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Routinely described in the mainstream media as a moderate and a champion of moderate Islam, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf says that his work and organizations are dedicated to “building bridges” between Islam and the West. Critics charge that Rauf is actually a supporter of radical Islam and terrorist violence.
The facts seem to have been somewhat muddled on all sides. The problems start with Rauf’s own penchant for slippery, obfuscatory rhetoric and agenda-laden doublespeak — probably a symptom of his “bridge building” efforts to reach out to multiple constituencies at once. In addition, sympathetic media have engaged in selective quotation and glossed over difficulties in Rauf’s record, while Rauf’s critics sometimes pounce on seemingly incriminating comments taken out of context.
Rauf’s Cordoba Initiative website generally supports the impression of Rauf as a moderate opposed to terrorism and extremism. For example, here are some comments from an FAQ regarding 9/11:
The events of 9/11 were horrific. What happened that day was terrorism, and it shames us that it was cloaked in the guise of Islam. It was inhumane, un-Islamic and is indefensible regardless of one’s religious persuasion. Not only Americans but also all Muslims are threatened by the lies and actions being perpetrated by these self-serving extremists and their perverted view of Islam. … Like all New Yorkers and Americans we were too devastated by 9/11. … It shames us that extremists who profess to be Muslim perpetrated murder on such a horrific scale for political and financial gain in the name of Islam.
However, in interviews on radio and television Rauf has made comments about 9/11 and terrorism that have drawn critical fire. In a “60 Minutes” interview shortly after 9/11, Rauf stated that while he “wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened … the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened”—and he went on to say that “Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.” More recently, in a radio interview on WABC, Rauf repeatedly refused to label Hamas a terrorist organization, limiting himself to vague comments like “The issue of terrorism is a very complex question” and “I am a bridge builder. … I do not want to be placed nor will I accept a position where I am the target of one side or another.”
The same FAQ cited above offers responses to criticism of both of these interviews. The “60 Minutes” interview, the website says,
was completely incorrect as the statement was edited out of context. In the full interview, Imam Feisal describes the mistake the CIA made in the 1980s by financing Osama Bin Laden and strengthening the Taliban. This view is widely shared within the US and the US Government today, and Imam Feisal underlines the importance of not supporting “friends of convenience” who may in the future become our enemies. This is common sense.
Regarding Hamas, the website states:
Imam Feisal has always condemned terrorism (see his 1995 book “What’s Right With Islam is What’s Right with America” and his hundreds of speeches). Hamas is both a political movement and a terrorist organization. Hamas commits atrocious acts of terror. Imam Feisal has forcefully and consistently condemned all forms of terrorism, including those committed by Hamas, as un-Islamic. In his book, he even went so far as to include a copy of the Fatwa issued after 9/11 by the most respected clerics of Egypt defining the 9/11 attack as an un-Islamic act of terror and giving permission to Muslims in the U.S. armed forces to fight against those who committed this act of terror. Imam Feisal included this in his book to prove that terrorism must be fought even if Muslims have to fight fellow Muslims to stop it.
My impression of all this is somewhat mixed. The “60 Minutes” clarification makes sense to me; in fact, the same basic construction of his remarks immediately occurred to me the first time I heard them, even before I read the FAQ. On the other hand, Rauf’s tortuous diffidence on the WABC interview regarding Hamas is pretty shameful, and the website clarification doesn’t entirely eradicate that. On this cursory reading of the evidence, one may legitimately have questions about how frank Rauf is willing to be about his views. (The use of the third person on the website FAQ raises additional questions: Quite possibly Rauf wrote them himself, and at least I suppose he had to sign off of them, though it’s not quite as persuasive as hearing him state his own views in his own voice.)
Some critics have gone so far as to accuse Rauf of a “soft jihad” approach, even accusing him of lying about his real beliefs under a traditional precept of Muslim moral thought called taqiyaa, which appears to address concealing one’s faith in dangerous situations.
A charge of pious lying is an ugly thing, and should not be made without compelling evidence. (It’s not clear to me that taqiyaa necessarily means what the critics say it does.) Going by the quotations and criticisms I’ve seen, such evidence is lacking in this case.
It is our duty as Catholics under the eighth commandment to respect the right of others to their good name and to seek where possible to give a favorable interpretation of others’ statements. This doesn’t mean accepting everything anyone says at face value, and it doesn’t mean that problematic statements shouldn’t be criticized. As far as I can see, though, the claim that Rauf is a supporter of terrorist violence and is lying about it is not warranted by the evidence that I’ve seen cited, and is thus contrary to our duty under the commandment against bearing false witness.
For what it’s worth, my opinion is that those who paint Rauf and Khan as radicals sympathetic to terrorism are misreading them. I’m inclined to take them at their word that they are basically opposed to terrorism and deplore what happened on 9/11, although what I’ve seen of their language does make firm conclusions hard to draw. I will return to this point later.