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Q&A with the 'Ground Zero' Imam

by Dennis Prager

July 24, 2012 | 4:48 pm

From left: Dennis Prager and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

From left: Dennis Prager and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

On July 20, Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager conducted a lengthy interview on his radio show with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, author of “What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America,” who is best known for his plans to build an Islamic community center, including a mosque, near the World Trade Center in New York. What follows is the transcribed text of that interview.


Dennis Prager: Imam Rauf, welcome to the Dennis Prager show.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf: Thank you very much, Dennis. It’s my pleasure to be with you.

DP: Nothing interests me more than the question of what will be Islam’s future. Anybody, whatever their position, has to be almost preoccupied with the question. . . .

Let me begin by asking you for a governing definition of an “Islamist.” Mine is: A Muslim who wishes Sharia to be the law of a land. What is yours?

IR: The Sharia is nothing more than the principles of the ten commandments, the principles that Jesus said, the two major commandments: To love the Lord, thy God, with all of your heart, your mind, your soul, and your strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. . . . Sharia law, in terms of its positive law, Dennis, is the protection and furtherance of six basic human rights: The right to life, the right to honor and dignity, the right to freedom of religion, the right to pursue your intellectual pursuits, to have a family, and to practice the faith of your choice, and to pursue property.

DP: Let me give you an example of Sharia law, and tell me where this falls under one of those six headings. During the month of Ramadan, on a street in Morocco, I was smoking my pipe and a man came over and said, “This is Ramadan. You can’t smoke.” Another example is the Somali cab drivers in Minneapolis who refuse to take passengers who have a bottle of beer in their car because of the ban on alcohol.

IR: This is a misapplication of Sharia. God’s law involves giving human beings the freedom to sin, the freedom to make mistakes, and part of the law of the land has to be to give people these freedoms. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misapplication of Islamic law in many countries.

DP: But is it not a basic yearning of, as you call yourself, orthodox Muslims, to want to see an Islamic state?

IR: Well, you see, there is a lot of basic misunderstanding around that. The action of the cab driver is no different than the action of a devout, fundamentalist Christian who kills a doctor who provides abortion services because he believes it is wrong. Taking the law into your own hands is wrong. Even under Islamic law, no human being is allowed to take the law into their own hands.

DP: But is it not the dream of every faithful Muslim to have an Islamic society, meaning that the state is Muslim and enforces Muslim law?

IR: That is not really completely true. In fact, in many countries, like in Pakistan, the Islamic political parties have never gained more than 25% of the vote. This is the problem: what has happened in the Muslim world in the last fifty, sixty years is that we have adopted the bad systems of what happened in Europe centuries ago when the state established a particular religion. This is the scourge which has become quite prominent in many Muslim countries, or sectors of Muslim-majority countries, and this is the battle that we have to wage today internally within Islam.

DP: So you think that all of these bad things that we see today in the Islamic world are all aberrations. Let me cite Ibn Khaldun, considered by both non-Muslims and Muslims be the greatest Muslim thinker ever, outside of Muhammad. He wrote that Jihad, for example, means waging war to convert people to Islam; and that Islam is a greater religion than Judaism or Christianity, because those two religions do not believe in Jihad, whereas Muslims do. Now, is he an aberration?

IR: Look, he is a sociologist. That statement is disproven by the vast majority of Islamic history from the very earliest times, when the followers of the prophets conquered other countries. Their system of rule until the ottomans a century ago, developed systems where people of every religion other than Islam were protected. And that is the system that we need to reintroduce to the Muslim world today. The aberrations we have today are just like the aberrations in Christianity centuries ago, when you had the inquisition.

DP: My study of Islamic history does not have such a rosy picture. The most dramatic example is Hindus in India, where Hindu historians estimate that many tens of millions of Hindus, because they were not monotheists—Jews and Christians were generally treated differently—were just slaughtered by the Islamic invasions of India. So yours is not my understanding of the Muslim past.

IR: I beg to differ with you, Dennis. In fact, almost 80% of India was ruled by Muslims, and they ruled over Muslims and non-Muslims. If that were true, in the lands where Muslims ruled, there would be nothing but Muslims like you see traditionally in Europe where any religion other, or any interpretation other than that particular opinion of Christianity—you don’t find other churches existing in those countries until right recently in European history.

You find under Ottoman rule and Muslim rule, all kinds of other religions. It’s only in the last century or even half a century that this triumphalist Islam has become dominant. This is the problem that exists in the Muslim world today. It only began about a century ago when the nation-state concept began and we created a religious nationalism. When India was split into Pakistan and India back in 1947-48, that’s when these problems really began and have become increasingly strong over the last fifty years and this is what we need to push against. This is why I say that the battlefront is not between Islam and the West, or Islam or Muslims and Hindus, or Muslims and Jews, although that is certainly a factor. The real battlefront is between all good, peace-loving, moderate people of all faith, traditions, against extremists of all faith, traditions, and that’s the battlefront we need to wage and to wage it together if we are going to win this battle for peace.

DP: Tell me what group represents extremist Christians today. There are one to two billion Christians. Who are the extremists that we have to battle against?

IR: Well, I mean, it is less of a problem in Christianity than it is among Muslims but those who have said negative things about Islam who, you know, the attitude of the doctors who kill abortion doctors for example.

DP: But they represent nobody. Let’s be honest, nobody fears being blown up by Christians. People don’t fear being blown up by Hindus or Jews or Buddhists. You could say the Tamils, but that was restricted to Sri Lanka. The reason that I take my shoes off at the airport is fear of Muslim extremists, not Jewish or Christian or Buddhist.

IR: And we accept that. We acknowledge that fact that the Muslim extremists today are the problem. We acknowledge that. I acknowledge that and Muslims acknowledge that.

DP: Well CAIR doesn’t. I’ve debated CAIR on national television and they say that there is more terror in the world by non-Muslims than by Muslims. That’s their basic line. You’re not a representative of CAIR, but please don’t say this is what all Muslims acknowledge.

IR: I’m not saying all Muslims acknowledge but the vast majority of Muslims acknowledge that.

DP: So the question is: why has [all this Muslim violence] arisen? You gave the nation-state problem but the nation-state has risen for all these religions, but only within Islam has this [violence] been happening. Also, every free country in the world has been deeply influenced by Christianity or by Christians. But I can’t think of a free country that developed that was primarily influenced by Islam. Why is that?

IR: There is a belief among many Muslims that since the attack on Baghdad in the thirteenth century, the Muslim world had gone through its Dark Ages. Libraries were burned and we have been on the defensive. In fact people have written about Muslims being victims of colonialism and other powers, that we have been going through very much of our Dark Ages and what we need today is a Renaissance of the Islam which peaked during the 8th to 12th century where we triumphed (??) all books of the world, we added to knowledge. And in Cordoba, within Spain, where the interaction between Jews and Muslims and Christians was such that people came to Cordoba and studied, and all the books, even the books of the stoics were translated from Arabic into Latin, then into their various European languages which led to the European Enlightenment and Renaissance. And we need today our own Enlightenment and Renaissance because we had it, you know, some eight hundred years ago, or even less.

DP: Is it at all dispiriting to you that, to the extent that there was a great Muslim period that it was eight hundred years ago? It’s been a lot of time. And during that time, the vast majority of time, Islam was not at all under siege.

How do you feel when telling me, “We need a renaissance, we in Islam, we need a renaissance to re-establish what we had eight hundred years ago”?

Moreover, Islam’s decline, which you would acknowledge, did not occur because of being under siege. It was Islam that had authority over non-Muslims for the vast majority of that period. And even those Muslims that were colonized – well, Hindus were colonized as much as Muslims and India produced a thriving democracy. Maybe, and I know it’s painful but all of us have to engage in this, maybe there is a problem in some basic aspects of Islam which I think can be dealt with by people of good will within Islam, but how do you deal with that?

IR: Your question is legitimate and people have been saying this for the last century. People have been decrying and we need a renaissance in Islam. That is what has led to these movements which have been asking for an Islamic state. But the fact is, we have this problem, and there are countries like Malaysia, that have had a democracy, and Tunisia is beginning to have a democracy. One of the big problems we have had in the last century is the rise of authoritarian regimes run by dictators and this why we are seeing the Arab spring and the aspiration for a democracy. Part of the reason that there has been hostility towards the West is basically political because in the perception of many Muslims, those regimes were supported by the West. But now that we see this rise in democracy, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Syria today.

DP: But the first thing that President Morsi, the first speech he gave after being elected in Egypt, was to demand that the United States release the man responsible for the first bombing of the World Trade Center.

IR: And I disagree with him completely on that.

DP:I know you do. But you’re not the issue. Islam is the issue.

IR: But that’s where I respect to differ. Islam is not the issue. People like [Morsi] who have the wrong understanding—which is why many people in Egypt didn’t vote for him. Had the people who are responsible for the revolution succeeded in getting together, they would have won. The problem is that the revolutionaries were divided amongst themselves on a leader. That’s what happened it Egypt. And most of those people are Muslims. Morsi won the vote by only a few percentage points.

DP: Pakistan was set up to be a secular Muslim state. It would have been, in effect, your model. And now, look today. {The Muslim problem] has nothing to do with Western colonialism, because Pakistan was never colonized for a day. Yet Pakistan today has blasphemy laws, it has a Sharia court, and its constitution says that only a Muslim can be a president of Pakistan. What is a non-Muslim supposed to think when confronting these things?

IR: I understand fully. I mean this is why people believe that Islam is the problem. The problem is not Islam, it is what I call and inquisition of Islam. Just like what happened in Spain during the time of inquisition, to suggest that that was the teaching of Jesus Christ is not true.

DP: Right, but Christianity got better and better and better and better, and Islam got worse. That’s the problem. The trajectories are in opposite directions.

My book , Still the Best Hope, discusses Americanism, Leftism, and Islamism.  At the end of the Islamist chapters, I write that I do have a belief that a reformed—I don’t know if my guest will accept that term—Islam is possible and will come from American Muslims. So on that we may have some agreement.

DP: You’re very welcome. So how, again, do you deal with that? Because we all acknowledge that Christianity had a dark age in Europe, but its trajectory has been moral progress, but the trajectory of Islam has been moral regress. And that’s eight hundred years. So if you’re a salesman and I’m a Martian and want to pick a religion, why would I pick Islam given this record?

IR: Well that’s a tough question to answer but basically the short answer is: There are many people who find solace in Islam. There are many people who find their spiritual answers in Islam, and Islam’s spirituality and Islam’s discipline, and Islam’s prayer, and fasting. There many people around the world, even in America, who find in Islam their spiritual answers. And that has to be respected and acknowledged.

DP: And it is. We do. But my question was based on moral record: What do you do with the eight-hundred-year downhill slide?

IR: Well we have to correct it.

DP: But why did it happen?

IR: Well there are many answers. It happened for various reasons. But the real question is: how do we turn it around? And we must turn it around, not only for the sake of Muslims but for the sake of the world. And this is what my book is about, this is what my life is about, what my work is about. And we have to do this together, Dennis. It requires theologians, it requires scholars, it requires people like yourself in the media because a lot of it has to do with perceptions and misperceptions on both sides. We have to work together to turn this around, and the good news is we can. There are many people of good will from the highest levels of government in many countries in the Muslim world, to academics, to people who want to be part of this change.

DP: Are you familiar with Dr. Zuhdi Jasser?

IR: Yes. I don’t know him personally very well but I know of him and his work.

DP: Where do you two differ? Because I have great respect for him. He is the founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, located in Phoenix.

IR:  Yes. Well, I mean, look. The questions that we have been discussing have been discussed with the Muslim community both in our home countries and in this community for the last century now. These are nothing new. What we… the challenge we have to do is, how do we bring about together an effective coalition, an effective teamwork that will actually make a difference. And you can’t make a difference by just, you know, calling the kettle black- kind of a thing. We won’t achieve a turnaround if all we do is attack each other. What we have to do is work together.

DP: This is an odd thing. What business do I have, positive, negative, or otherwise, if the problem is within Islam? What are Jews and Christians and atheists and Buddhists supposed to do?

IR: Well look, we have to work together to underline the common ethical principles. The Golden Rule is common to all of our religions, and whenever we don’t abide by the Golden Rule we are actually not a good Christian, not a good Muslim, not a good Buddhist, not a good Jew.

DP: All I’m saying is that if the major problem is within Islam, the task is for you. The outsider cannot change Islam.

IR: That’s true.

DP: Only you can, Sir.

IR: Correct.

DP: So it’s nice that you’re speaking to me, and obviously I think it’s nice or I wouldn’t have invited you. And it’s nice that you have interfaith dialogue, but the most important thing is for you to go on radio in Cairo and say that Al-Azhar, the major center of Islamic thought on earth, is in bad shape morally. That’s what you need to do.

IR: It’s not that easy.

DP: I know. I agree! You’re right, but that’s what you have to do. Would they allow you on Cairo radio?

IR: Well I have been on Al Jazeera and Allama bia (?) and on many of the Arab media.

DP: And would you say there, “we’ve been on an eight hundred year decline,” like you told me, “and we better turn this around”? Would you say that?

IR: Absolutely. And they would agree with me on this, yes.

DP: Well Al-Azhar wouldn’t agree with you but that’s a separate issue.

You were asked whether in your view Hamas is a terrorist group. What was your answer? What is your answer today?

IR:  My answer was “yes.” And the fact is that any entity that targets civilian harm is a terrorist group.

DP: Let’s finally get to the mosque.  Are you building it?

IR: Well I don’t know at this point. We need to raise a lot of money. But the plan is not really for a mosque, as I have said.

DP: I know, a mosque and Islamic Center, and I have said that each time.

IR: It’s meant to be a community center, like the YMCA and the 92nd Street Y, to build, to have the kind of programming that builds relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in America, and to build relationships that can help move this mountain of distrust and suspicion that we have, and turn this story around which I know we can do together.

DP: Would you acknowledge that it is not anti-Muslim bigotry for an American to be opposed to the building of the Islamic Center near ground zero, or do you believe that by definition, opposition is what is called “Islamophobic”?

IR: It’s a mixture of many things. It’s a mixture of fear, misunderstanding…

DP: Well what about human sensitivity? Let me tell you this, if a group of Christians or Jews in the name of Christ or in the name of the Torah had incinerated three thousand Muslims in Cairo, while chanting the Nicene creed in one case, or the Sh’ma in the other, and then a group wanted to build a church or synagogue and large Jewish or large Christian community center within a few blocks of where all those Muslims were incinerated in the name of their religion, I would oppose it.

IR: I understand that sensitivity. And we spoke to many people from the 9/11 community. The thing is, Dennis, I am a member of that community. I’ve been an Imam of a mosque just a few blocks from there for almost thirty years. My community was part of the community of that local community right in that neighborhood, I have been part of that community for thirty years.

And we have a presence there, and the fact of the matter is that we want to send a different message. This is what it was about. It’s not about trying to be insensitive at all. And many Muslims even within the community when this whole crisis occurred felt the same way. But the fact is, we want to change the discourse. This is why I am no longer involved with that group, but if we can find a way to send a different message, a message of cooperation, a message of New York City…

DP: Well look, the greatest message, in my humble opinion, is for you to do this work within the Muslim world. And sir, I thank you for your time. The book is : Moving the Mountain. Imam, thank you again.

IR: Thank you, Dennis.

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