In a recent Wall Street Journal article, terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann said that anti-Muslim rhetoric in America is bad news for anti-terrorism efforts: “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”
By many accounts, the man who could blunt the power of that coup is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader behind the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero. The imam has been surprisingly mum on the issue while he travels in the Middle East. What message of faith could he offer to Muslims and non-Muslims alike that could turn this moment of division into a time of healing?
My recommendations to Imam Rauf, for whom I have tremendous respect, are guided by an overriding concern for US-Muslim relations. The benefits from his center are local, but the detriments are global. I believe that continuation of the Park51 crisis is doing tremendous harm to Islam and Muslims in America, and to America’s image in the world. It is clearly undermining the prospects of improving US-Muslim relations.
The longer this crisis continues the more deleterious its consequences to all. The continued absence of Imam Rauf from the media even as his project remains the main issue is perplexing and irresponsible since it sends signals that can be misconstrued.
Why doesn’t he speak up? What has he got to hide? Is he deliberately avoiding media scrutiny? If he is a bridge builder, if he has a message of peace, isn’t this the best time to state it since the entire nation is paying attention?
“I am on an important State department mission” doesn’t cut it dear imam: You can always write op-eds, you can always hold a press conference wherever you are and YouTube is just a click away.
Eventually when the imam does speak, he should get to the key issues, without taking recourse to a philosophical and mystical discourse, which will obfuscate the issue further.
1. I hope he can once and for all, state categorically, that he will not be raising money from Saudi Arabia or Iran.
2. Clarify his politics towards militancy in the Muslim world and explain his vision about Shariah? (Keep it simple, some in the audience cannot tell a country from a continent).
3. Explain why he cannot relocate. Yes he has a right to worship there, and shame on the Americans who are directing their anger at AlQaeda towards his center. But, the bigots who oppose him are ignorant and he is a learned Imam. So do the more enlightened thing: Respect their cry for understanding, even if misplaced.
4. Announce that he would create a memorial to the victims of 9/11 and dedicate a major part of the center’s activities to combat radicalism, xenophobia and prejudice everywhere. Invite some members of the victim’s families to sit on the board of the center. Commit to do this even if he relocates.
Many Americans I am sure will be reassured after they hear from him. I want to also remind the esteemed imam that deeds always speak louder than words. No amount of words, no matter how eloquent, profound or sincere, can outdo a genuine gesture of compassion and forgiveness. Even God loves beautiful gestures.
Yes, what is happening to him and his center is deeply unjust, but he can respond to injustice by either fighting for his rights and in the process alienating millions of Americans or suffering the injustice with sabr (patience) and responding with Ihsan (goodness). Don’t tell Americans how beautiful is the vision of Islam you advocate, show them.