Muslim cleric reviled for interfaith efforts

For the first time in a long while, Feisal Rauf is avoiding the press.

The imam behind the planned "Ground Zero mosque" is on a trip to the Gulf states after the United States State Department shelled out US$16,000 ($22,800) to fund a bridge-building series of meetings between Rauf and various local figures.

Normally, that is the sort of low-level diplomacy that would fly under the radar. Indeed, Rauf might have been expected to try to publicise the trip, his fourth to the region on behalf of a US Government that uses him as an ambassador to the Islamic world.

But not this time.

Rauf's first stop was a dinner in Bahrain at the US ambassador's residence. Reporters, who might usually have ignored such a banal event, were kept at arm's length. Attempts to talk to Rauf's dining companions were stymied.

That is what happens when you become the centre of a political storm such as that which has engulfed the Ground Zero Islamic centre project.

The planned centre, now known as Park51, after its street address, is a large project. But it is not the "super-mosque" its detractors claim.

Yet Rauf, as the driving force behind Park51, he is one of the most divisive figures in the American political landscape. To critics, he is an anti-American supporter of terrorists who refuses to condemn Hamas and who believes the US was responsible for its own tragedy on 9/11.

The vitriol is staggering. Rightwing blogger Pamela Geller has dubbed Rauf a "stealth radical" and the Republican party has piled in behind her.

But these are the signs of the times. After all, one in five Americans believes their President is a Muslim. It is a nation dominated by media that feed on rage. It is a place where a handful of bloggers can drag the debate over Park51 so far from reality that a man such as Rauf is seen as a threat to national security.

Feisal Abdul Rauf was born in Kuwait in 1948. His father, Muhammad Abdul Rauf, a respected Egyptian cleric, was part of a wave of Islamic scholars sent out by the Egyptian Government to posts around the world.

That led to a wandering childhood as Rauf's father took up positions in Britain, Malaysia and the Gulf. His accent still retains clipped tones from the time he spent in Cambridge.

But his travels also led to a sense of rootlessness that only ended when the Raufs went to the US. It was 1965 and Rauf was 17. He soon found he was destined to be American.

Landing in New York, the family moved into a small apartment above Rauf senior's mosque on West 72nd St, tending to a small congregation of immigrant Muslims and black American converts.

He studied physics at university before taking on postgraduate work in New Jersey.

Though the Rauf family were conservative (Rauf's mother was not allowed to drive), Rauf was a typical student with a wide circle of friends and a fondness for cars and girls.

He had Jewish friends who, during the Six Day war, remembered Rauf striving to understand the conflict's meaning for American Jews.

"There was a genuine openness," a classmate, Alan Silberstein, said. Rauf has always welcomed others. But it was America that Rauf truly embraced. He became a citizen in 1980.

In his writings on Islam, Rauf has emphasised common links between Judaism, Christianity and Islam (which, he says, share Abrahamic ideals). He sees their quarrels as a family dispute.

Rauf travelled and met Islamic scholars and eventually became a Sufi, a form of Islam that emphasises the mystic. A Sufi scholar in Turkey asked him to create a Sufi mosque in New York and in 1983 Rauf founded the Masjid al-Farah in Manhattan. From the start, it was a moderate place, friendly to women and attracting a diverse crowd. Among that crowd was interior designer Daisy Khan, who had been born in Kashmir but, like Rauf, arrived in America as an immigrant teenager.

The pair married in 1997 and became a working team. Rauf set up the American Society for Muslim Advancement in 1997. Khan, who in her 25-year interior design career had worked for various Fortune 500 companies, spoke in favour of women's rights. After 9/11, all America was trying to understand Islam. Journalists and politicians were desperate for a moderate voice to explain it. Rauf and Khan went on TV and advised politicians.

When a memorial service was held for murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Rauf declared: "I am a Jew." When the scandal of Abu Ghraib broke, Rauf was among those asked to appear in an apology that was broadcast on Arabic television. The Raufs gave speeches and travelled to the World Economic Forum.

But these are now dangerous waters to swim in if you're a Muslim. The Raufs' intentions matter little. What matters are the views others project on to them. Park51 was originally called Cordoba House, after Rauf's inter-faith Cordoba Initiative.

The name Cordoba is a nod to the Moorish emirate known its for religious tolerance. But rightwingers believe it is a reference to the Muslim conquest of Spain (some radical Islamists also take it that way).

The same goes for any number of Rauf's statements. When he says US foreign policy has angered many Muslims, he is stating a belief shared by liberals and voiced by some conservatives, such as Glenn Beck. But critics say Rauf thinks America deserved to be attacked on 9/11.

Far from being a radical plot, planning Park51 was a rather amateurish exercise. Rauf had no media campaign, no PR. Evidence seemed to suggest two moderates who wandered naively into a hornets' nest.

In one of the few moments in Bahrain when he did address the Park51 issue, Rauf kept things simple. His statement included this plea: "With God's help, inshallah, we shall pass through this stormy season."

Calming this particular storm might be beyond even the powers of the Almighty (whichever one you believe in).

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