In 2004 I was hired to help edit the book What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America by Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam and educator who is spearheading plans to construct a Muslim cultural center—not a mosque—two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center.
As an editor, I am paid to get inside the heads of authors. And Imam Feisal was generous in letting me get inside his. We spoke at length numerous times on the phone as we clarified the book’s message. What I found inside him bears no resemblance to the hateful images perpetuated by fearful people spreading messages of suspicion about a religion, and a project, they have not bothered to get to know.
What I experienced in working with Imam Feisal was unfailing graciousness. The person I learned to know has a deeply compassionate heart focused on one thing only: fostering more open dialogue and understanding between Muslims and people of the Western world. He is single-minded in this focus. His nonprofit Cordoba Initiative promotes interfaith dialogue.
The central message of his book is that the values that lie at the heart of Islam—equality and social justice—are the same values guiding the history of the United States. For years Imam Feisal has been saying loud and clear,
Our peoples are committed to the same values!
Which is why the anger and hate-baiting over the proposed cultural center are so profoundly disturbing.
And, let’s be clear: What is proposed is in fact a cultural center, not a mosque. Imam Feisal talks about the difference in this news conference.
It will be a cultural center because Imam Feisal is an educator. He believes that cultural exchange can help heal wounds between people tempted to see each other as enemies. It’s a trust in education deeply ingrained by his spiritual tradition of Sufism.
Back in the 1700s, in the face of a declining Ottoman Empire, two alternatives presented themselves to Muslim reformers. One was a legalistic return to the roots. This was the path chosen by al-Wahhab on the Arabian peninsula—purging Islam of anything not found at its beginning. Karen Armstrong in Islam: A Short History says,
Wahhabism is the form of Islam that is still practised today in Saudi Arabia, a puritan religion based on a strictly literal interpretation of scripture and early Islamic tradition. (135)
And because Saudi Arabia controls Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, as well as vast oil fields, the Wahhabi form of Islam holds tremendous sway throughout the Muslim world.
The other path was chosen by a Sufi reformer, Ibn Idris. This was the path of education. Improve society by teaching people to love God better—which in practice meant teaching people how to think for themselves by developing their own spirituality more deeply. Not too surprising that Ibn Idris sharply criticized al-Wahhabi for his legalistic tendencies.
In other words, Sufis are usually on the opposite side of the issues from fundamentalists. Which is why it is crazy to label Imam Feisal an extremist—crazy not just because to all who know him Imam Feisal is a progressive, deeply thoughtful scholar and teacher, but also because in the history of Muslim politics, Imam Feisal’s community has often been harassed, sometimes even banished, by fundamentalists.
How strange it is to see someone I deeply respect become such an object of controversy, even hate, in the American media!
I am proud to have contributed in even a small way to Imam Feisal’s work toward interfaith understanding. And I’m deeply disappointed by the depth of opposition to this center, which shows just how much more of it there is to be done.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON SUFISM:
- The journal Sufism, an Inquiry
- The many works of Sayyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University
- Sufi music and my band fave, Ghazal
FOR MORE INFO ON IMAM FEISAL
- This interview in Shambhala Sun (name later changed to Lion’s Roar)
- FAQ from the Cordoba Initiative on the proposed community center
Thank you for speaking to this issue. It is so heartbreaking to see the divisiveness festering in American society and fear that is so powerful that some would compare a man such as Imam Feisal to an extremist political faction of Islam.
I greatly admire and respect the Sufi, and have found great personal growth through their historic and wonderful contributions to the world as a whole, and I do hope that in the future, we can find a way to see without fear into a more peaceful future.
Morgaine, do you think more education in religious diversity would help? To hear the opponents of the community center, you’d think the First Amendment didn’t exist. Or that American education never touched on critical thinking. We also need training in healing from trauma, which is what fuels so much conflict–people reacting out of pain and woundedness. This was brought to my attention by pedantka in this post. We can move forward peacefully when we’re not dragging the pain of the past along with us.
Thank you for this wonderful post, Priscilla.
I’m not sure the entire population can possibly be educated enough to understand all sides of an argument completely. I do think it would be refreshing if leadership at any level demonstrated the wisdom that comes through listening to understand, rather than asserting (shouting) ones own perspective
Living in Arizona, as I know you do much of the time, I am exposed daily to the enormous need for this kind of patience and slowing of reactionary tendencies. As trite as it sounds, I think we truly just need to treat one another with more love. Generous, loving hearts have more room for understanding.
Mimi, I was just in Arizona last week, and it was troubling. The suspicion and fear that have led people to make reactionary laws are truly disturbing. I could feel the tensions there. Regarding a Muslim center near Ground Zero, the piece of educating that really needs to happen is educating about the First Amendment. Our Constitution guarantees all religions an equal chance–no favoritism from the government. If the Muslims are forbidden to build a community center on lawfully obtained land, it would be a religious form of redlining. I think a basic education in Constitutional guarantees might be needed right about now.
I think you’ve a hand on the hottest button in the US today. Religious diversity surrounds us; educational halls are plentiful. But, how much American education really encourages critical thinking about the importance of religious diversity in a nation that is most diverse in population?
I have spent a lifetime studying the many cultures and religions of the world, and I have a long way to go yet. It has been a passionate learning experience for me because I have an interest in health and I believe strongly that health is all inclusive, requiring our mind, body and spirit to be properly balanced and attuned. I know of very few educational halls where all the aspects of “healing” is taught.
To answer your question, “Is America actually educating critical thinkers?” I asked 10 random people (5 today and 5 yesterday) where they would go if they were wounded and needed to be healed. All of them said “the hospital” or “the doctor”. I realized immediately that people don’t associate emotional and spiritual pain as a “wound” or an “injury” in need of healing on the same level as a physical wound or injury, even though both can be just as fatal. Their first thought was of the physical, and instead of inquiring further from me as to my question, they answered from their first thought. Not one of them asked me, “What type of wound?”
I don’t necessarily believe that most Americans consider the term “health” to encompass a multifaceted issue until prompted; then, I think most would agree that good health includes mind, body and spirit. However, in an environment where health is considered to be first physical, it stands to reason that the infliction of physical injury or trauma would be most vehemently opposed. I think American education (and perhaps across the broader spectrum of the developed nations) has focused so intensely on physical health, that we have buried or only exposed to a lesser extent the fundamental precepts of spiritual health which are paramount (in my view) to the physical. Had the better portion of the population a common understanding of emotional and spiritual well-being and health, it is my opinion that we could see more bridges built between religious practitioners which would lead to better human connections, more empathic communications and less of the vicious, fearful rhetoric and lack of understanding.
The issue of this community center is just a symptom of the educational and social climate we’ve fostered for the past many decades. There are discussions on who is and who is not a “real” practitioner of a particular “faith”, whether entire religions are to blame for the actions of a few, whether Abrahamic monotheistic cultures are destined to clash and war, and there are even in-depth discussions taking place as to whether or not American political leaders should or should not have a diversity of knowledge re. the multiplicity of faiths in the nation.
Is America actually educating critical thinkers?
I, respectfully, pose the question back to you. I think Americans can be educated, critical thinkers. But I have a truly difficult time reconciling to the concept that we, as a nation, consider it a priority to foster critical thinking in mainstream education. I think that American education has little interest in advancing critical thought as a mainstream tool that the majority of future generations should be employing.
Morgaine, I share your discontent with our practice of separating education (assumed to be about thinking, our heads) from healing (our hearts and bodies). Even within our limited notion of education, we could be doing a better job of teaching critical thinking, which I take to mean “discernment.” I mean really–Fox News trumpeting alarm and innuendo about the extremist Wahhabi funders of Imam Feisal’s project, only to find out that one of those extremist Wahhabi funders is none other than a part owner of Fox News? It took only a little research on the part of The Daily Show to find this out. Some of the best critical thinking about the news is coming from the Comedy Channel! In terms of my own educational experience (as both student and educator), I find a lot of commitment among people in higher education to critical thinking and discernment. But I’ve also chosen my educational communities carefully. I am troubled by how little regard for discernment there is in the media and on the part of a lot of the American public.
Thank you for clarifying this whole issue in such an empathetic and intelligent way. Blessed are the peacemakers!
My own religious heritage, Mennonite, stresses peacemaking. I happen to think a Muslim cultural center near Ground Zero would also help the cause of peacemaking.