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Jewish Journal

New York Imam talks peace in L.A.

by Jonah Lowenfeld

May 10, 2011 | 6:09 pm

Speaking at UCLA’s Royce Hall on May 4, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose planned Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan — the so-called Ground Zero mosque — ignited a firestorm of protest last summer, said that the killing of Osama bin Laden gave him hope.

“This signifies the end of an era of terrorism,” Rauf told the largely supportive and diverse audience of about 600 students, activists and community members.

The imam has traveled around the world as a special envoy of the U.S. State Department to talk to Muslims about America and Americans; the evening event was just one of many that have taken Rauf to cities around the United States to talk to Americans about Muslims and Islam.

“You have to go out and speak with people, and they will support you,” Rauf told The Jewish Journal before the event. Rauf has been seeking support for his organization, the Cordoba Initiative, a multifaith effort aimed at improving relations between Islam and the West. Rauf is no longer formally associated with the project in Lower Manhattan, which is known as Park51, but is working to establish Islamic cultural centers, or Cordoba Houses, in New York City and elsewhere.

Rauf regularly speaks to members of the Jewish community, many of whom were in attendance at Royce Hall. “The major challenge with the Jewish community is the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has cast a major pall on Jewish-Muslim relations for the last half-century or more,” Rauf said.

About a dozen people, many of them Jewish, stood outside the hall before and after the event circulating fliers that accused Rauf of misrepresenting himself as a moderate and holding large placards that read “The Ground Zero Mosque: Second Wave of the 911 Attacks.” Among them were representatives of the Calabasas Chapter of ACT for America. The group was behind an unsuccessful petition submitted to UCLA’s chancellor earlier this year accusing the Muslim Student Association of sedition and asking the chancellor to shut the group down.

Rauf frequently finds himself speaking with “fair-minded, moderate” Americans who are “intellectually OK” with the idea of building an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan but are nonetheless emotionally resistant to it.

“Americans are basically just, and the majority of people, once they have the opportunity to truly engage with you and ask the probing questions, and feel satisfied, they will do the right thing,” Rauf said in an interview. “The only ones who are still opposed to you are the ones who are rabidly — whether they are anti-Semitic, or anti-Islamic, or racist — are those people who have those prejudices, and will always have those prejudices.”

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