After hearing Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf speak before a packed audience last night, it is difficult to see why anyone has ever had a problem with the cleric or his organization, the Cordoba Initiative. Imam Rauf seems to represent a model of a universalistic, Americanized Islam that has gone far beyond the requirements of a tolerant, pluralistic society. Love of America was a recurring theme in Rauf’s speech, and story after story emphasized that he has always viewed much of his work through the lens of patriotic commitment. Frankly, this kind of patriotic rhetoric is too often absent from speakers at Yale programs, and its presence in Imam Rauf’s remarks underlined the utter incongruity of the opposition arrayed against him this past summer.
The vision for Islam that Imam Rauf’s articulated yesterday is likely one with which many Americans are unfamiliar. Rauf is a vocal pacifist, a moderate’s moderate, making his pillorying over the Park51 episode all the more ironic. He believes the current upheaval should not be viewed as a conflict between Western values and Muslim values, but rather as a great battle between “moderates of all faith traditions” and “extremists of all faith traditions.” At the opening of his remarks, he condemned terrorism, wherever it may occur, specifically noting his sadness over yesterday’s terror attack in Jerusalem. He suggested that there are threats to America’s national security that are distinctly Muslim in origin, but described this set of threats with visceral disgust: “I don’t like it, I hate it, I abhor it,” he said.
Of course, it would be both unfair and patronizing to herald Imam Rauf’s vision as the single “ideal model” for modern, American Islam. It is not our place to evaluate how any other person creates a coherent self-identity out of his or her religious and national commitments. Different individuals have always — and will always — need to find their own models of synthesis. As Jews in America, we are acutely aware of the struggle and reflection necessary to achieve such synthesis, and we value the rich variety of possibilities open to citizens who seriously practice a minority religion. But Imam Rauf clearly represents a model that is profoundly compatible and productive for this country and for many Muslim citizens. In this context, it is impossible not to react with considerable wonder to the reality that this man is considered controversial.
Sitting in front of a line of policemen, listening to repeated requests to retain civility, and knowing we were tasked to write a rebuttal to a negative opinion column (one which never materialized), we expected a controversy of some sort. We found none. Certainly, complex and difficult questions were raised — moderator Rabbi James Ponet pointedly asked about militant Jihad and those strands of xenophobia present in Islam (as they are in other religious textual traditions) — but Imam Rauf consistently shrugged them off. However, we never felt that the imam was avoiding these questions for political reasons; rather, it quickly became clear that these were simply not important parts of his religious vision.
Imam Rauf spoke heartbreakingly about the internal conflict he felt when he was asked by New York Governor David Paterson to move the Cordoba cultural center to a new location. The imam described the genuine pull he felt towards making a “heroic” concession to the unreasonable sensitivities of some, but also his recognition that such a concession would send a debilitating message to Muslims at home and abroad. After hearing remarks from the imam this past evening — remarks peppered with quotations from Jewish and Muslim scripture affirming the universality of moral responsibilities and abhorrence for religious coercion — we are genuinely bewildered by the fact that he was ever put into such a difficult position.
Lamentably, over the past year Rauf has been demonized in print and his speaking engagements are often accompanied by protests. But this image stands in sharp contrast to last night’s event which was utterly calm, free of hecklers or protesters. Of course, this event was in no way an anomaly, and is indeed emblematic of the strong relationship between Yale’s Muslim and Jewish communities, a relationship sadly absent on many other college campuses. Elsewhere, real dialogue is often impossible due to inflamed passions and intentional provocations. Indeed, just yesterday, an outside organization purchased a News advertisement seeking to debunk myths about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an incendiary and disrespectful manner. We thank the Slifka Center for its attempt to distance the Jewish community from this advertisement. Not often enough do we step back and appreciate the serious time and effort that the Jewish and Muslim communities at Yale invest in building relationships and constructive discourse. So even as we wonder at the controversy and vitriol surrounding Imam Rauf elsewhere, we can take heart in the radically different kind of conversation we are having here at Yale.
Hodiah Nemes is a sophomore in Saybrook College and the secretary of Jews and Muslims at Yale. Yishai Schwartz is a sophomore in Branford College and the vice president of Yale Friends of Israel.