Imam discusses Park51, Muslim identity

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Slifka Rabbi James Ponet ’68 examined the relationship between Islam and the West during a full-capacity talk Wednesday.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Slifka Rabbi James Ponet ’68 examined the relationship between Islam and the West during a full-capacity talk Wednesday. Photo by Hyung Mee Lim.

Despite the controversy surrounding his Park51 Muslim community center, slated for construction near the former site of the World Trade Center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf emphasized his belief that American and Muslim values are fundamentally similar at a Wednesday talk.

Rauf, the public face of the proposed lower Manhattan facility commonly known as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” spoke with Slifka Rabbi James Ponet ’68 about Islam and the West in front of the packed auditorium at Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall. The two discussed how Muslim Americans can incorporate the two aspects of their identities into their lives. Since the Park51 center is controversial, the talk was monitored by Yale security forces, but the visit did not spark protests on campus.

Rauf became a national figure in early 2010 when he emerged as the chief proponent of Park51, which purchased a site two blocks from the former World Trade Center. He said Wednesday that he envisions the community center, which is intended to bring together people of all faiths, as a way for the Muslim community to serve New York City as a whole.

“It’s about time we Muslims do something for our city, do something for our country,” he said, adding that Park51 would be like a Muslim version of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

After discussing the aims of the Park51 project, Rauf emphasized the need to create a Muslim-American identity, in the same way that Jewish-American and Catholic-American identities were formed in the past. This identity, he claimed, would arise from overlapping American and Muslim morals.

“As religious people, we believe that the creator endowed us with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” said Rauf.

Rauf said the need to take care of one’s fellow man is a central tenet of Islam, adding that America does this better than any other nation in the world.

Before its labeling as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” the center’s original name, the Cordoba House, referenced a Spanish city where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived peacefully in the Middle Ages. Since Cordoba was eventually invaded by the Muslim Moors, however, the name was changed to Park51, reflecting its location on Park Avenue.

Sam Hamer ’13, a member of the group Jews and Muslims at Yale, which sponsored the event, said he was relieved by the “mature” reception of the imam, adding that Rauf has encountered few problems at the other universities he has visited recently. Still, audience members were instructed to write down their questions and pass them up to Ponet, which Hamer said was intended to avoid interruptions and disrespectful comments.

The only protest of the imam’s visit came in the form of a full page advertisement in the News yesterday. The David Horowitz Freedom Center, a right-wing organization that opposes “leftist and Islamist enemies at home and abroad,” purchased the ad and published a list of pro-Palestinian arguments, which it titled a “Wall of Lies.”

The Silfka Center took out a full-page ad as well, and wrote a letter in response titled the “Wall of Truths.”

“We reject attempts by outsiders to inject hateful ideas to our campus discourse,” the letter said.

Two of three students interviewed praised the talk for promoting moderate discourse.

“I think that Rauf and the rabbi illustrated how the middle of the road should be the guiding force for our country,” said Sam Teicher ’12. “Positive dialogue at it’s best.”

Gabe Audu ’14 said though he enjoyed hearing Rauf speak, he found aspects of the talk “disheartening,” and the questions from the audience sometimes “narrow-minded.”

Rauf has written three books on Islam’s role in the western world and has founded two non-profits to enhance the discourse on Islam in society.

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