which is dedicated to building bridges between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. And he is also, as I expect everyone on the planet by now knows, central to plans for the building of a new Islamic community center to be built adjacent to Ground Zero.

Imam Feisal is also an author of several books, including "What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West."

What the scenario will be this morning is, Imam Feisal will speak for 15 or 20 minutes or so from this podium. Then afterwards he and I will have a relatively brief conversation, after which we will open it to you, our members, for questions. And I'll give the ground rules there.

In the meantime, if anyone does have anything like a cell phone or anything approximating a cell phone, if you would please turn it off -- not just put it on vibrate, which interferes with our phone system -- we will be forever grateful. This meeting this morning, as you might have figured out from the cameras in the back and the rest, is on the record.

So with that, Imam Feisal, let me welcome you now here simply -- not simply this morning, but welcome back to the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: It is customary for Muslims to begin by first invoking the name of the all-merciful and all-compassionate creator, the creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, the God of Abraham, the God of Ishmael and Isaac, the God of Moses and Aaron, the God of Jesus Christ and his mother, Mary, and the God of Mohammed. Peace and blessings upon all of these noble prophets and messengers.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you. I'm indeed honored to be here today at this distinguished organization. And I thank Richard Haass and the Council on Foreign Relations for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this morning.

We come together at a time of great crisis and danger. What began as a dispute over a community center in lower Manhattan has spawned and grown into a much larger controversy about the relationship between my beloved religion and my beloved country, between Islam and America.

The events of the past few weeks have really saddened me to my very core. I regret some have miss -- that some have misunderstood our intentions. I'm deeply distressed that in this heated political season, some have exploited this issue for their own agendas. And I'm deeply disappointed that so many of the arguments have been based on deliberate misinformation and harmful stereotypes.

But despite the disappointments, there is much I am thankful for. First, I'm grateful to our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and to so many others who have spoken out in favor of our project. Their positive responses have filled my heart, and I thank them all.

To our present Barack -- to our president, Barack Obama: Mr. President, I thank you for your support, for speaking out so forcefully and repeatedly on behalf of religious tolerance and the values that make our country great. And I'm deeply grateful for your robust, persistent efforts in making peace in the Middle East a priority in your first term.

And for all of those who have voiced their objections to our plans with civility, with respect and with open minds and hearts, I am also grateful. You affirm my belief in the decency and morality of the American people.

I do recognize that among the critics are some who have lost loved ones on 9/11. To all of them, I offer my heartfelt sympathy and my prayers upon their departed souls. Every year, we mark the anniversary with great sadness, but with even greater resolve to fight against the radical philosophies that have been used to justify these acts.

My goal here today is twofold: first, to reach out to my brothers and sisters of different faiths in America, to explain and to share my love of my religion; and second, to reach out to my Muslim brothers and sisters all over the world, to explain and share my love of America. This is my personal mission, and is anchored in my own experience.

Allow me, please, to begin by telling you my story. Like many of your ancestors, I came to America by boat when I was only 17 years old. We sailed into New York Harbor on a sunny and cold winter day in December 1965, three days before Christmas. I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time -- that beacon of freedom rising and looming majestically in the harbor. I remember admiring her strength and her beauty and her colors in that morning, crisp sunlight. I had no idea what life would be like in America, but I looked forward to it.

I was born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents. My father was a religious scholar who studied and graduated at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, an Islamic institution of great distinction and learning. He was sent to this country by Al-Azhar to head a growing Muslim community in New York city. He was active in what used to be called the ecumenical movement, promoting understanding between different religions. Today, we call it interfaith dialogue.

For me, coming from a country where the majority was Muslim, I found this society remarkably nonreligious, even anti-religious. In the 1960s, religion was considered by many to be passe; a crutch for the feeble-minded. I remember the cover of Time Magazine that screamed out "Is God Dead?" This was shocking to me, extraordinary. And I thought to myself, "Wow, this place sure is different!"

I got my bachelor's in physics at Columbia University. I married, raised my children here, and I had a number of occupations: a high-school teacher, a salesman of industrial products, and a struggling writer. I'm a typical New Yorker, ladies and gentlemen. I am an American.

In 1979, I became a naturalized U.S. citizen. I believed, and still believe, and pledged allegiance to the values of the United States Constitution, and I know that these sacred rights were won by the blood of brave American soldiers. My own niece -- my own niece -- currently serves in the United States Army.

I know that this country was founded by individuals who left their countries of origin because they were unhappy with their government and with the restrictions imposed on religious life and liberties. They wanted something better. Participatory government; freedom of speech; separation of church and state: these were among my earliest lessons in American civic life.

In America, we do protect these differences. We protect different expressions of faith. We assemble in our various houses of worship to pray, to chant, to recite our sacred scriptures, or simply to come together in communion and draw together and draw strength as a community. But religion in America is not imposed on us: We can be as devout or as agnostic as we like.

That choice -- to be or not to be religious, or anything else for that matter -- forced me to think about who I was, who I am, what I truly wanted and chose to be; and has given me a profound appreciation for the country that provides these freedoms. In that sense, you could say that I found my faith in this country. So for me, Islam and America are organically bound together.

But this is not my story alone. The American way of life has helped many Muslims make a conscious decision to embrace their faith. That choice, ladies and gentlemen, is precious, and that is why America is precious.

I discovered that the country that at first had seemed so anti-religious in fact has a profoundly spiritual base and a religious purpose. The Founding Fathers of this nation were men of faith. Within the governing documents they created, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they affirmed their most sacred spiritual values. These documents are legal expressions of in fact a religious ideal, non-parochial but substantively religious, that is rooted in the commandments and principles of the three faiths practiced by the People of the Book -- Jews, Christians and Muslims. And to remind us, even when we're in the markets, they imprinted on our currency "In God we trust."

Since 1983 I have served as imam, or prayer leader, of a mosque in Tribeca. It is in the same neighborhood as the World Trade Center, just 12 blocks north. The twin towers defined our skyline and our neighborhood and were part of our daily lives. Our congregants come from all over the world and from every walk of life, from congressmen to taxi drivers.

On September 11th, a number of them tragically lost their lives. Our community grieved alongside of our neighbors, and together we helped slowly rebuild Lower Manhattan.

I belong to this neighborhood, ladies and gentlemen.

I'm a devout Muslim. I pray five times a day, sometimes more, if I can, and I observe the rituals required by my faith.

And I'm also a proud American citizen. Let no one forget that. I vote in elections. I pay taxes. I pledge allegiance to the flag. And I'm a Giants fan. (Laughter.) I'm glad they won yesterday. (Laughter.)

Both this country and the teachings of my faith have nourished me in fundamental, essential ways, have shaped me. Both have shaped up and made up my core identity as a human being.

But ladies and gentlemen, as I intimated earlier, this is not just my story. It is THE immigrant -- it is THE American immigrant story. It is your story and that of your parents and your grandparents.

As President Obama made clear in his remarks in Cairo last year, American Muslims have enriched this country throughout its history. Since the 1800s American history has been intertwined with the history of Muslims. Many thousands of African Muslims were brought here as slaves, and this became their home.

In the 1950s and 1960s, from the music of the blues and jazz, they took up the cause of freedom in the civil rights movement, and we witnessed the emergence of Islam in the African-American community. Their struggle and their story is central to the story and the narrative of Islam in America.

From them to the more recently immigrated Sudanese in Minnesota, to the Syrians and Lebanese in North Dakota, to the Egyptians and North Africans in Astoria, Queens, they are Americans. We are Americans. It's not about them. It's about us and who we are and who we want to be as Americans.

When we fast, pray, donate to charities, observe our commandments, we exemplify not only the ideals of the Founding Fathers but also the deepest values of our faith traditions.

As immigrants, we absorb American culture, from generation to a generation. But the challenge of fitting in is often made more difficult by rejection. Other groups and faiths have found themselves targets of such prejudice -- Jews and Catholics, Irish and Italians, blacks and Hispanics. In time each group has overcome these challenges, and our core values have been affirmed. We must overcome. We shall overcome. Now it is our turn, as Muslims, to drink from this cup.

Let me now address the subject of extremism. Every religion in the world has extremists. Sadly, Islam is among them. All faiths have among their members those who distort and twist the core values for their own agendas. They advocate positions that we here and that decent people all over the world -- and, I assure you, 99-point-whatever percent of the Muslims in the world absolutely, totally find this abhorrent. Let there be no mistake, ladies and gentlemen. Islam categorically rejects the killing of innocent people. Terrorists violate the sanctity of human life and corrupt the meaning of our faith. In no way do they represent our religion, and we must not let them define us.

Radical extremists would have us believe in a theory of a worldwide battle between Muslims and non-Muslims. And some intellectuals and thinkers have furthered that idea. That idea, ladies and gentlemen, is false. The real battle front, the real battle that we must wage together today, is not between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is between moderates of all the faith traditions against the extremists of all the faith traditions. We must not let the extremists, whatever their faith, whatever their political persuasion, hijack the discourse and hijack the media. That only fuels greater extremism. It is a dangerous, destructive cycle, and we must break it. How? By creating a coalition of moderates from all of the faith traditions to combat the extremists. And I seek your help.

When irresponsible individuals or some in the media equate Muslims with anti-Americanism or extremism, and when they say that Islamic values are fundamentally violent or domineering, all of us are obliged to refute it and to refute it loudly, clearly and unequivocally.

For 35 years, I have been explaining the faith of Islam at schools and universities, churches and synagogues -- and, yes, in mosques too. And in recent years I've traveled abroad explaining the values and institutions of America to people of other nationalities, Muslim and non-Muslim. Skeptics might ask -- and they have -- why spend time in dialogue? From experience, I can tell you, talking can be powerful. As Churchill said, better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.

But genuine understanding can only happen when there is honesty, sincerity of motive, and an open heart. For when issues are politicized or used as fodder for commentators on the right or on the left, we just pour fuels on the flames of misunderstanding.

The need to clear up the many misconceptions about Islam and America is greater now than ever. Haven't we seen, these last few weeks, how hurtful and how destructive the power of extremist acts and language can be? That is why I remind you that the story is not yet over. What happens right here, right now, in this city, in our city, matters. And it matters more than ever.

The way we confront our problems, the way we speak about them, the way we seek to reconcile our differences, is watched and is resonating all over the world. I recently returned from a trip abroad, on a mission by the State Department. I went to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It was my fourth trip representing the U.S. government and the American people. On two occasions, I was asked to go on this mission by the Bush administration, and twice by the Obama administration. I'm bipartisan.

These trips are important, ladies and gentlemen, because people all over the world admire and look up to our freedoms and our institutions, and -- (inaudible word) -- really want them for themselves, within their own cultural expression.

As an American and as a Muslim, I believe -- and I've been told -- I can make and have made an important contribution by serving as a messenger, as a bridge; by explaining what life is like here in the United States; and by helping clear up the many misperceptions and false ideas.

And I hope and am committed to continuing with this work.

In recent days, some people have asked is there really a need for an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan? Is it worth all this firestorm?

The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is a categorical yes. Why? Because this center will be a place for all faiths to come together as partners, as stakeholders in mutual respect. It will bring honor to the city of New York, to American Muslims across the country and to Americans all over the world. The world will be watching what we do here. And I offer you my pledge -- we will live up to our ideals.

That is why eight years ago I also founded a multifaith organization called the Cordoba Initiative, named for the time in Cordoba, Spain when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together and built together the most tolerant and enlightened society on earth. The goal of the Cordoba Initiative is to repair the damage done to Muslim-American relations in recent years and to use this formula of a partnership between faith traditions to build such a new Cordoba.

Inspiring the initiative and our projects are the two commandments, the two most important commandments at the heart of the Jewish, the Christian and the Muslim faiths: to love the lord our God with all of our hearts, all of our minds, all of all souls and with all of our strength. And the second, as Jesus said, co-equal to the first, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Let us therefore reject those who would use this crisis and the sacred memory of 9/11 to achieve their own ends. Let us especially not exploit the memories of the victims of that tragedy or the suffering of their families and friends. Let us condemn the use of holy texts or religious symbols for political or financial gain or even for fame. Let us affirm that the values of Islam co-exist in harmony with tolerant, peace-loving nations everywhere.

I therefore, ladies and gentlemen, call upon you -- upon each of you -- to think of what you can do to make a difference. To the heads of government, some of whom have already reached out to me, make the spirit of Cordoba multinational. Let us share it with the world.

To the politicians among us, reject those who would sell America's soul for short-term gains in public opinion.

To the media, remember that while the campaign against terrorism is fought with troops and armaments, the campaign against radical ideologies is about winning hearts and minds. You, the media, can fuel the radicals or you can limit their airtime.

To the business community, do I need to remind you that in supporting moderation and peace, there is really even greater profit and prosperity?

To my fellow faith leaders, many of whom I see here, let us continue the extraordinary dialogue that has emerged from this crisis.

To my fellow Americans, Muslims and non-Muslims, I call upon you to reach out to each other in your communities. Open your homes; break bread together and extend your hearts in the spirit of friendship and goodwill.

In closing, I want to remind you of an incident from the presidential campaign of 2008 involving General Colin Powell, a man I deeply respect. In October 2008, General Powell talked about seeing a photo essay on American troops serving abroad. One picture was of a mother grieving in Arlington National Cemetery.

She had her weeping head on the headstone of her son's grave. You could see the writing on the headstone. It gave his awards -- the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star -- showed that he died in Iraq. He was only 20 years old. And then, at the top of the headstone, it didn't have a cross, didn't have a Star of David. It had the Crescent and the Star of Islam. His name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American from my home state of New Jersey. He was 14 years old when 9/11 happened, and he couldn't wait till he was old enough to serve his country. And he gave the ultimate sacrifice: his life.

The photo came out around the time that a controversy had broken out over President Obama's faith -- an issue that still hasn't gone away till today. "He is a Christian," Powell said, speaking about President Obama, "He has always been a Christian." But then, General Powell added, "But the really right question is: So what if he were a Muslim? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?" Our answer as a nation, then and now, is, no, there's nothing wrong with being a Muslim in America. Our answer as a nation, then and now, is, there is everything right with being an American Muslim.

I pray to the Almighty God, creator of us all, to bless you, to bless America, to bless all nations on Earth, and to bless all of those who are committed to peace on Earth; for, as He has said, blessed are the peacemakers. Amen. And thank you very much. (Applause.)

HAASS: Well, thank you for an extremely thoughtful statement.

RAUF: Thank you very much.

HAASS: What I'm going to do is ask one or two questions about the immediate issue, and then take a step back and ask one or two about the larger, and then open it up to you all.

The other day, when you were asked about this, sir, you said, and I think I have the quote right, "If I knew this would happen, that this would cause this kind of pain, I would not have done it." Well, given that, why don't you undo it, or at least do it differently from this point on?

RAUF: We are exploring all options as we speak right now. And we are working through what will be a solution, God willing, that will resolve this crisis, defuse it, and not create any of the unforeseen or untoward circumstances that we are -- do not want to see happen.

HAASS: If you were to go ahead with it in its current form, or something like it, and given the larger mission that you've dedicated so many years to of trying to build bridges, what sorts of things could you do to heal the rifts that you, yourself, referred to in the -- that have come about? What sort of options do you see for yourself to try to build bridges that have clearly -- you know, to deal with some of the problems that have clearly been either caused or at least have manifested themselves?

RAUF: See, the large question with which all this is contextualized -- which is the purpose for the Council on Foreign Relations, in a certain way -- which is the challenge that has been thrown to me after 9/11, is: How do we improve Muslim-West relations? And all of my work since then, all of my projects since then, are based on doing that.

For many years, people have always asked: Where is the voice of the moderate Muslims? Where are -- where are they? Where are they? And we couldn't get attention. Now that we've gotten attention for the voice of moderates and moderation -- (laughter) -- I'm accused of being an immoderate. (Laughter.)

But in every crisis, Richard, there's an opportunity. And the challenge that we have together, as faith leaders, as opinion leaders, as think tanks, is: How do we deploy ourselves together in a formula that will capitalize on these opportunities, within the window of time that we have to do it, so that we can leverage the voice of the moderates and address not only the causes that have fueled extremism, but enable the moderates to actually, as I said earlier, wage this war against the extremists?

And that's what this whole situation presents. So if you zoom out from the trees and look at the shape of the forest for a minute, you can see that these patterns are happening. And that's the calculus that we're actually undergoing right now.

HAASS: I will go to the 36,000-feet level in one minute, but let me just ask one more question about the ground view --

RAUF: Sure.

HAASS: -- which is, sometimes in order to achieve the larger goals, one has to deal with immediate challenges.

RAUF: Yes.

HAASS: And you can call it a crisis, you can call it a challenge. It's conceivably an opportunity, as you yourself alluded to. Do you see the way of turning what has become a crisis over this community center into an opportunity, into something that would serve the purpose of building bridges rather than not?

RAUF: Yes. And what has been so heart-warming to me has been the tidal wave of friends and new friends and people who have just been inundating us and saying, look, we are here to help you. The problem I have is like a person that's starting a football franchise and has 2,000 people that want to be on the team. And I have to figure out how to identify the best 11 players to actually create the -- to create the -- create the place.

HAASS: Well, let me ask the -- I'll ask the question one last time and then I'll move on to the larger level. Is compromise one of the tools you're prepared to deploy?

RAUF: Everything is on the table.

HAASS: Okay. I will let others see if they can -- (laughter). Something tells me you're not prepared -- and I think, to be fair, I've just -- I've had some background in negotiations. There are times at which you don't necessarily want to get into great detail about what's potentially on the table, because that doesn't necessarily advance the cause of trying to reach a compromise. And obviously you've got to decide how much to be specific about and how much not to. It's obviously your call.

RAUF: But as I wanted to say, I'm -- we really are focused on solving it, and solving it in a way that will create the best possible outcome for all. That I -- I give you my pledge.

HAASS: I want to return to one of the larger issues you yourself mentioned in your statement today. And I'll quote from you. You said, "The battlefield today is not between Muslims and non-Muslims; it is between moderates of all the faith traditions and extremists of all the faith traditions." And on one level, I would grant that you're right, and there's that problem.

On another level, I think that skirts over a real issue. And again, to refer to something you said, 99-plus percent of all Muslims are not terrorists. But when one looks at the world today, 99 percent of the world's most dangerous terrorists are Muslims.

RAUF: (Yes ?).

HAASS: There is something that is wrong in contemporary Islam. You wrote this important book, which I have a copy of, about what's right with Islam. What about the question of what's wrong with Islam? Why is it that such a high percentage of today's most dangerous terrorists are Muslims? What has gone wrong? What is wrong?

RAUF: That's an important question, and I've -- and I've tried to address it in my -- in my faith tradition. A number of things -- political, socio-economic, religious, perceptions shaped by the media -- have all together created a witch's brew which has let us look at the issue in this way. So what we have done, in the Cordoba Initiative, is to look at the -- at the underlying causes, unpack them and create strategic projects that help to address the -- these core issues.

As -- the political dimensions are the most important -- the Arab-Israeli crisis that has gone on for so long, presence of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has expanded the amount of terrorist acts. And by the way, we Muslims are the biggest victims of this -- of terrorism conducted by Muslims, et cetera.

Then you have the religious issues. How do we -- how do we go around the issue of separation of church and state? There's a history of the last century where we've had secular regimes really pushing religious voices out of the -- out of the -- away from the -- from the -- from the boardroom. These are among the -- among the issues that have -- that have fueled this crisis -- the sense of alienation among Muslim minorities (is ?) more so in Europe than in -- than in this country -- and the sense that -- you know, that we Muslims have to -- have to help each other, just like during the communist regime American Jews were supportive of Soviet Jewry and their plight. There's a sense of a common bond.

So we have to understand the physics, the dynamics, of what's going on and then engineer solutions. I think at this point we understand the science. It's -- I mean, we understood the science of how to go to the moon three centuries ago. But engineering the solution is what is needed right now. So we need to collectively engineer solutions and deploy them in order to address this issue.

HAASS: Let's just talk for a minute, then, about solutions, though that's a word I tend to shy away from. What is it that Muslims can do so, within the Muslim world, radicals do not continue to have the upper hand? What it is that people who have the Muslim faith who are committed to moderation and tolerance and liberalism in the classic sense -- what more is it that they can do to influence the trajectory of their fellow Muslims?

RAUF: Address a number of issues, among them the issue of -- politically, the issue of separation of religion and politics and how do we address this issue. That's a very important issue in the Muslim world.

But also, because we are in a globalized world today, what happens -- what happens in the West does -- has an impact upon what happens in the Muslim world. Look at the Danish cartoon crisis. Here was a crisis that was a purely media-created crisis which resulted in a flare-up. And whenever a crisis occurs, Richard, there are always people and forces that have agendas, and they use it. It's like, you know, the train is moving; they jump on the train because they're -- it helps them go to their destination.

And we know the Danish -- the Danish cartoon crisis was taken advantage of by certain people with certain agendas to push their agendas. So we have to understand, as I said, the political forces behind it, the religious forces behind it, the social forces behind it, and manage it. Because, as you said, it's not about fixing. It's about managing.

HAASS: But there'll always be people with agendas. So there were people who took advantage -- the Danish cartoonist, or if the pastor in Florida had gone ahead with his terrible threat to burn the Qurans, there would have been people who would have exploited that. Where are the voices pushing back? What can we do to strengthen the voices and the hands of those who would say, yes, what has been said or done is awful, but this is not a justification, this is not a license, for committing acts of violence against innocent people. What can we do to strengthen the hands of those people?

RAUF: Well, we have to be strategic rather than reactive. We have to be proactive rather than -- a lot of what I've seen has been reactive, or we bring people in conferences, which are important, you know, to have conferences and talk about the issue.

But that's like -- that's like talking about what players on the field should do to win a game. In order to win the game, you have to be players in the field. We have to have strategies that we have formulated together and deploy those strategies. What is absent right now is strategic planning to actually combat that at an -- at a way sufficient to push back against that.

Look, the threat of radical extremists from the Muslim world is not only a threat to the -- to Western governments. It is as much a threat to Muslim governments. It's as much a threat to Muslim societies. People in Pakistan are sick and tired of suicide bombers. People in Iraq are sick and tired of it. I remember going back to Egypt after the -- after a terrorist attack against some Swiss tourists. People in Egypt were mad and angry because it -- tourism dried up, a lot of people were starving, it affected the economy. It impacts our societies. The misperception that Muslims are happy about it -- they're not. They're miserable. And they want -- they want something better. And we don't know how to give it to them.

Radical extremists have hijacked our discourse. Imagine what would happen, Richard, if every time there was a suicide bombing there was a news blackout. What would happen to the extremists? They love the fact that the media gives them this coverage. I don't know how to do it; I'm not saying that's a solution. But the fact of the matter is, the way things happen right now is that -- is that it -- we have a situation or a status quo where we -- the extremists can hijack the agenda. And for all of our intelligence and smarts, we haven't figured out how to quiet them down.

HAASS: I could go on, but I will show uncharacteristic restraint. (Laughter.) So what I ask you to do is raise your hand, wait for a microphone, introduce yourself and please limit yourself to one question, and keep it extraordinarily short.


QUESTIONER: Yes. I'm Farooq Kathwari, also associated with Ethan Allen. I've had the pleasure of knowing the imam for many years.

HAASS: Fast question.

QUESTIONER: I have made a suggestion that perhaps the time has come to take a -- what I might call a freeze on the situation, perhaps to call a -- take a timeout, to say that we're going to hold it up until you have these kind of discussions. You've done a good job here. And I think in the country this kind of -- these kinds of discussions are needed, and an opportunity could take place that in -- I mean, in my 45 years I have never seen the kind of a discourse that is taking place in this country. It's -- it is just amazing. And it is bad for America, is certainly bad for Muslims. So there's an opportunity to take a breather and then to explain, and I think we'll get an opportunity of having an -- an opportunity for you to perhaps proceed in a better environment.

HAASS: So what about the idea of a so-called timeout or a freeze?

RAUF: Thank you, Farooq. Farooq is a dear friend, chairman of Ethan Allen. And we have -- our advisers have been looking at every option, including that. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Okay. I see a hand all the -- yes, ma'am.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I'm -- (off mike) -- from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

HAASS: Please. I don't hear you.

RAUF: Can't hear you.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike) -- I'm talking it -- there you go. June Cross from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia. In fact it was one of my students that first persuaded you to go into the pages of The New York Times last year.

HAASS: (To your ?) quick question.

QUESTIONER: You've mentioned several times the analogy of the -- building of a team together, to create a coalition of moderates. What would your dream team look like? What are the characteristics of the dream team?

RAUF: You, Richard Haass and Farooq Kathwari. (Laughter.)

(Chuckles.) On a more serious note, we need to have a combination -- I wrote about this in my book -- it needs to be a concerted, coordinated plan of action for many fronts. We need -- we need opinion leaders. We need journalists. We need educators. We need politicians. We need religious leaders and faith leaders. We need academics and universities and schools and institutions, think tanks to create plays, what I call -- just like football analogy -- create plays, because we do know that our interests -- there are agendas that other people have. We have to run blockage. We have to do all -- I mean, football is the perfect analogy to this. We have to create first downs. You know, we have to create, you know -- I mean, everybody's looking for a Hail Mary pass. It won't happen in this situation. We have to play in -- we have to stay in the game, play in the game. And the opportunity, which many people have seen in this crisis, is that -- like a football game where everybody's losing, and all of sudden a first down is caught, and people are coming back into the stadium.

So I think we do have certain opportunities here, and we are right now feverishly thinking of how to put together the structure that will enable us to deploy more people in such a discourse and move the ball forward towards, as Richard said, managing the crisis in a much better way, if not fixing it.

HAASS: I like football as much as the next guy, but a Hail Mary pass is a metaphor too far. (Laughter.)

Mr. Arkin.

RAUF: I'm sure that (the father here ?) would like it. (Chuckles.)

QUESTIONER: (Off mike) -- good morning, sir.

RAUF: Good morning.

QUESTIONER: You speak much of strategy, which means future planning. In the early days of your planning for this mosque in downtown New York, did you or your colleagues anticipate the crisis it might create?

RAUF: No, we did not. And in fact we were surprised, because when the news became public, you know, front-page New York Times last December, nobody objected.

HAASS: If you had anticipated it as much as now it's turned out, what would you have done differently?

RAUF: Well, I mean, for starters, we would have tried to do it differently.

I mean, we had different stakeholders, different -- maybe not even do it at all.

HAASS: Mr. Sorenson?

QUESTIONER: Oh, thank you.

HAASS: Got a microphone right there, Ted.

QUESTIONER: Sir, I'm Ted Sorenson, retired lawyer. By coincidence -- (laughter) -- 50 years ago last night, a candidate for president of the United States who would later become the first Catholic president of the United States was speaking, sitting up on a platform much as you are, to a group of Protestant ministers pleading for religious tolerance and trying to explain the position of the Catholic Church.

Like you, he had to face hostile questions and a wealth of misinformation. And he found himself forced to explain or defend so-called extremist statements made, as he said, in other countries in other centuries, which didn't apply at all, whether the words were infallibility or obedience or whatever.

Words are part of the problem. I don't think that the misinformation to which he referred and to which you referred is necessarily deliberate. People in this country know very little about Islam, just as they knew fairly little about Catholicism. People don't know the difference between Islam or even jihadist --

HAASS: Ted, I'm going to interrupt you. We've got to get to a question.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, the question is -- I don't think people are being extremist when they oppose a jihadist community center in Lower Manhattan. But can you explain to them why a Muslim center is not the same as a jihadist center?

RAUF: Thank you. Fortunately, Ted, I can't run for U.S. president, since I was not born in this country. (scattered laughter.)

That's a good question. I'm not at all suggesting that people who are against the center are in fact, you know, radicals or extremists. That's a gross misinterpretation -- not at all what I have intended or meant. The -- there is a lot of unawareness of Islam in this country, which is why I urge people to understand it -- read my book, for that matter -- and seek to understand what we are all about.

But it's also important for people to understand what are the causes of something. Many people, for example, believed falsely that the problems in Ireland between Protestants and Catholics were a religious issue. If you study Catholic theology, or Protestant theology, you'll not find the sources of the problems in Ireland. The problems were due to an imbalance between the Protestants and the Catholics in the power and economics pie.

What happens in much discourse that religion gets sucked in. Religious identities become part of the different groups that are -- that are, you know, combatting or competing for the same assets. So it's important for us in our discourse to be able to not only explain that, but find ways to resolve the problem, because -- you know, people think, oh, it's about -- it's about religion, and therefore push religion away. If we don't identify the problems correctly, we can create false solutions and create worse problems.

And in many respects, that has been part of the discourse right now on this issue and on Islam, on the relationship between the West and the Muslim world. And those are the perceptions and the understandings that we need to correct.

HAASS: Yes, ma'am, in the second row.

QUESTIONER: (Inaudible). I actually have a -- I have a question for Richard, which is, you asked the imam what Muslims should do to stop extremists. And I'm interested to know -- here in New York, we had people across the political spectrum, from Sarah Palin to Harry Reid, basically ask a religious group to move their place of worship to -- you know, not to -- avoid hurting the feelings of other people. And it seems like when we go down that slippery slope, we're setting an environment up that helps to breed extremists.

And as one of the preeminent foreign policy institutions in the country, what does the Council on Foreign Relations plan to do to help -- (laughter)?

HAASS: Let me just say the Council on Foreign Relations does not take positions on this or any other issue, for all the obvious reasons.

I would just say, speaking personally -- and it gets to the essence of the first question I asked Imam Feisal -- is I personally believe that this is not a question about rights. I think that the right is clear. The question here is in -- given the larger agenda that he personally has and the Cordoba Initiative have, is the exercise of rights and how does one to about an exercise of rights in a way that serves the larger interest of building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims, about integrating Muslims ever more fully into the American way of life, about reducing rifts between the United States and the rest of the world.

And I think going forward, we are where we are where we are. We can't undo how we got to this point. And to me, the policy question, quite honestly, that is really for you, not for me -- and I don't mean to rehash it -- is, moving forward, how do we manage this in a way that serves all those interests?

And again, I think we've passed the point where this is about rights and the existence of rights, and I think it's about the exercise of them. And one doesn't always have to exercise rights a hundred percent. One always has the option of exercising rights in different ways in order to pursue further, larger agendas.

You don't have to respond, but that is --

RAUF: Well, what I would like to point out is that -- the lady asked a very important question -- point to a very important reality, and that is that the discourse is shaped not only by what Muslims say but by what non-Muslims say and do. And of course, America is the global superpower today. Many Americans don't realize it, but our example speaks loudly to the whole world.

What happens here speaks loudly to the whole world. And what happens here -- what non-Muslims do here and say here matters to the Muslim world. So we cannot delink. They are linked. What happens here will have ripple effects, by whomever is doing it. And that's part of what makes the calculus so complicated.

HAASS: Marty Gross.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

You're a teacher, and I'm also a teacher. And the relationship between teacher and student is a precious one. In fact, you're a religious teacher.

I'm dealing with an asymmetry whereby the act of putting your center where you are, at the moment appears as a form of a desecration to those people who think it is hallowed ground. How does the process of teaching work when the students take this perception of the teacher to the teaching process the teacher wants to bring to the students?

MR. RAUF: (Brilliant ?) question. First of all, it is absolutely disingenuous, as many have said, that that block is hallowed ground. As Clyde Haberman and many people have educated and taught and tried to teach the public, both Muslim and non-Muslim, that, you know, with a strip joint around the corner, with betting parlors, to claim it is hallowed ground is -- it's hallowed ground in one sense, but, you know, it doesn't make -- it doesn't add. So let's -- let's clarify that misperception.

But the important part of what I'm trying to do, and my work, is that we -- I need a space, I want a space where the voice of the moderates can be amplified. It's not good enough to teach where no students will hear you. We need to create a platform where the voice of moderate Muslims will be amplified. Everybody wants this. Non-Muslims want the voices of moderate Muslims to be amplified, and moderate Muslims want the voices of moderates to be amplified.

In a -- in a paradoxical sense, or maybe in a poignant sense, this is an opportunity that we must capitalize on so that those who teach moderation will have a megahorn to preach and to teach the voices of moderation.

And I have been successful, and I have proven it, with people from my community, because I know which verses to quote from the Quran. I know how Muslims think. I know how to speak to them. I know how to shoot holes in their arguments as to what it is and what isn't the teachings of the Quran and our faith -- and (his/here's ?) example. The prophet was told -- the Quran tells the prophet: "We do not send you except to be a mercy to nations." If we are not a mercy to nations, we are not following in the footsteps of the prophet. And that is one of the highest ideals that Muslims take upon themselves.

HAASS: Sir, we've got time for only one last question. You've been patient. Yes, just identify yourself. Keep it short.

QUESTIONER: Peter Fedynsky, Voice of America. At a recent demonstration near Ground Zero opposing the Islamic center, there was a banner behind the (the state ?) that said "stop shari'a law before it stops you." And I would venture to say that many of the concerns of those present were not only the planes slamming into the Twin Towers, but minor things like women refusing to unveil themselves for a driver's license and then major things like news of stonings, of honor killings. And -- or -- and then some people would say that the Cordoba -- Cordoba in history was a place of Muslim conquest. So this -- the question is, what is the compatibility of shari'a law with American constitutional law?

MR. RAUF: Absolutely (coincident/consistent ?), first of all. And I've written about it and have lectured about it.

The fundamental rights of -- the opening lines of Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" -- the equality of human creation is a fundamental principle of the Abrahamic faiths -- "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" -- the fact the creator gave these rights to us, not any government or man-made agency, is a religious concept among which our life, life and property, then changed to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness.

Seven centuries before these words were penned by Thomas Jefferson, Muslim jurists said all of shari'a law, all of Islamic law is intended to uphold six fundamental objectives: the protection of life, of human dignity, which (can ?) relate to liberty, to religion, to family, to property and the intellect. And what do we do (after ?) life to pursue our happiness? We get married to our loved ones, we seek material well being, we seek our intellectual pursuits and we seek to practice our faith religions.

In many respects, yes, there are aspects of shari'a law which we ourselves have trouble with. But in many respects we practice shari'a already when we practice -- when we -- when we -- when we adhere to our dietary laws, we are practicing shari'a law. When we bequeath our estates to our children in accordance with the dictates of shari'a, we are -- there are -- we are consistent with American law and consistent with Islamic law. And when we pray, when we (fight ?), these are all commandments of shari'a law. So 90 percent of shari'a law is fully compatible, and not only -- not only compatible, is consistent or compatible with American constitutional law and American laws. The areas of difference are small and minor.

And by the way, Islamic jurists have said from the earliest of times -- because Muslim communities lived as minorities first in Abyssinia, in Ethiopia, at the time of the prophet -- and they said that wherever Muslims are a minority, they are required to follow the laws of the land. It is a requirement of shari'a to follow the laws of the land. There is much more I can say about this, but I think this covers the ground for the time being.

HAASS: We will not settle all matters of Islamic jurisprudence this morning, or all matters of politics.

Let me thank you all for coming. Let me apologize to those whose questions were not answered. And let me thank Imam Feisal for coming here this morning, for his thoughtful remarks and for answering our questions. (Applause.) Thank you very much.







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