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Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Imam Rauf
photo by Rhonda Spivak


by Rhonda Spivak, July 22, 2011


[This article first appeared as a Feature Article in the  Friday Magazine of the Jerusalem Post on July 22, 2001]



At a time when countries around the world have been increasing sanctions against Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, the spiritual guide behind the proposed mosque and Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero – the site of the World Trade Center in New York, destroyed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 – says he opposes such a move.

The Kuwaiti-born Rauf spoke at length to The Jerusalem Post about Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the upheaval in Egypt, Islam’s relations with the West, and the controversy surrounding the proposed Ground Zero Cordoba House mosque and Islamic center following his participation in a session at the most recent J Street conference in Washington at the end of February.

“I am generally against sanctions,” he said regarding Iran. “We had sanctions against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and it had no impact on Saddam Hussein and his layer of people, [because] they had control over everything... sanctions create a forced economic depression, and like a depression, the people who suffer the most from a recession or depression are those on the lower rung of the economic ladder – the poor and the weak, most of whom are innocent. Those who are in political power are not impacted by sanctions. They have the money, they have the power, and [sanctions] actually allow them to hold on to power because [rulers can say,] ‘You see what these people are doing against you?” According to Rauf, it is more important to bolster the moderate voice in Iran.

“The discourse of radicalization radicalizes others,” he pointed out. “When a radical says something, then a talk show host over here rails against Islam, and then there is a banner headline over there, then you have a person threatening [to bomb] America, then you have a pastor threatening to burn the Koran, and if that had happened, then [there] would have been... riots in the Muslim world. Radicals fuel each other, and they radicalize people.

“This is why I am saying the most powerful way to combat radicalism is to strengthen the voice of moderation and peace in a nonviolent way and to get them together...

There are millions of Iranians who want to see peace, who want to throw off the radicals in their country. We have to help them, and you don’t help them by putting sanctions on them.”

Rauf, whose father left Egypt in 1948, added, “I believe that we have to identify the moderates within Iran and work with them... Because there are moderates everywhere, and if we can figure out how to create specific projects that will link this moderate on this side with this moderate on that side, then that is beneficial [and] we can make some invaluable steps toward peace.”

Asked whether he favored a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the spiritual leader didn’t offer a simple yes.

He answered instead, “A two-state or one-state solution,” depending on “what the parties decide.”

He then added, “My belief is that no matter what happens if you have a two-state solution... the world is a rapidly changing place. I believe if there is peace... today...
between Israel and Palestine, within 10, 15 or 20 years – no more than a generation – Israel, Palestine and Lebanon will become an economic union like the European market.

“Look at what happened to Europe,” he continued. “We had World War II, in which they were killing each other, and look what happened within 50 years, 60 years... You have a European common market and a European Union. I believe if there is peace, very rapidly you have an economic group like you have [with] various economic unions around the world.”

Citing the Southeast Asian nations as another example of such a union, he speculated that “there will be an economic union [among] Israel, Palestine and Lebanon at the very earliest, and very quickly after that you will have probably Egypt and Jordan and maybe Dubai. I can see it in my mind’s eye – the dynamics of peace and the economic interests, regional interests, that will occur... There will be a common currency. I see this happening.

Maybe not in five years, but certainly no more than a generation if there is peace.”

When asked specifically whether he thought Israel had a right to exist as a nation-state, Rauf answered in the affirmative.

However, asked what he thought about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s requirement that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state – which has now been incorporated into the current Obama principles for negotiations – he did not say he agreed, but stated that whether the State of Israel was Jewish or Islamic would be a less relevant issue in the future.

“I believe [the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state] is... a sense of nation-state identity that is of the past. The nation-state identity of the future is going to be based upon people living in a certain way and forgetting all these ideologies,” he asserted.

“Look at what the youth want today,” he continued. “I mean, all I wanted when I was growing up was a place where I could live... have my dignity and do things I wanted to do, which was get a degree in physics, have a good job [and] marry the girl I’m crazy about. Everyone wants these things. They don’t care what the state says.

I think this ideology about whether it’s called an Islamic state or a Jewish state is going to be increasingly less relevant to people.

“The whole idea of the founding of the Jewish state was based on the fact that Jews were mistreated in many other places,” he said. “But Jews in the world don’t all want to live in Israel. Like I told my friend Edgar Bachman eight years ago, imagine what would have happened to America if, after the creation of Israel, all the Jews in America left and went to Israel. What would have happened to American business, American movies, American education, the American entertainment industry?” According to Rauf, “people today don’t want ideological nation-states. People want states that give them certain deliverables.

And what the Jews want is dignity and security, safety wherever they are. And you know what? Jews will enjoy living wherever they want. There will be Jews in Israel, there will be Jews in America... and what does a Jewish state mean?... I think in Israel, the Jews are battling this definition.”

Regarding the Palestinian right of return, he said it “can be resolved by any number of ways.”

“I met once with a Palestinian individual who was at that time involved [in this issue]. This was in 2005. I said to him, how many Palestinian refugees are there who want the right of return? For the sake of argument, we said... let’s say there are a million families out there [as a ball-park figure].

If I could offer each of them $150,000 and [a] permanent residence choice – let’s say in Canada, the US, Australia, Dubai...

how many of them would take it? He said, ‘All of them.’ “I said, ‘Don’t exaggerate, sir, just give me a real... very conservative estimate,’ and he said, ‘I swear to you by God and myself that all of them would take it.’ And I said to him... $150,000 times a million is $150 billion.

At that time, the Iraq war had cost the US taxpayer already in excess of $100b. So I said, you know what, if there is a willingness to address it, there are solutions.”

Rauf, who moved to New York City in the 1960s with his father, an Egyptian imam and Sunni scholar, predicted that once peace was achieved, “there will be Israelis who want to go and retire in Alexandria, there will be Egyptians who want to go on holiday in Jaffa.”

In fact, he said, “I was told by an Iranian government [official that] if there is peace between Iran and Israel, that there will be 10 million pilgrims a year to Jerusalem. That would be a shot in the economy of Jerusalem... Iranians are very big on pilgrimage.

They take pilgrimages to all the different holy sites, and they do it regularly.

“Peace is not just a static thing,” he said.

“It unleashes a whole set of forces that unifies countries, like what we saw in Europe..”

In his view, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, while not the only factor affecting the relations between Islam and the West, is probably the biggest factor.

“There is no doubt that this... is [the] 800-lb. gorilla in the room affecting Jewish-Muslim relations and Muslim-West relations,” he stated.

“I am convinced in the near future we will see something happen [to create a turn around].”

He also expressed optimism about solving the conflict in light of the revolutions in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt.

“I am hopeful that the current revolution that we are seeing in the Arab world will give rise to another peaceful revolution of this type by the youth in the Arab world and the youth in Israel, and by the moderates on both sides, to do something as to the nature of what we have seen and to tell the governments... enough already,” he said.

“When you have Jews and Muslims together lobbying for peace, Arabs and Israelis together lobbying for peace... when you had the Koran and this Coptic cross next to each other [in Egypt’s Tahrir Square], that was very powerful,” he continued.

“That is what I mean by coalitions across the religious communities, across the ethnic communities, the national communities to lobby for peace.”

Rauf expressed further optimism that economic trade interests between the Arab world and Israel would help push toward a resolution of the conflict.

“I have noticed... that people poll on a bell curve. There is 10 percent who are absolute doves no matter what, and there is 10% absolute hawks no matter what, and there is the majority, which could be as much as 80%... who can be swung and are swung by the nature of the discourse or by the way the political winds are blowing,” he said.

“What we have to do is to figure out strategic and tactical ways to reach that broad middle. Because I am convinced that the vast majority of people want peace.

They want to live in safety. The vast majority of people are more concerned about their livelihoods, about their health and their ability to get married and bring their children up,” he continued. “If you can identify an emphasis and a road map that gives more people that, we will achieve that, and there are ways to do that.”

As an example, he added that “people don’t realize the border conflict between Pakistan and India also existed between China and India. [It was solved] in part because the border region between China and India doesn’t have much economic value, but more importantly because trade between China and India has soared.

Therefore this trade interest has overshadowed the importance of the conflict and...
urged China’s and India’s governments to take more steps... to resolve it.”

Therefore, he said, “I’ve always pushed the [notion] the same way that President Shimon Peres has – using trade as a means to erode the conflict between Israel and the Arab world.”

As for the status of Cordoba House, Rauf says building won’t start any time soon.

“We are a long way from construction. We still have to raise the funds for it and put together the group for it, etc., so there is a lot of work,” he explained. “It is just a proposed center, and it became hijacked and bushwhacked.”

In January, Sharif el-Gamal, the real estate investor who owns the former coat store at 51 Park Place – the site of the proposed mosque and Islamic center – made a decision that Rauf would no longer raise money or speak on behalf of the project.

From that time on, Rauf ceased conducting Friday services at the temporary mosque operating in the building; these services are now being conducted by Imam Abdallah Adhami. Rauf and Gamal parted ways after having differed over the size of the project, the commercial character of it, and whether it would be mostly a place for Muslims or people of many faiths.

However, Rauf says he will always be the “spiritual guide” and “visionary” behind Cordoba House. He maintains that his vision is ongoing, and he hopes to build Cordoba houses across the United States and the world.

“The vision is still alive. We are looking at a number of options as to how best to realize this vision. What is more important than the real estate is the larger question the controversy raises – how will America deal with Islam and Muslims? This is the work [to which] I have devoted my life after 9/11. This is the work [for which] I founded the Cordoba mission, for which Cordoba House is just one of many projects.”




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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.