Monday, 20 September 2010

The Failure of Canadian Political Leadership

Please go to TheGeopolitico.com to view the embedded clip if you are reading this via email. 


The Mark News asked several contributors the question "Who Owns Canada?" In this short video entry, I argue that it is Canada's "Group of 4", the leaders of our main political parties. They are controlling the entirety of the political discourse in the country and creating a brand of politics that is detrimental to the nation's progress.

To view the entire series please go to the series page
(please excuse the freeze-frame shot that shows a very random facial expression!)

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Being (in love with) Sarah Palin

You may know her as the beauty queen from Alaska or as the Vice Presidential candidate for the Republican Party on the ticket with McCain in 2008 - she is the incomparable Sarah Palin. She is also a phenomenon. An incredibly captivating phenomenon who dominates media coverage across the United States. Either she is speaking or being spoken about, and across the airwaves, including in the mainstream press. Her tweets serve as breaking news stories. Her Twitter account has a moderate following of 256,000 and counting; her Facebook profile significantly more, with over 2.2 million fans. Her book Going Rogue has sold over 3 million copies and rivals any political memoir to date in popularity. Yet, countless critics dismiss her, especially those who believe her type of politics, her personality doesn't have appeal. Most recent was a piece in Vanity Fair titled, "Sarah Palin: Sound and Fury," which portrayed her in a very negative light and was extremely dismissive. These pundits miss the point. Palin is popular. She is a political icon. And she's not going away.

Most recently, in the lead-up to the elections in November, she has been supporting a number of candidates in the Republican primaries, often in opposition to favorites of entrenched political operatives like Karl Rove. She has dove-tailed with the Tea Party (and Glenn Beck) to create a new pillar of influence in American politics. What is her appeal and message? Here's her latest speech from Iowa just yesterday:



Her opening? A story about running in the heartland being a warm refresher after just having been caribou hunting in Alaska last week. It is this type of thing that satirists like Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey have exploited to caricature Palin (click here for a clip). However, all this is but a red herring, distracting observers from the deep and real support that Palin engenders for her cause (whether her message merits the attention is another story). I leave you below with the recent 'posts' on her Facebook wall, to help illuminate what drives the love for Palin:


Saturday, 18 September 2010

A Faith Forced has no Force at All

Ramadan has passed us by, and in parts of the Arab world law enforcement was out in force. Why? It is a legal offense in a number of countries in the Gulf, Egypt, and elsewhere to eat or drink during the day as a Muslim, especially publicly. In Morocco for example, a violation is punishable with a fine and up to six months in jail; the penalties were imposed on a number of people 'breaking the law' including youths last month. In Egypt this year again the police were on the lookout for transgressors of the fast, as was the case in Algeria. This begs the obvious question: is it really an effective use of state resources to monitor what is ostensibly a private religious activity? Beyond this, what is the meaning of religion when it is mandated by the state? Can the state really have such control over the societies that they govern over? And in many cases isn't the reaction of the people in direct contradiction to the intended outcome desired by those in power?

These questions do not call into doubt the intrinsic worth of Ramadan or any religious practices nor the ethics that underpin them. Quite the opposite in fact. True value is derived from liberty and choice not from compulsion. In Islam, this is oft-noted and a prevalent theme within the Quran and hadith (or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). Take one of the most prominently cited Quranic verses as an example (2:256): "Let there be no compulsion in religion." Another that comes immediately to mind (109:6) extols: "Unto you your religion and unto me my religion." In fact two of the central concepts of Islamic practice are niya' and taqwa. Taqwa represents the inner compass of 'God consciousness' that is to be developed in each individual, so that on a daily basis they avoid ill deeds and do good work. Without taqwa then there is no true practice of the faith. Similarly, niya - which means intention - is central to the practice of Islam, including prayers and fasting. Without declaring in truth one's niya there is really no worth to outward rituals or even the good deeds one performs.

Beyond the ethereal, philosophical and textual, compulsion in faith has tremendous practical consequences on societies. In the UAE during a prominent gathering during Ramadan hosted by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi - one of the most influential political figures in the region - an Iraqi Shiite scholar was given a high profile. Sayyid Ahmed al Qabbanji illuminated on what he saw as the strictures of fundamentalism:
“A large number of young people who live under the rule of fundamentalists have renounced their religion because fundamentalists forced religion on them. Faith thrives on freedom and freedom is the basis of ethics. When a religious adherent is forced to give charity, then this charity means nothing and has no actual value.”
This message is one that is too often hidden from view, yet is a very relevant one, and it cuts both ways. When the Shah of the Iran imposed secular dress on its population and a diminution of religion in public life, it only emboldened religious fervor. Then as the religious authorities over the last several decades mandated that every woman cover her body, including her head, it has led to a cat-and-mouse game of absurd levels between religious enforcers and the rebellious teenage spirit. It may be called the Islamic Republic of Iran, yet, for a vast number, their Islam is not something internal or individual, but external and estranged. More dangerously, apostasy (ridda) and heresy (shirk) are capital crimes in a number of Muslim countries still today. That is why there are dramatic cases of a Muslim to be hanged for converting to Christianity (like in Afghanistan), or another to be put to death for allegedly being a sorcerer (like in Saudi Arabia), or yet others who are always under mortal threat for 'pretending' to be Muslim.

Ultimately in the 21st century, in a globalized interconnected world, societies cannot be closed monolithic blocks, where individuals are compelled to be a certain way. Firstly, the value of faith is severely eroded by this approach. Secondly, it often leads to a backlash, at times overt and blatant, but too often covert and away from prying eyes; simply look at the sexual disfunction and obscure practices at play in much of the Muslim world. Finally, and most importantly, states which in today's age seek to control their societies and obstruct individuality will only undermine development, progress, and prosperity. It leads to the absence of strong civic participation and the creation of underground and oft-destructive structures that foster further discord. Ultimately, the act of suppressing individual reason and intellect in religious matters dulls the overall critical thinking of a people. No innovation. No creativity. No curiosity. And no real belief.

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 IslamComment.com, "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.
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Original Post is available here: http://www.islamcomment.com/twoseas/?p=37
“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.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Serving up a Subcontinental Bridge

When Aisam ul-Haq usually sees a line around him that causes him to wait several hours, it's to go through immigration and customs when entering the U.S. This past week, however, 15,000 fans braved lines and the wait to see the 30-year old Pakistani team up with Rohan Bopanna of India to contest the doubles crown at the US Open in Flushing Meadows. While the duo - codenamed the IndoPak Express - lost to the world's leading doubles players, the Bryan Brothers, in the finals over the weekend, their example was a message to both the people and politicians of the Subcontinent. In their final two matches, the Pakistani and Indian Ambassadors to the United Nations attended, sitting side-by-side. Ambassador Abdullah Hussein Haroon aptly stated:
"They've proven that when Indians and Pakistanis get together we can raise fire. I think on a people-to-people basis, they're setting an example that the politicians should follow."
For Haq, the match was also an opportunity for outreach, given that the incidence of positive news surrounding his native country is scarce. At the end of his final match, he declared over the microphone to the thousands in attendance and others watching in their homes:
"I want to say something on behalf of all Pakistanis. Every time I come here there is a wrong perception of about the people of Pakistan. They are very friendly, very loving people. We want peace in this world as much as you guys."
With grace, sportsmanship, and solid play, Haq is a true ambassador for his country and is already having resonance beyond the world of tennis. Just in the last month, Pakistan has been plagued by natural disasters, political assassinations, sectarian bombings, drone attacks, and the list goes on. He breaks with America's negative perception of his country. Even in the sporting world, in recent weeks, Pakistan has been bogged down in scandal as some of its most prominent cricket players have been accused of taking bribes to fix scoring. It is a difficult position to be in, but Haq is also a role model for  domestically. Another prominent sportsman, Imran Khan, continues to do good work after retirement such as building of Pakistan's largest cancer hospital. Clearly Haq will be a reference point for many in the years to come and that will come with lofty expectations.

Yet, the true potential of the IndoPak Express is in its ability to unite nations that have been divided since 1947. The three entities of the Subcontinent - Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India - are today apart in mindset, politics, and economy, even though they share much across their borders. Partition itself in August 1947 was a particularly bloody affair, with millions of casualties, as Hindus and Muslims tried to cross the borders to end up in the 'right' country. Since then, West and East Pakistan have became two nations (Pakistan and Bangladesh), precipitated by a devastating war replete with the deaths of thousands of innocents (from then East Pakistan). Today's Pakistan remains at a state of conflict with India (even coming on the brink of nuclear war just several years ago). Within Pakistan, although its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, championed the vital position of religious minorities in the state, Hindus have dwindled to below 2% of the total population, and are given scant recognition. In India, there is still systemic disparity in the welfare of the Muslim population and the majority Hindus. Thus, Bopanna - an Indian Hindu - and Haq - a Muslim Pakistani - are a powerful symbol of cooperation and equality across nations and faiths.

India and Pakistan, however, need more than examples and pithy platitudes. While Ambassador Haroon of Pakistan was right that this demonstrates the power of cooperation, it may simply fall on deaf ears. When India's star tennis player, Sania Mirza married Pakistani cricketeer Shoaib Malik earlier this year, they were mired in negative media coverage and even political protests. A senior leader of the BJP, the opposition party in India, Jaswant Singh - and a former Finance Minister - was expelled from the political world when he wrote a nuanced history of partition last year that deviated from the regular dogmatic demonization being the baseline. And let's not forget that even the King of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan, was boycotted (and theatres showing his movies firebombed) when he expressed regret that Pakistani cricket players were not chosen for India's professional cricket league. In Pakistan only recently, Bollywood movies were allowed to be imported, and even then under continuing protests and censorship; in Bangladesh such films are still outlawed. Beyond this, much of the media, political world, and policymakers - in India and Pakistan in particular - see the other country in the form of a threat rather than a partner. Even in numbers, trade between the two neighbors barely amounts to much, fluctuating between $1-2 billion annually.

Haq and Bopanna have definitely put an example out there for their compatriots to follow. The debate around the Subcontinent's identity will hopefully come into sharper focus over the next few years. How can it not when the languages, religions, and ethnicities of both cut across the borders? How can it not when hundreds of years of history are shared together?

The blockbuster Bollywood film Veer Zaara about a love story across the divide, and of an Indian prisoner of war stranded for decades in Pakistan concludes with a poignant speech by the P.O.W. played by Shah Rukh Khan on these very points:

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Go Ahead Burn the Quran

On July 12, 2010, Pastor Terry Jones - leader of the Dove World Outreach Center, a small Gainesville-based Church - announced on Twitter: "9/11/2010 Int Burn a Koran Day." For Jones, "Islam is a danger [and] the world is in bondage to the massive grip of the lies of Islam." He emphasized, "We will no longer be controlled and dominated by their fears and threats." He quickly created a Facebook group and the media took the cue, transforming Jones from an obscure preacher with a limited following into an international sensation that somehow was threatening all of humanity. In fact, the media has seen the Quran-burning story as a perfect fit into a narrative of a proverbial clash of civilizations that is brewing in the lead-up to the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks today. Whose vision would be ascendent? Was this a pitched battle between Pastor Terry Jones and Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf?

Whatever the genesis of the phenomenon, news of the supposed provocation against Muslims has spread throughout the world. On September 4, thousands of Indonesians marched towards the US Embassy protesting the affair. Then, thousands of Afghans later participated in a protest the last several days, burning the US flag for good ironic measure. While Mayor Bloomberg came out in defense of the Pastor  in the same spirit of constitutional freedoms that caused him to defend the builders of the mosque, most American voices were in unison condemning Terry Jones. General David Patraeus, the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan,  stated that the Quran burning "would jeopardize the safety of our soldiers and civilians, even of our Afghan partners." President Barack Obama himself stated unequivocally, "The idea that we would burn sacred texts of someone else's religion is contrary to what this country stands for." The inflammatory event even drew censure from unexpected circles such as Sarah Palin who said that the burning would be "antithetical to American ideals." Even everyday residents of Gainesville vocally distanced themselves from their neighbor.

Under all the pressure, Pastor Terry Jones cancelled the event, much to the surprise of observers, and to the chagrin of the media: "We will definitely not burn the Koran, no. Not today, not ever." There were some claims that he received a stern phone call from US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, while he himself contended that he was going for a negotiation with the Imam of the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. There was some pundits who tried to put an equivalency to the actions and ideology of the Pastor and the Imam, but quite frankly the Imam's message of reconciliation is in stark contrast to the divisive rhetoric of Jones. Likely the Pastor will fade now into wikipedia oblivion, to be remembered only in nostalgic reflection of idiosyncratic Americana.

If he had gone through with the event, would it have been a provocation? Of course. There was an averse reaction to the event and a number of Muslims took egregious offense. For good reason, burning someone's holy book is an offensive act. Yet, I still say - go ahead, burn the Quran. You know why? It doesn't matter, and the world's Muslims, both in America and globally, need to realize that. The only reason that Pastor Terry Jones caused injury and had any influence is because the media and aggrieved parties let him. Millions of Muslims expressed concern but quite frankly no one man can cause any impact on the Noble Quran. Pastor Jones could burn pages but that's it. He would simply burn a copy of a text that is replicated millions of times over in the world. Let him do so in an obscure church in Gainesville, Florida. How can the confidence of a 1400-year-old faith with 1.5 billion followers be shaken by such an insignificant attack?

And herein lies an important point. Today it's Quran burning, yesterday it was cartoons, and tomorrow it will be something else. Why? Why are these such pressing issues for Muslims? Why are these allowed to rise to the top of the list of concerns? Why are there thousands in Afghanistan and Indonesia whooped up into a frenzy over trivialities that have a marginal effect on the daily lives of Muslims around the world? There are a number of more pressing problems, including some perpetrated by the US. Near daily drone attacks in Pakistan are killing people from thousands of feet above in the air with little regard to the damage inflicted below. Perhaps that is worth protesting? Or how about the incompetent corruption and nepotism that continues to plague nearly every country in the Middle East? Perhaps that is worth protesting? Or how about the continuous attacks by extremists in the name of Islam that kill countless civilians each year?  Perhaps that besmirches the integrity of Islam more than any amount of Qurans burned in a year.

It is a positive step that Pastor Terry Jones has decided against an insulting provocation. It was also comforting to see a wide spectrum of American figures condemn the proposed event. Yet, for all the hoopla, the International Day Burn a Koran Day was always an insignificant side-note that should not have the weight it was given. Next time, feel free - go ahead burn the Quran. There are more important issues to deal with, particularly in the 'Muslim world.'

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Self-inflicted wounds - A Pakistani Paradox

"The humanity of Pakistan's victims takes a backseat to the preconceived image that Westerners have of Pakistan as a country."
These were the words of Mosharraf Zaidi about the world's response to the floods in Pakistan on ForeignPolicy.com a couples weeks back in an article that reverberated around the internet. Why was Pakistan not receiving the same level of empathy as Haiti or other countries facing crises? The constant refrain by many commentators was that the international community was not stepping up to the plate during the this game-changing disaster. Since then a number of countries, particularly the United States, have demonstrated forthright commitment to recovery in the South Asian country. Is it enough? Pakistan's Prime Minister estimates the losses from the floods at over $43 billion. Obviously, there will be a shortfall and the devastation that has befallen the country will not disappear quickly by any means.

Yet, there is a perplexing paradox in Pakistan today. The government is wandering from embassy to embassy (or even country to country) asking for support; at the same time it is doing little to safeguard the very little population that is under its control. This week was a case in point, as in the last several days, sectarian violence in Lahore and Quetta has killed over one hundred people. Meanwhile, the government maintains it is ready to deliver aid to flood victims and help them rehabilitate their villages. There is no natural disaster in Islamabad or Karachi or Lahore. Nevertheless, people are dying. People who are peacefully living are being slaughtered. The Pakistani Taliban, according to a senior commander, took credit for the recent attacks on Shiite Muslims: "Our war is against American and Pakistani security forces, but Shiites are also our target because they, too, are our enemies."

There is a triple-sense of outrage that emerges. Firstly, who is this group to declare enemies of people based simply on their creed. A Pakistan that is to be purified to just one conception of Islamic perfection, will always be impure. The concept of killing difference is self-destructive and abhorrent. Secondly, the government is proving wholly ineffective in stopping rounds of sectarian and political violence (this is besides daily issues of law and order). Thirdly, and most importantly, Pakistan at all levels is appealing to the outside world for help, while domestic elements within the country are still perpetrating, accepting and even encouraging violence, instability and disorder. Yes, the flood aid should continue. And yes, the writings of Zaidi and others will inform on the underlying humanity of people in Pakistan. However, to ask for help in restoring a house that is losing its very foundation by the minute is a paradox now prevalent in Pakistan.

The flood aid will come, and some homes will be rebuilt, but will that save the country? When will the conspiracy theories stop about who is responsible for blowing up mosques? Pakistan has a 170 million people, the overwhelming number of him are tremendous ambassadors for their faith and nation. Regardless, what is killing Pakistan now is not an act of God, or an act of War (by the US), nor floods, but Pakistan itself.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Dislam (A poetic journey)

In a break with some of my traditional posts, I wanted to share with you a poem. In fact, periodically I will be posting different pieces reflecting on international affairs and the Muslim world generally, using different forms, including poetry and fiction. Please write back with your reflections.  

Dislam

Assalam alaikum,
In Riyadh or Qum,

Shalom as well,
To Ali and Ariel,

This be a story,
‘bout fake glory,

Talk about God,
Walk on him roughshod,

That is the world,
We have unfurled,

Hate is cheap,
No peace to keep,

I ain’t no teach,
Not here to preach,

But this I see,
And it’s not only me,

We’re not right,
Using our might to fight,

Muslim and Jew,
Christian and Hindu,

It be the same,
Each one plays the game,

No one outside,
Even if they hide,

Each one kills,
And the other shrills,

It’s the same song,
Universally wrong,

Yet it pains more,
When from my folklore,

And when I look,
It’s not in my holy book,

The philosophy around,
Told about town,

I’m talking about Dislam,
Not my Islam,

That’s what I see,
All around me,

No place for the woman,
It’s the man who won,

She must cover,
While I get to hover,

She stays inside,
While I go outside,

She prays at the back,
While I get to be a mack,

That the truth,
Unholy and uncouth,

There’s a lot more,
Let’s discuss the gore,

It is kill that sect,
The one we reject,

A leader decides,
Each believer derides,

Life loses all value,
With a fatwa on cue,

Bomb a school,
If it’s for girls it’s cool,

Blow up who prays,
If they in my way,

Take out a grandmother,
If I lose my own brother,

Forgive and let live,
Is not for us to give,

This is Dislam,
Not my Islam,

But it ain’t too late,
To stop the hate,

Not just against you,
Also for the Jew,

Why we averse,
To the famous verse,

My religion to me,
Yours to thee,

Yes externally,
And yes internally,

Nothing will change,
Without your voice in range,

Each one has a role,
To speak from the soul,

If it’s silence,
It will beget violence,

So speak with me,
Say it clearly,

I don’t want Dislam,
Bring me Islam.



Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Visited by the 'Ground Zero' Imam

Today, I spent the evening with Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, who is behind the Islamic community center now called Park 51, and to be built two blocks from Ground Zero. He visited us at the Dubai School of Government, where we held an Iftar (meal to break the fast) and hosted a public lecture. Afterwards, a small group of Muslims prayed tarawih together, led by the Imam. I have written about the visit, which was published on Huffington Post and is also below.

He was honestly very fatigued, and it seems that the swirling media debate has taken its toll, as has the whirlwind trip around the Gulf states. He was quite adamant about avoiding any direct comments on the Islamic community center itself or even wading into any 'political' issues. However, he again reiterated his belief that this project has been 'exploited' by the election season.

The US Consul-General (for Dubai) and other Embassy staff who were coordinating his visit, were quite 'in tune' with the Imam, seeing his example as a necessary showcase to bring to the region.

For more thoughts on the 'mosque' controversy, please see my other posts:
- Mosque Wars in America
- Jewslim - Jon Stewart as the New Fourth Estate
- Don't Build it and They Won't Come
- Twice Victims of 9/11 Attacks

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Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf Praises America as Muslims Applaud Him

"There is a deep linkage between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - structurally. We have to shift the divide and elevate the discourse...As Muslims we also have to get back to our values - where are the synagogues that were there for hundreds of years in [my birthplace] Egypt?"
With rhetorical flourish in Dubai, Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, the face behind the controversial Islamic community center called Park 51 (previously called Cordoba House), praised America and called for interfaith understanding. It was hardly the performance of a figure that Fox News and others have portrayed as an ally of extremists. The three hours he spent at the Dubai School of Government today included an Iftar (the meal to traditionally break fast during Ramadan), a lecture and Q&A, and evening prayers. At no point did he break from his core message, that his Islam is one that is authentically American, and that America is in congruence with the core values of his faith. He spoke in Arabic, and he spoke in English, and the words were the same.

For the Imam, his trip has been extremely difficult. He has taken comfort in several Jon Stewart clips, as well as the statements by Mayor Bloomberg. He told me that he has felt he is surrounded by "turbulence" and subject to "winds from all directions." Indeed the entire world media is clamoring for statements from him; the moment he did give one interview yesterday in The National (UAE), he was criticized for speaking on a domestic issue from abroad. Thus Imam Feisal is in a dilemma. In the Middle East, however, he has been touring Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, hosted by the U.S. State Department and ferried to various public fora. The reception has been largely positive, and today was no exception.

The audience at the Dubai School of Government, consisted of a motley crew of journalists (from CNN, ABC News, Reuters, and a bevy of local papers), students, financial professionals, government officials, and academics. Largely Muslim, but not exclusively so, the crowd hailed from nearly every country in the region. Libya. Syria. Iran. Pakistan. The list including any number of nationalities perceived as disposed against the United States. While he refrained from any significant commentary on the Islamic center itself, the Imam did not hold back, neither in his humble praise of his country, nor from his criticisms of many contemporary trends in the wider Muslim community.

"Like many of our fellow Muslims, we found our faith in America...My country and my faith are knitted together."
His words went beyond the superficial. The Imam, cited that the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence expressed Islamic values of life, dignity, religion, family, property and intellect. Interspersed in his remarks were references to the Qur'an and the Hadith (sayings of the prophet) to substantiate his points. What surprised many in the audience was when he went even further, challenging some Muslims for neglecting the values within Islam, and its inherent principles of tolerance. He said that many Muslims have in fact "made Islam itself into a god to worship," while forgetting its "inner concepts." He said that in centuries passed it was natural to have different religious and ethnic communities living side-by-side within Muslim societies. What has happened, he asked, in the last fifty years, as many of the Jews and other minority groups have emigrated from countries such as Egypt, for example? He answered his own question, "We are poorer for it." The audience's reaction was applause and enthusiasm.

On his way back to the U.S., Imam Feisal faces a difficult challenge. With various protests organized for September 11, the atmosphere in the country, where nearly two-thirds of those surveyed oppose a his new community center, will only get more volatile. The Imam himself commented that "the political season" is charging the atmosphere, and that much of the opposition is exploiting that.
His voice in the the region and wider Muslim community has been one of moderation, as he has sought to build intercontinental and interfaith bridges. Those in the audience today, will be waiting to see what is the reaction of most Americans upon the Imam's return to his country in just a few days.