Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a leading moderate Muslim leader in the U.S., was once the lead cleric associated with the proposed Islamic community center some critics called the "ground zero mosque." In late 2010, a debate over the location of the community center, now called the Cordoba House, became a contentious issue during the midterm elections.
During the debate, Rauf was called a "radical Muslim" and a "militant Islamist" by critics of the proposed community center. He was accused of sympathizing with the Sept. 11 hijackers and having connections to Hamas.
"For those who actually know or have worked with the imam, the descriptions are frighteningly — indeed, depressingly — unhinged from reality," political reporter Sam Stein wrote last August for The Huffington Post. "The Feisal Abdul Rauf they know spent the past decade fighting against the very same cultural divisiveness and religious-based paranoia that currently surrounds him."
In his new book, Moving the Mountain, Rauf details the events in his own life that have shaped his religious philosophy. He also recounts the struggle to build the Lower Manhattan community center, which was designed to bring together Muslims with people from other religions.
"That was my goal," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "because the world needs that today. Now, what happened at that time clearly wasn't the perfect solution, and what happened did not reflect my dream or my purpose in the right way. But the dream still exists and continues to exist."
A Moderate Voice In America
Rauf was born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents and spent his early childhood in Malaysia. At 16, he moved with his parents to New York City, where his father had been asked to establish an Islamic center of worship. It was the middle of the 1960s, when the counterculture was in full swing and the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states had created a growing divide between Jews and Muslims.
Rauf, who was attending Columbia University at the time, recalls it being a difficult time for young Arabs in New York City.
"Many of my schoolmates at Columbia were Jewish. I made many good friends among them, but we had moments of difficulty in those discussions," he says. "And [it made me realize] how the politics in the Middle East had poisoned and continued to poison, to this day, the relationship between Muslims and Jews. It was a painful aspect of that period of my life, but it also shaped it in important ways in terms of wanting to understand it and seeing how we can be a factor for positive change."
After leaving Columbia, Rauf became a public high school teacher in the New York City school system for several years. But he couldn't shake the thought that he was missing his calling.
"I even knew, when I was coming on the ship from Egypt to the United States — I had this interior voice in my heart telling me that my role would be to introduce Islam to America in an American vernacular, in an American vocabulary," he says.
Rauf served as the imam of the al-Farah mosque in New York City from 1983 to 2009. For the past two decades, he has argued that Islam supports both religious tolerance and equality for women, and has worked to strengthen moderate voices with the Muslim world.
"I believe we are part of a growing global chorus," he says. "And I know for a fact that moderates exist everywhere, in every tradition and in every political environment. There are moderates in Israel. There are moderates in Iran, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party. And what we need to do is link all of these moderates together and figure out a way that this coalition can speak to important issues to marginalize the voice of the extremists."
On Pastor Terry Jones' threat to burn a Quran if the community center was not moved
"What that made clear to me is that the real battlefront is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, between Muslims and Jews, between Muslims and Christians etc. The real battlefront was between all the moderates of all faith traditions against all of the extremists of all faith traditions. Here is a perfect example of an extremist, in this case a Christian, challenging a moderate, who was a Muslim. And that's the battlefront that we have to wage. And this is why I proposed a way to build a global coalition of moderates, to grow it into a movement of moderates, that can drown out the voices of the extremists — not only in the West but also from our faith traditions."
On how the threat to burn a Quran was resolved
"The heroes of that story were our Christian friends, our Christian evangelical friends. At that time, [the] Rev. Jim Wallace called me up ... and explained how [the evangelical community] did not want me to engage with this person. They said, 'This is not your problem. This is a problem within the Christian community. Let us deal with him.' And they were the ones, in fact, when he came up trying to meet me, [they] met him at the airport and forced him to back down."