The heated debate over the proposed $100 million Islamic cultural center and mosque only two blocks from Ground Zero has thus far focused mostly on the appropriateness of building a mosque at that particular location. Although grappling with the philosophical and political dimensions of the location’s suitability is important, an even more critical question is whether such a center will have as its leader someone who truly appreciates the lessons of 9/11.
A powerful voice for peace and moderation could allay the concerns of Americans who are uneasy with the idea of an Islamic cultural center neighboring the site where 3,000 Americans were killed in the name of Islam. In many respects, the guiding force behind the planned Islamic center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, seems like just such a leader. He is a veteran champion of interfaith dialogue who condemns extremism and terrorism as having “no place in Islam.” Further, Rauf has publicly stated that he is a “supporter of the State of Israel” and advocates peace between Israelis and Palestinians. For these compelling reasons, Rauf has been widely lauded as a bridge-builder and leading Muslim moderate.
The stated motivations behind the Islamic center are just as praiseworthy. “We decided we wanted to look at the legacy of 9/11 and do something positive,” said Daisy Khan, Rauf’s wife and executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, a partner in the project. Rauf himself has boldly proclaimed: “This center is an attempt to prevent the next 9/11.”
These are all encouraging indicators, but the public, like any good auditor, should want to inquire more thoroughly. Some of the simplest and most obvious questions that could be asked of Rauf are about his views on the September 11 attacks and their causes. In fact, those questions have already been asked.
In a “60 Minutes” interview with several prominent American Muslims less than three weeks after 9/11, Rauf stated: “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened, but United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.” When the segment’s show host, Ed Bradley, asked how America was an “accessory,” Rauf responded: “Because we have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.”
Suggesting that American foreign policy is responsible for jihadist terrorism is a familiar line, but its familiarity does not mitigate its offensiveness or its wrong-headedness. Moreover, in this context, it is an abdication of responsibility and an implicit cry of victimization. Acts of terror committed in the name of one’s religion should be occasions for serious soul-searching. Instead, Rauf sought to shift the blame.
Unfortunately, further examination reveals that this comment was not made in isolation. In a March 2004 sermon, Rauf reportedly said that there could be little progress in improving relations with Muslims until America’s president offered an “America Culpa” speech to the Muslim world. And just this past June, on New York’s WABC Radio, Rauf repeatedly refused to label Hamas a terrorist organization. Instead, he offered paltry excuses, saying, “I am a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy.”
To be certain, Rauf is far from an extremist, as some of his critics have unfairly alleged. Indeed, he seems quite sincere in his desire to build bridges and promote inter-religious tolerance. But while Rauf’s intentions may be exemplary, his rhetoric often does not reflect the sort of serious self-reflection that one would expect from someone who has made it his stated mission to prevent the next 9/11.
Rauf should recognize that a lethal strain of radicalism has taken residence in the body of its Islamic host and that, ultimately, it is Muslims themselves who must combat and oust this virus. Condemning terrorism and extremism in the abstract is no substitute for forthrightly confronting real-life extremists such as Hamas. Moreover, simply reiterating Muslim grievances against the West, whether historical or ongoing, will not suffice to counter such noxious extremism nor to explain its inception.
Ground Zero, a monument to thousands of Americans who died there not even a decade ago, demands a stronger moral voice. As long as Rauf continues to blame American foreign policy for the crimes of Islamic radicalism, he is in no position to teach his fellow Americans or his fellow Muslims the lessons of 9/11.
Matan Shamir served as a Legacy Heritage Fellow from 2008 to 2009.