Last week, I used this blog in a way I usually don't, to support a particular project: the proposal to build an Islamic center called Cordoba House in the neighborhood adjacent to the World Trade Center site. I described the imam who's behind the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, as a moderate, a modernist, someone intent on building good interfaith relations. This assessment was based on my having heard him speak and on my knowing people who attended his small mosque in Tribeca, which is located 10 blocks uptown from the proposed Cordoba House site. I was also moved by his interview on WNYC's Brian Lehrer show, in which he made clear his opposition to violence in the name of religion and his desire to build bridges between his and other religions. Support for precisely those causes motivated me to support Imam Rauf's project.
I am sad to say that I must retract at least part of statement of support for the Cordoba House project, having learned that Imam Rauf has been reported to be on the board of the Perdana Global Peace Organization, a group led by former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir. (Read here.) This group, which purports to be pacificist, devotes itself largely to campaigning against Israel in ways which betray deep bias on that subject. The NY Post article that brought this to my attention focuses on Perdana's support for the Gaza flotilla, to which they were the largest donor. While that alone presents issues, the group's fundamental bait and switch -- it's deception -- is more troubling. It promotes hate in the name of promoting peace. Understand that I have no objection to peace organizations focusing attention on Israel, so long as they are truthful about their reasons. This group calls itself a campaign against all war, but acts very differently. For Mahathir, this organization is part of a strategic campaign of anti-Semitism, via which he has blamed Jewish financiers for Malaysia's problems and charged his domestic political opponents with working on behalf of Jewish interests. (Ian Baruma, writing in the New Yorker, had a great article on Mahathir which discusses this subject here. A brief interview about it is here.) Imam Rauf, who has roots in Malaysia, must know of Mahathir's troubling history (troubling for other reasons as well). In addition to misusing peace groups such as Perdana to demonize Israel, Asia Times Online reports that he has similarly used conferences designed to promote Islamic culture to promote anti-Semitism (read here).
Freedom of religion is the paramount issue in determining the government's role, if any, with respect to the plans for Cordoba House. Opponents of the project who advocate government interference must understand that it isn't the government's role in this country to determine what religious institutions can go where. That idea is repugnant. Moreover, Muslims are already fully part of the life of the community. Muslims were among the victims of 9/11 and were among the first responders. Muslims live and work in the area. Those who oppose a Muslim presence near "Ground Zero" are too late. It's been there all along. Sadly, the tone of much of the opposition to Cordoba House has been hateful and designed to create fear. (Read here for an example.) Those who have leveled charges that this mosque could be the home of a terror cell or would somehow dishonor by its mere presence those who died on 9/11 betray a bias that calls both their motivation and their conclusions into question. I feel much more comfortable honoring the memory of 9/11 by promoting peace.
That being said, I now have questions as to what Imam Rauf means when he says that he's moderate. I hope that he addresses those questions by addressing his role in the Perdana group and his connection with Mahathir. While I still strongly support the imam's constitutional right to build Cordoba House, I now need to be convinced that this will be a place where interfaith includes Jews like me who support Israel's right to live in peace with its neighbors. I hope that Imam Rauf addresses these questions and that Cordoba House lives up to its hype. I would like such a place to exist. But now I need to be convinced.