Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Who's Really Afraid of the Big Bad Imam?

I recently posted this article (below) on a newly launched site called, "devoted to bringing into dialogue voices from throughout the Muslim world," for which I am also a Moderater. I explore what is the 'Islam' behind the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.

Original Post is available here:
“To build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks.”
These were the words of Sarah Palin in late July, as the so-called ‘ground-zero mosque’ controversy started to swirl into whirlwind. The opposition to the building of a proposed Islamic community center has reached a fever pitch and will likely not subside in its harshness until after the mid-term elections in November. A pastor in Florida even proposed a demonstration to burn copies of the Qur’an raising the stakes even higher in the battle to build a prayer space for Muslims in Lower Manhattan. Mainstream political figures such as Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, even compared all Muslims to Nazis and likened the project as an attack on civilization. Yet, the feeling is not restricted to a small few, as indicated by recent polls in which over 70% of Americans surveyed opposed the construction of the facility. Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, the man behind what is now known as Park51, has faced stiffed resistance from within the United States. However, as this center begins to take shape and the Imam assumes a more prominent role, it is likely new opposition will emerge, not from American circles, but from parts of the Muslim world, to the Imam’s message of esotericism, liberalism, and accommodation. Ladies and gentlemen, the resistance has just begun.

Park51, which was previously called Cordoba House, emanates from a vision for a space that the Imam has long held, which he discussed recently on CNN: “To establish a space that embodies the fundamental beliefs that we have as Jews, Christians, and Muslims, which is to love our God and to love our neighbor.” As he also alluded to in his recent trip to the Gulf Arab states, he believes that Muslims themselves have lost their values. In his talk at the Dubai School of Government, he made a startling statement: “Muslims have made Islam into a god to worship…we have forgotten its inner concepts.” The Cordoba Initiative, a non-profit organization that the Imam leads, is dedicated to not only fostering interfaith dialogue, but also re-imagining traditional approaches of Islam, such as through its Shariah Index Project. Before the emergence of the Park51 proposal, Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf did not have a substantive perch to preach from; he was supported by the State Department, but had scant resonance in the wider Muslim community. Thus, a $100 million Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan and two blocks away from Ground Zero, would provide an apt vehicle for the Imam to deliver his message. It was likely not an unintentional choice, although the backers of the proposal probably underestimated the vitriolic reaction that has since arisen. This project was always going to draw attention. The question is – who is the audience and what will be the message?

As much as Park51 will conduct outreach to the wider American community, it is also intended to promote a new type of discourse in the wider Muslim world, or umma. Firstly, this message is one of esotericism. The Imam’s wife leads an organization (that the Imam himself co-founded), the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) that was in fact initially called the American Sufi Muslim Association. ASMA is dedicated to “elevating the discourse on Islam.” His current mosque where he is the imam, is in fact a sufi mosque, that is part of an order led by a woman, Shayka Fariha al-Jerrahi. The rituals and practices of this order (or tariqah) are far from the Islam that has been pushed by interpretations linked to Wahhabi Islam in the last two decades in parts of the U.S. and elsewhere; the order’s teachings involve a number of mystical and non-traditional elements.

Beyond the esotericism, the Imam also is fairly ‘liberal’ to use the term loosely. His wife does not by any means adhere to conventional dress from strict Muslim societies, such as a headscarf. In addition, the Imam is known to hug female members of his congregation (not really a big deal, except one does not see an imam do this) and allows females to pray in the same line (although still separated) from men. Finally, there is the issue of accommodation, and Park51 is envisioned as a common meeting-ground of faiths, and not as a traditional mosque. Furthermore, the Imam is seeking to root within Islam and align its principles with, the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence (as he has said on numerous occasions and in his book).

For now, the Imam has been quite reticent publicly about specific religious issues. Additionally, we do not know the content the Friday sermons that will be delivered after prayers at Park51 nor what type of educational programs it will host. However, given the Imam’s track-record and the organizations he leads, they will surely break with what has been the standard in many American mosques. When this happens and as the center takes further prominence (including globally), the resistance to the center, and its mission and teachings – will come from more orthodox circles within the Muslim world.

The current battle to build Park51 is an important one that has many far-reaching consequences. Yet, even after the Imam likely wins this battle, he will only be at the beginning of the war of ideas within the Muslim world, where his voice will face resistance from entrenched figures rooted in more traditional scholarship. When that time comes, most likely, the current ‘opposition’ to him, will be squarely on his side.

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