I had the unique opportunity to sit down, one on one, with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Please enjoy our conversation:
I attended the Imam’s public presentation later that evening and found him to be equally engaging in a large crowd. He spoke about his attempt to follow in the footsteps of great leaders who have tried to be champions of conflict resolution, especially during a time when most information in the media is ill informed.
He posed the question: How will Americans engage in a world where 20-25% of the global population is Muslim? The US has a huge footprint in the Muslim world including geopolitical, economic and policy interests.
Imam Feisal spoke candidly of the “arc of being accepted in this country,” and referenced that before Muslims, Jews and Christians had to go through a similar struggle of being accepted in the US. He spoke of the anxiety that people feel about the “unknown,” and how it comes hand and hand with intentional misinformation.
Imam Feisal moved to the US in 1965, when he was 17 years old. During his lecture, he eloquently described that the exploration of his spirituality was rooted in the US because in this country, spirituality is a matter of choice. (Abroad, your clothing or country identified you as a Muslim – here you had to decide to be.) He spoke of a stunning moment in his young life – at the age of 12 or 13 – where the boundaries of “self” dissolved for a very long moment – where he felt one with the universe. He smiled as he talked about the recollection, at that moment, that God was there, an absolute being of love, knowledge and wisdom, a moment of feeling deep love and compassion. This inspired him to read and study more in an attempt to piece it all together. It was particularly moving to witness his memory of this time – and if felt like I was listening in on a deeply personal conversation.
Imam Feisal firmly stated, “It is not about labels – Muslim, Jew, etc – it is about a relationship with our creator.”
Interestingly, the only ‘challenging’ question he was faced with that evening came from a man who read a quote from a New York paper that claimed that Imam Feisal stated that danger came from any extremist group and atheists/agnostics. The Imam explained that he was misquoted in this case – and that his point was that any form of extremism is dangerous – including extreme atheists and agnostics. The man then asked, “What do you think of me as an atheist?” and the Imam’s response was, “As long as you’re doing what your conscience tells you to do, you are a believer.”
Someone in the audience did ask the inevitable question about the proposed Islamic Center (Park 51). I think this subject has been covered enough, but I’ll simply say that the Imam explained there has been a vision for the center for a very long time and while he truly understands the pain involved, the expression of concern was malicious and political. If you read my blog, you know that I agree that this is all simply a tool for divisiveness, and that ultimately is what feeds extremism.
At the end of the day, Imam Feisal reiterated that it is in the best interest for US national security to have good relations with the Islamic world; he likened his job to “marital counseling on an international scale.” He added that from a human rights perspective, it is clear that an Islamic American identity needs to exist – but right now it is still seen as “alien.”
He received a standing ovation and despite a long day in the public eye, I was personally touched by his grace under pressure, his humanity, and the time he took to be ‘present’ for my interview (especially considering his hectic schedule!)
I would encourage anyone who wants to help build bridges to the Muslim community to visit The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. While Imam Feisal is no longer a spokesperson for Park51 in New York, he is still a board member. To learn more about the Cordoba Initiative, click here.
(Note: This video is largely unedited. I did not remove any of Imam Feisal’s answers. Rather, I cut out the logistical conversation related to how much time we had with the media coordinator, etc.