Imam's UNC talk to draw opposing voices

Staff WriterMarch 14, 2011 

Admirers of imam Feisal Abdul Rauf see a charismatic voice of reason working to improve life for Muslims in America.

But his detractors see a rabble-rouser desperate to rub salt in the nation's largest wound by planting an Islamic house of worship near the site of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York City.

It all should make for an interesting Wednesday evening in Chapel Hill.

Abdul Rauf, the leader of a controversial effort to build a cultural center, including a mosque, in lower Manhattan not far from the ground zero site, will give the 2011 Weil Lecture on American Citizenship at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Hill Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill. It's a free event, but tickets are required.

A Christian group opposing the imam and his New York City plans hopes to steal some attention. The Virginia-based Christian Action Network has rented a ballroom at the Carolina Inn from 5 to 8 p.m. that night for a discussion and film screening about 9/11 families, followed by a candlelight walk to Hill Hall, where Abdul Rauf will be speaking.

Abdul Rauf is slated to appear at Duke for another public discussion Thursday.

Abdul Rauf is an advocate for the Cordoba House, billed as a center to encourage multifaith understanding at Park51, the cultural center proposed near the site of the World Trade Center tragedy. He will not be stumping or raising money for the project during his UNC-CH appearance, for which he'll receive a $20,000 speaking fee, university officials say.

Before Abdul Rauf speaks Wednesday, at least one 9/11 firefighter is slated to tell his story at the event sponsored by the Christian Action Network. The group follows Ab dul Rauf to many of his speaking events, often lining up events to counter his.

"The idea is not to let him get away with this nonsense," said Jason Campbell, the network's project director.

Campbell's group has zeroed in on the proposed Islamic center near ground zero. Plans call for a mosque as well as a fitness center, auditorium, restaurant, culinary school, library, art studio and Sept. 11 memorial. Critics claim it is primarily an Islamic house of worship.

"It's not a cultural center. It's a mosque," Campbell said. "This is nothing more than an act of triumphalism. They tore down two of our buildings, and now they want to build a mosque on it. And they're doing it on the graves of 3,000 people."

The project would be built two blocks from the ground zero site in a building that formerly housed a Burlington Coat Factory. There are churches, synagogues and other mosques in the area. There also are strip clubs, restaurants, at least one off-track betting facility and plenty of retailers.

One view of Abdul Rauf

Connecting Abdul Rauf and all of Islam to the 9/11 attacks is a vast, inaccurate misstep done to stoke fires and create division, said Omid Safi, a UNC-CH religious studies professor.

"A lot of the criticism is factual nonsense," he said. "It's good for selling stories, for generating support for your side, for fundraising. It also plays to the lowest common denominator."

Safi has known Abdul Rauf for about a decade and sees a likable, moderate leader pushed into the public spotlight after the Sept. 11 attacks by virtue of his role at the time as leader of a large Manhattan mosque. Abdul Rauf has been measured and careful in speaking about the terrorist attacks but hasn't shied from pointing to what he viewed as American policy missteps in the Middle East, Safi said.

The imam's critics have long seized on one such comment. In 2001, just weeks after the terror attacks, Abdul Rauf told "60 Minutes": "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened."

That comment touched nerves. Some UNC-CH students have said they hope to press Abdul Rauf on that statement if given the chance this week. But Safi says Abdul Rauf was simply pointing out what American policy advisers have also indicated - that the United States' history of support for dictatorial regimes sparked discontent in the Middle East.

"He's making a very clear distinction between justifying terrorism, which he has never done, and pointing out that particular policies of the U.S. both create hostility towards America and serve as a primary recruiting tool for radical extremist groups," Safi said.

The imam's appearance is sponsored by the university's Institute for the Arts & Humanities. Bill Balthrop, the interim director there, said he hopes Abdul Rauf's speech sparks some intellectual debate about the role of Islam in America.

A current topic

UNC-CH has been the site of debate over Islam before. In 2002, it chose for its summer reading book a text about the Quran - Islam's holy book. The choice prompted lawsuits and some public outcry at what some felt was the university's attempt to indoctrinate students to the Muslim point of view. The university relented, somewhat, by making the summer reading optional.

Islam remains a matter of public debate. This month, hundreds of protesters gathered at a California fundraiser held by an Islamic group, objecting to two speakers at the event. Video of the event, which was distributed widely online, showed protesters screaming things such as "Muhammad was a pervert."

Last week, U.S. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, convened a hearing on Capitol Hill. Its title: "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community's Response."

Campbell, from the Christian Action Network, thinks Abdul Rauf's plans for an Islamic center in Manhattan pattern a desire by his faith to conquer America. It would be a symbolic victory for a mosque to rise there, he said. He insists that Islam and the Quran preach violence and extremism.

"It's not just a religion; it's political," he said. "It gets into Islamic law, which contradicts our way of free thinking in the United States."

That's a reach, says Carl Ernst, an Islamic studies scholar and Quran expert at UNC-CH.

"The notion that you could have a billion people who are all extremists is so far beyond credibility, it's fantasy," said Ernst, who co-directs the university's Middle Eastern studies center. "The people who question every Muslim as a threat to American values are deeply unethical. They are not looking at what they do. They are demonizing them because of their group identity."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service