Controversial Park51 imam speaks at Georgetown

A crowd of around 100 undergraduates gathered Tuesday evening in Lohrfink Auditorium to engage in a question and answer session with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, best known as the primary proponent of the controversial Park51 community center.

The center, dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque” by some, attracted intense public scrutiny and debate over the past year due to its proposed location several blocks from the World Trade Center.

The imam’s speech, coordinated by the Georgetown University Lecture Fund, followed an appearance earlier in the day by Rauf as part of a panel at the University’s Berkley Center.

Born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents in 1940, Rauf spent most of his youth in England and Malaysia before finally arriving in the United States at the age of 17.

“As a growing young man seeking his identity […] I always found myself to be an outsider,” Rauf said.

Rauf continued by narrating his gradual discovery of faith as the primary component of his identity, giving a very personal account of this transition. “I rebooted my definition of ‘I’ and narrowed it down to my soul […] as the locus of my being.”

Rauf explained that it had been his goal to establish a form of Muslim community center for some time before 9/11, describing his initial dream for the project as “a Muslim YMCA.”

The September 11 attacks and subsequent shifts in US-Muslim relations both shifted his focus and reinforced his belief in the urgency of the project.

“9/11 both impacted us and was part of our experience,” Rauf argued. “To the extent that we condemned terrorism, our voices were not heard loudly enough.”

Rauf and other backers of the project proposed it as a community center with an emphasis on worship, and initially received strong support from the Lower Manhattan Community Board.

He said that over the summer of 2010 the project started to attract political controversy, as media organizations began reporting on the center and political leaders issued statements supporting or condemning the project.

“It became a political football,” Rauf said.

The imam had harsh words for what he called the “Rupert Murdoch media machine” of conservative news organizations, arguing that the same forces were responsible for casting doubt on Obama’s Christianity and lamenting that he was now cast as a controversial figure.

However, Rauf ended his discussion of Park51 on a positive note, stating that he believed US-Muslim relations were at a turning point.

Rauf pointed to President Obama’s State of the Union address which he said embraced American Muslims, along with what he described as the “revolution of moderacy” currently occurring in the Middle East.

Rauf stated that successful Muslim democracies would have to be about more than votes, navigating issues involving separation of powers and defining the relationship between religion and politics.

On the role of Islamic law in politics, the Imam treaded somewhat carefully, stating that he could see a role for Islam in law but that it should serve the role of guaranteeing elements including “life, dignity, and freedom of religion.”

When asked for his advice to young Muslims in America, the imam was succinct.

“Understand your faith, and that of others,” Rauf said.

Photo: Kelly Walsh

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