Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is a controversial figure, to say the least. His Cordoba Initiative's proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan -- the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" -- ignited a firestorm that garnered international attention. After speaking at this year's Council on Foreign Relations workshop in New York last month, Imam Rauf and I revisited that controversy as well as what President Barack Obama could do better in his engagement with the Muslim world.
RealClearReligion: Are you disappointed that the proposed Park51 mosque has not yet been built?
Feisal Abdul Rauf: There were some things that were naturally disappointing. The negative reaction we received was a serious disappointment. On the other hand, we were happy to see the incredible rallying around us by people of all different religions, religious leaders, political leaders, groups like the ACLU, and many people who thought what was happening was the worst of America. The ability to do this represents the best of America.
RCR: Do you hope the center will eventually be built?
FAS: We are working on that. The agreement is still alive. I'm still hopeful that within my lifetime we'll see something like that emerge.
RCR: Why use the name Cordoba?
FAS: When I started this, it was a multi-faith initiative where many Christian and Jewish friends of mine urged me to do something that would help improve U.S.-Muslim relations. Because this was a multi-faith initiative, we wanted a name that would have a positive connotation for not only Muslims, but for Christians and Jews, as well.
RCR: There are some who would say Cordoba didn't represent historically positive Christian-Muslim relations.
FAS: That's like saying America represents nothing but negativity. Look, there is no era in history that was absolutely perfect.
RCR: But weren't mosques in Cordoba built on the ruins of Christian churches?
FAS: Not always. What happened in Cordoba was a period of cooperation between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. It was a time of a great transfer of knowledge. All the books that were translated from Greek into Arabic were translated into Latin. Francis Bacon studied in Cordoba.
It was an important period in time in terms of cooperation, in terms of history, in terms of a transfer of information -- which actually kick started the Renaissance and the Reformation. We need this kind of cooperation today.
RCR: Near the end of the Cordoba period, though, theological debates within Islam ended with the Mu'tazili, who were all about this transfer of knowledge, losing.
RCR: Aren't the ascendant voices in Islam now the anti-Mu'tazili, anti-reason, Salafists and Wahhabists?
FAS: This is why the West separated Church and State. When religion becomes politicized and when a particular interpretation of religion becomes supported by a political power, it can push its particular view all over the world. This what has happened in much of the Muslim world.
RCR: How can we reengage the Muslim world with these Mu'tazili ideas?
FAS: I wouldn't try to bring back these terms of Mu'tazili and others because they are fraught with certain connotations within the Muslim intellectual arena. Their ideas were perfectly rational and reasonable. The reason why they lost is because they didn't align with the political powers of the time.
Now, there is a lot of rationalism within the Muslim world today. The problem has to do with the marriage of political power with religion.
RCR: What did you mean when you said the United States "has more Muslim blood on its hands than al-Qaeda has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims"?
FAS: I didn't say those words.
RCR: What did you mean when you said Osama bin Laden was "made in the U.S.A."?
FAS: Osama bin Laden was trained by the CIA to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. And after we won the Cold War, the unfortunate thing that happened thereafter was that the United States did not continue engaging with those elements and those countries to develop those countries in a positive way.
A lot of what has happened and a lot of the negative sentiment, which exists in various parts of the Muslim world, has to do with our very heavy presence in the Muslim world. Now, it's not because of our cultural differences. The French women go bare breasted on their beaches, but there's not as much angst about France because France is not as politically involved in the Muslim world as America is.
RCR: If America were to retreat from the Muslim world, would the jihadist attacks stop?
FAS: It has to do with how we are perceived in the Muslim world. Are we perceived as people who are helping those countries develop and empower themselves? Or are we seen as a factor for things that are undesirable?
The short answer to your question is that the solution is not to withdraw. The solution is to make our engagement more properly nuanced.
FAS: It's like a relationship between a man and a woman. They both love each other, but seem to say the wrong things to each other. They love each other, but if a man says something wrong, he'll get a slap in the face from the woman and he'll say, "Women must be from Venus." It is the same kind of thing. You have to understand people's sensitivities and how you promote certain things.
If we understand the aspirations of the Muslim world, we should be able to frame our language in ways that make them respond positively. President Obama took ideas from my writings and went to Cairo, Turkey, Indonesia and spoke in that voice. Look at the response he got!
RCR: Yes, look: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; a dead Ambassador in Libya; civil war in Syria.
FAS: Well, the problem was with the follow through. They had high expectations because [Obama] said all the right things, but the question is: did he follow through with actions? Doing that is where the rubber hits the road. There are people who know how to do it. But for various reasons, words are not being implemented.
We have to engage properly.