Around two years have passed since the United States, and perhaps the world, became familiar with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.
His initiative to build a community center, which included a praying place for Muslims, around two blocks from the Lower Manhattan site of the Sept. 11 2001 tragedy resulted in him finding himself in the glare of the public spotlight and earned him the daunting nickname “Ground Zero Imam”.
Yet the attitude Imam Feisal displayed during his recent visit to Indonesia, where he engaged in talks and public discussions, revealed that he might be more appropriately nicknamed “the cosmopolitan Imam”.
His question and answer sessions involved references to designer brands, pop songs and football. In one example in which he smoothly jumped between one language to another, he likened the variety among people’s preferred methods of worship to declarations of love — “I might find Je t’aime much nicer than saya cinta pada kamu. That’s a mouthful right?”
Imam Feisal’s elegance — and diplomatic skills — are perhaps helpful traits in his work with his brainchild the Cordoba Initiative — an organization whose goals include improving relationships between different faiths and cultures.
And notorious as the term “Ground Zero Mosque” might seem, the idea behind it had apparently been another effort in strengthening interfaith understanding.
“My ambition was to create a Muslim version of the YMCA [Young Men Christian Association] that would have education ...cultural programs, space for prayers, even a space for other religions to pray and meditate as well,” Imam Feisal said during a discussion in the American Cultural Center @america in Jakarta recently.
The “Cordoba Center” idea had its roots in a mosque in which he was active.
Located around 12 blocks from ground zero, the place began attracting more and more people and Friday prayers became packed events. The community then began looking for another space and found one that gave them room to build facilities other than simply a place to pray.
Imam Feisal has reportedly parted ways with those who are now running the Park51 community center located in the controversial spot despite having worked together in the past to realize his vision. In his own words, he is “not involved with the Park51 people at the moment”.
However, “The dream of having a community center which can work toward the evolution of a generation of Islam in America is still alive. We are still working on it and we hope within the next six months to a year we can have good news for you in that regard,” he said in an interview with the press on the sidelines of the discussion.
Nevertheless, the whole hubbub he had to go through gave the man who said he had no desire to enter politics a number of memorable experiences.
“What I learned from it is many things. What was amazing was that we had over 100,000 letters and e-mails of support from every state in the nation and from 46 countries around the world including Israel. People wrote us letters supporting it. We had church leaders supporting us.” he recalled.
Incidents implying hostility toward Muslims did take place in New York, however Imam Feisal also remembered the warm gestures toward the same community during the height of the debate centering around the planned Cordoba House and also almost immediately after the Sept. 11 incident.
“There was a story of a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. Her doorbell rang and she opened the door and there was this American girl — blonde, blue eyed, wearing a miniskirt — saying ‘I understand that you are afraid to go shopping I am here to volunteer to shop for you’” he cited as an example.
Imam Feisal recalled one of the sessions in which he was invited to speak about Islam after 9/11. The 150 or so people who attended the event bombarded him with questions and he had to answer them for around three hours.
“Until I just said ‘You know what I am just exhausted’, but they applauded, Americans are really good people in that respect,” he said.
Thus, Feisal, who holds a Master of Science in Plasma Physics, has a warm spot in his heart for New York and the US.
In fact, according to him there are more similarities between Islam and the United States than is generally known, as he expressed in his 2005 book What is Right With Islam is What is Right With America.
He cited America’s Declaration of Independence as an example. The idea of all men having been created equal and given their inalienable rights by the creator is, according to him, a “very Islamic concept”.
Yet the two — Islam and the US — are often seen as adversaries, and perhaps alien from each other. Moreover, an Islam that is distinctly “American” has yet to take form, Feisal said.
“We are a cross section of Muslims from all over the world. We have Indonesian Muslims, Egyptian Muslims, West African Muslims, from every country we have Muslims. But what is the issue is that we have to evolve from being immigrant Muslims to become American Muslims,” he said.
According to the man who likens being excessive in one’s religion to putting too much spice in one’s cooking, this transformation is essential partly for the sake of the community’s possibility of becoming players in the political arena.
“We need it more importantly for our own children and grandchildren in response to our own identity crisis which happens when people immigrate to another country. They say we are Indonesians, Pakistanis, Arabs but their children and grandchildren want to feel American,” he said in a different occasion.
He himself went through a colorful chain of cultural environments, having spent parts of his lifetime in England, Egypt, Malaysia, and of course in the US In his own words, it has been “a heck of a journey” perhaps involving many culture shocks and this he is said to divulge in his latest book Moving The Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America.
According to Imam Feisal, he “witnessed the young American life, but I did not participate in it”.
It has been quite a journey. The cultural center was one, but the man who said he had no interest in entering politics was also criticized for several other matters such as allegedly refusing to call Hamas a terrorist organization publicly and reportedly saying that US policies had been the “accessory” to the crime that happened in the context of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The alleged pro-terrorism stance behind these statements however, has been refuted numerous times, and some went as far as to say that his comment on the Sept. 11 attacks was shared by others who, perhaps coincidentally are not renowned Muslim figures.
Culture shocks and controversies aside, Imam Feisal is now apparently enjoying his work following the path of his family, which is said to be “steeped in religious and spiritual activity” with a visibly moderate and pluralist tone.
He flies around the globe giving speeches and has written a number of works mostly on the subject of Islam and its relations with ideas such as democracy, humanism and women’s empowerment. He also reportedly conducted cultural trainings for the FBI.
When discussing the fasting month of Ramadhan in @america, the batik-wearing imam’s enthusiasm for building a better understanding of Islam for its followers and the public in general was evident.
“If we can exhibit in our akhlak the same sincerity of faith that people see in our fasting, our praying five times a day, people admire us. They say ‘Oh my God, you pray five times a day. You fast. You don’t even drink or smoke’. They think it is very disciplined. If we can be disciplined in our ethics everybody can admire us for our faith. This is the lesson that I would love to see Muslims practice.”