2016-06-30
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the Imam of Masjid al-Farah in New York City and the founder of the American Sufi Muslim Association. A popular interfaith speaker, he teaches Islam and Sufism at the Center for Religious Inquiry at St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan and at the New York Seminary. He spoke with Beliefnet recently about his book "What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West."

The name of your book is "What's Right with Islam," and sections of it address "What's Right with America." What is right with both?

What's right with Islam is what's right with America, in the sense that the fundamental ideals of Islam, the idea of what the right society should be, are very similar to what the American idea of what the ideal society should be, as expressed in our founding documents. When Jesus was asked what are the greatest commandments, he said "love God with all your heart" and, co-equal to that, "love thy neighbor." Islamic jurors basically expanded it. They said all the law--how God wants us to live--is to protect and further five fundamental human rights: the right to life, freedom of religion, family, property, and mental wellbeing. What I do in the book is map that to the American Declaration of Independence. It's interesting that you call America a sharia-compliant state. It really means there's a religious commandment to build the right society, to have a sense of social justice and a social safety net, to have laws that take care of human beings, that aren't prejudiced against people. You say that, contrary to what some non-Muslim Americans believe about Muslim countries, such societies can be religious and yet respect other religions and not be dominated by one religion.
Absolutely. To a large extent that's what happened in much of Islamic history. It may not have been ideal. But, for example, [during] the Ottoman caliphate, Greeks lived throughout Turkey. Two-thirds of Smyrna was Greek until 1922. So there are definite precedents for a Muslim country to be more tolerant than perhaps some people today perceive. Yes. But in the 20th century, the Muslim world created a vision of religious nationalism. Turkey, for example, had to be ethnically Turkish. Kurds, Armenians, other minorities didn't have a place in such a vision of a nation-state. Towards the end of book, you outline a solution for the apparent conflict between the West and Islamic nations. What are the highlights? The ultimate vision is to instate in the Muslim world the notion of multiculturalism, which is part of our heritage and history, part of the fundamental, mainstream ideals of Islam. We also have to improve the separation of powers [idea] that we have developed in the West. What's brilliant about the United States system of government is separation of power. Not only the executive, legislative, judicial branches, but also the independence of the military from civilians, an independent media and press, an independent central bank. You also outline responsibilities for non-Muslim Americans, for Western media and businesses. What are they?

The business world can help in transmitting to the Muslim world the notions of capital formation. What leads to a successful economy is the financial infrastructure. Helping people create wealth. You're saying if we're more interconnected financially, that might help overcome tensions? Yes. About the media: Muslim leaders frequently condemn terrorism, but many non-Muslim Americans don't seem to be aware of that. Why is there the perception that no one is speaking out? The media is not amplifying the message of these condemnations as much as they could. Another reason is that American foreign policy has contributed to a lot of the rage and anger in the Muslim world. It's important that America is seen as even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's also important that America not be seen as a marketer of ethics which are not acceptable not only to Muslims, but to believers, whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews. We don't like pornography, something which reduces family values, the violence we see from Hollywood. That's the picture people are seeing of America. You talk about all Americans voting with our pocketbooks with regard to Hollywood. What can American Muslims, specifically, do to help defuse tensions?

We want the Muslim-American community to be the mediator, to say to each side "the picture you are seeing of each other is false." That's why the book [addresses] what's right with America and what's right with Islam. We have to look at what is right in both traditions and see how similar they are. You say U.S. Muslims are uniquely positioned to help "wage peace." Correct. If you personally had been completely in charge of the American Muslim response to 9/11, what would you have done? Well, we did condemn the actions of 9/11 saying it was outside of Islam. It was condemned by nearly every Muslim nation and scholar. We encouraged people to understand that Islamic values are part of the Abrahamic system of values. Our commandments are the same as those of Judaism and Christianity. We tried to address the issues that fueled it, issues of power and economics. People in the Muslim world feel disempowered and economically deprived. After 9/11, we ran an essay by Khaled Abou el Fadl, who said he would have encouraged Muslim Americans to visit Ground Zero and bring, say, a flower. What you're talking about is obviously more broad-based. Yes, those things are very powerful symbols of American-Western sharing in the grief and mourning for what happened. I've participated in a number of different interfaith memorial services for those who have died.

But beyond the mourning, the real issue is the diseased, dysfunctional relationship between the United States and the Muslim world--understanding it through courses and attacking the root causes. If we address these causes, change will happen rapidly.

Some Christians point to violent passages in the Qur'an. Other Christians point out there are similarly violent passages in the Bible. Do Muslims tend to downplay these Qur'an passages just as Christians do with the Bible? For example, at a Christian church service in America, you're unlikely to hear a Bible passage where people are urged to kill each other even though such things are in the Bible. Is it the same with the Qur'an? Would such passages be read at mosques?

They are certainly not mentioned as the meat of the religion. Having said that, [some] groups feel that Islam is under attack--a few young males say, "the West is engaged in a crash of civilization, they want to destroy Islam, we have to protect it." So they would draw from these controversial passages in the Qur'an. Just a ballpark figure: What percentage of American Muslims, if they went to the mosque on Friday, would hear these violent passages from the Qur'an preached? Next to zero. Hardly anybody would--and after 9/11, it really went down to zero. Those type of speeches did exist, but after 9/11, those types of preachers have basically recognized the damage of what they have said. What do you wish writers like Bernard Lewis, who have been very critical of Islam, understood about Islam? Your book points out that they are not getting certain things. I wish they would speak more of the multicultural heritage of Islam and point out that the conflict is not one of religion but one of issues of power, issues of economics. It's not religion so much; it's a way of thinking how to structure societies. What they contend is a problem with the religion of Islam is really a problem with the mindset of people or governments or people in power. Fascism can exist under any ideology. Fascism can exist under Christianity, which happened [with] the Inquisition in Spain or other parts of Europe. Fascism can exist under atheism, like what happened under the Communist world. It can happen under Islam, which has happened with the Taliban. Some people even believe the McCarthy era in this country was the closest we came to a fascism under democracy. But we must not confuse fascism with Christianity and say that what happened in the Inquisition came out of Christian ideology. We have seen fascism now in the name of Islam. What have you been hearing from the U.S. Muslim community about profiling at, for example, airports? How do you see the situation and what do you wish would happen?

There's no doubt we've been profiled since 9/11. The Patriot Act has kind of made Muslims... there's a sense of "guilty till proven innocent" rather than the other way around. Certainly the Cat Stevens [detainment] and the [Tariq] Ramadan incident. Cat Stevens becomes a Muslim and talks about Muslim issues and that's looked at differently. Madonna takes Jewish Kabbalism. We don't say that because Madonna practices Jewish mysticism and has gone to Israel, she's embraced the philosophy of Sharon or she is becoming a rabid, anti-Arab settler-type person. So why should we associate Cat Stevens, who has become a practicing, devout Muslim, with terrorism? Some Islamic charities are being investigated for terrorist ties. Have you seen what you consider to be reputable Islamic charities being financially damaged? Well, it's become very difficult to send money abroad or receive money from abroad; everything now has to go through hoops to make sure it's legitimate--which is certainly understandable.

We believe that a certain portion of every charity has been legitimate. To say that you have connections with terrorism is a very gray area. It's like the accusation that Saddam Hussein had links to Osama bin Laden. Well, America had links to Osama bin Laden--does that mean that America is a terrorist country or has ties to terrorism? It's that type of logic.