Friday, August 27, 2010

Letter to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

I sent Imam Feisal this letter as my contribution to the conversation on his controversial Park51 Islamic Center, the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dear Imam Feisal,

As a colleague in religious leadership, I wanted to write to you to express my support and solidarity, and to offer a little unsolicited advice. I pray you’ll be forbearing.

Perhaps I congratulate myself far too much in referring to myself as your colleague; I am rabbi of a small synagogue in Colorado Springs, hardly the peer of a religious leader of national stature who has embarked on a very bold, visible and controversial project in New York city.

Nevertheless, I claim the title ‘colleague.’ I do have a little experience in working with Muslim colleagues; while stationed in Germany as a US Air Force Chaplain, Imam Hamza al-Mubarak and I built a chapel and educational center for the joint use of our two communities. At a $550K budget for construction, it was obviously far more modest than your proposed Cordoba House in New York. Here in Colorado Springs, I consider my local Muslim colleague, Imam Arshad Yusoufi, to be a friend and confidant although we have not yet had the chance to get our communities together for any dialogue or activities. Ah, so much to do…but that’s something I surely needn’t tell you, this being the middle of Ramadan!

Imam Feisal, I hardly need to point out that prominence is a two-edged sword. It enables one to accomplish things that the relative unknown cannot. Of course a danger of prominence is that the fame can be intoxicating. And of course, the more dangerous aspect is that one can often unwittingly attract attention of the unwelcome kind: attention that questions one’s motives and integrity. I have experienced this, but on a very small scale. You, of course are now experiencing a tidal wave of such attention.

Of course, I refer to the firestorm of protests that seem to have consumed the nation for the last three weeks or so, since your proposal for Cordoba House has become such widely-reported news. Very strong words have come forth, impugning your intentions. Some of your supporters have suggested that the negative expressions represent a general anti-Muslim feeling – many call it, Islamophobia – that already existed in our land, and which the feelings that your project elicited have simply brought to the surface.

Being an attentive observer of the public discourse, and in particular being a Jew with roots in New York, I want to tell you that I don’t see America as being infected with Islamophobia, if such a thing could even be said to exist.

Americans tended to have very ambivalent feelings about my people, the Jews, and my religion, Judaism at least until the Second World War. So, what happened to change that? The war itself, of course – and the experience of so many Christian kids landing on Omaha Beach, marching across Europe, and diving into foxholes next to a Jewish kid from New York or Philadelphia. As that march across Europe wound toward its conclusion, those Christian kids saw the heartbreak of the Nazi concentration camps, and saw how deeply the sight affected their Jewish comrades – many of whom had only shallow roots in America and still had family in Europe.

If those Christian kids had any ambivalence about their Jewish fellow citizens left after those experiences, they vanished for most in the post-war years when so many ex-GIs crowded American colleges and universities, and began to move out of traditionally ethnic neighborhoods in America’s cities to settle in the new, and culturally-diverse suburbs. Thanks to all that history, we Jews are so accepted in the American scene that it is sometime breathtaking when one considers that before the war, we were not welcome in various businesses, clubs, and even whole towns across the land.

Imam, most Americans want to – and do – judge Muslims positively. Look at the proof. Since 1990, we have spilled our own blood no fewer than five times in order to help Muslim peoples in various parts of the world: Kuwait, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. This has happened under administrations and congresses representing both our major political parties, conservatives and liberals, so our willingness to defend Muslims abroad is clearly not what one would call a ‘political’ issue – it transcends politics.

After the shocking and sad events of September 11th, 2001, what did President George W. Bush do? He told the nation unequivocally that we are at war, not with Islam or the Muslim people, but with a group that attacked and wants to destroy us in the name of Islam. He urged all Americans to look favorably upon their Muslim neighbors, to not hold them accountable for what had been done in the name of their religion. He took a lot of flak for his statements, which were interpreted in some circles as being an expression of ‘political correctness,’ itself an unfortunate element in our public discourse, and something of which you’re surely aware. For my part, I believe that Bush’s statements were straight from the heart, an expression of his deepest sense of what’s right. After all, even his detractors knew him as a devoutly religious man with a sincere respect for others’ religions as well as his own.

Of course, our current president has surpassed even his immediate predecessor in terms of outreach to, and expression of solidarity with, the Muslim world. That President Obama’s first television interview after his inauguration was to al Arabiya, and that his first trips abroad as president included Turkey and Egypt, were pregnant with meaning. They elicited, as with Bush’s post-9/11 statements, both praise and criticism.

No, Imam…our nation and our people are not Islamophobic, this despite the charges that have been made regularly in the left-wing commentariat over the last couple of weeks.

What we are is basically unfamiliar with the Islam of our neighbors, which unfortunately gets drowned out in the noise created by the Islam of Al Qaida, Hamas, and Ahmadinejad. We’re perplexed. Although Muslims are ubiquitous in American life, they occupy a fringe. In a sense, your people occupy a place in American life that is analogous to that of my people up until the war; they are recognized as being part of the fabric of American society, but are little understood because most Americans have not had a close friendship with one of their Muslim neighbors. And honestly, that’s not entirely the fault of non-Muslims. Frankly, you have not been all that good at being approachable, and telling your story to America.

But you surely know this, since the website for the Cordoba House suggests that the Park51 venue would be used specifically as a place where such connections could be made through creative and welcoming programs.

The problem of course, is that you’ve misread the mood of America in selecting 51 Park Place as the address of your new center. That it is located only yards from ‘Ground Zero’ and is in fact the site of a building that was severely damaged in the fall of the Twin Towers, has resulted in a majority of Americans (according to the most recent polling data) thinking negatively about your project.

The way I see it, your only ‘sin’ in all this is a lack of clairvoyance which caused you to act in miscalculation of what the national mood concerning this issue would be. But you have the power to turn this miscalculation into a tremendous public relations success, not to mention as my tradition would put it, a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d’s name. How can you accomplish this? Easily: Call a press conference and announce that, while the law cannot prevent you from erecting your center at 51 Park Place, you wish to honor the sensibilities of America by deciding to build it on another site. Ask for assistance from local government and any groups with an interest, on selecting an alternate site. Imagine the goodwill that would result! And with that goodwill, your Cordoba House would be far better positioned to fulfill your prayers as to what it would accomplish. My fear is that, if you build it at 51 Park, it will only serve as a permanent symbol of division and rancor. And you surely deserve a better result for your most well-intentioned efforts to build bridges.

My best wishes for you as you return from travelling abroad and continue your days of fasting and introspection…

Rabbi Don Levy
Temple Beit Torah
Colorado Springs, Colorado