Many see Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf as an Islamic moderate even though he has been vilified in the US press as an apologist for radical Muslims.
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Although he is a pro-US imam who has argued that America is the embodiment of Islam’s ideal society, Rauf became a hate figure in the US over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. The plan offended relatives of the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and led to a US pastor proposing a “Burn a Koran day”.
Rauf says that when the project – a community centre containing a mosque – was announced on the front page of the New York Times [in December 2009] there was no reaction. But six months later, it was picked up by conservatives like Sarah Palin and became one of the most divisive subjects in US society. Rauf later said: “If I had known this would happen, cause this kind of pain, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Was he naïve? “What surprised me is that I’ve been in the United States for 46 years and I think of it as having a very strong concept of separation of church and society, and yet a house of worship was used in a political campaign,” Rauf said.
But most of his work is about dousing fires rather than fanning them. He often talks about the interweaving of Muslim and Western culture. Multi-culturalism, he believes, is the way forward, and the state we are globally shifting towards. America, he points out, has been more successful at this than Europe.
It is, he says, a paradigm because it is “structurally multi-cultural”. As he puts it: “Americans are predominantly hyphenated. They are Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans and so on. So there is a recognition and celebration of variety. That’s a very important factor in creating a space for Muslims to be integrated.” He notes that a greater percentage of Muslims in America are wealthy and highly educated and “those who are better off and educated have an easier time integrating”.
An essential element of this interweaving of cultures, he says, will have to be the incorporation of Sharia law into the legal systems of Europe and the US. In this, he is in agreement with the Archbishop of Canterbury who said that the adoption of some aspects of Sharia law “seems to be unavoidable”.
Rauf points out that “the only truly clashing area is the penal code, and no Muslim has the intention of introducing that to America. The penal code is the area that people in the Western world are worried about – but these are things that aren’t even observed today in most of the Muslim world. Apart from the Taliban and a few places like that, where do you see this happening?”.
In the UK, he says, we need to recognise that the radicalisation of Muslim youth is not a problem of religion. “You have to consider how we would approach it if these people were not Muslims, but were Christian, for instance. The source of the problem is not religion, but an economic one.”
Another myth which Rauf tries to counter is the idea that Islam is at odds with Western concepts of gender equality. “Look around the world, and you see six or seven predominantly Muslim countries that have had heads of governments and heads of state who were women. Glass ceilings have already been broken for many countries in the Muslim world.”
The rise of the extreme right in Europe is something he perceives as a “reaction of fear to a threat of the loss of identity”. He says: “What it means to be Dutch, or what it meant to be British, in terms of ethnicity or language, is undergoing a shift.” The tensions this provokes have to be “addressed by both the host community and the immigrant community ... We need to develop a local Muslim culture. Dutch Muslims have to become increasingly Dutch. The same for British Muslims. We should dress like the people of our country.”
His emphasis is always on what binds, not divides. “I’ve been around and seen a lot,” says the Kuwait-born Imam, who grew up in England. “The fact is that the Western world and Muslim world are very enmeshed ... To me those mutual interests are very bonding.”
Rauf supported the decision by Edinburgh City Council to ban the far-right Scottish Defence League from marching on the eve of the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001 amid safety fears.
He also supported the Scottish Government’s decision to release the Lockerbie bomber.
Imam Feisal is to meet Glasgow MSP Humza Yousaf, who has been vocal on Muslim issues. He will hold a second talk in Glasgow on Wednesday, and will receive a peace award from the Festival, the city of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Interfaith Association and the Conference of Edinburgh’s Religious Leaders.