“It is not enough for me that you tolerate me…” ~ Faisal Rauf
NEW YORK – Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf saw his plans for an Islamic center near ground zero derided as a victory mosque for terrorists, exploited as campaign fodder and used as a bargaining chip by a Florida pastor who vowed to burn the Quran.
After that summer of mistrust and raw feeling, he’s looking on the bright side.
Rauf says he hopes to use the platform he gained through the angry debate to turn his small nonprofit group into a global movement celebrating pluralism.
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Rauf said he hopes to see interfaith centers like the one he plans to include inside the downtown Manhattan Islamic center built all over the world. Each would be dedicated to fighting extremism and promoting better relations between people of different faiths and cultures.
Already, he said, he is exploring opening facilities in other American cities, as well as in Indonesia and Kosovo.
“We went to the brink, in a certain way,” he said of last summer’s tumult. But he added, “This crisis showed us what was possible. … It showed us that there is actually hope. Hope for a better relationship between America and the Muslim world, both domestically and internationally.”
Whether there is hope for the proposed center two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center attacks is unclear.
“We were part of the narrative of 9/11,” Rauf said, noting that members of his own congregation, based about 10 blocks from the Trade Center, had been victims of the attacks.
“We have an obligation. We have a responsibility” to participate in the rebuilding of the neighborhood, he said. “This center is an anti-9/11 statement.”
Rauf and Khan said they have begun talking in recent weeks with more relatives of 9/11 victims in an attempt to build support for the center.
Khan said she hoped some would agree to be “part of the healing process” and help design the center’s 9/11 memorial.
The couple are also trying to find a role for themselves in repairing what they see as a rift between U.S. Muslims and the nation’s Christian majority.
Mere acceptance of Muslims in the U.S. is not Rauf’s goal.
“It is not enough for me that you tolerate me,” he explained to an audience in Jakarta last month. “I want you to love me.”
Rauf and Khan have kept their offices for years in the Interchurch Center, a Manhattan office tower packed with Christian religious agencies that was conceived as a space where different denominations could mingle and collaborate.
The couple’s courtship of 9/11 families appears to be aimed at potentially influential fence-sitters in the debate over the center, rather than ardent critics, although Khan also recently participated in a public panel discussion with Jim Riches, a former New York City deputy fire chief whose son, Jimmy, was killed at the trade center.
“It was a true dialogue,” Khan said of her appearance with Riches. “When he was speaking about his pain, I had tears in my eyes.”
She said the main point she wanted to get across during their talk was that the 9/11 attacks were an epic tragedy for Muslims, too — compounded by fears of a backlash and a sense that they had been irreparably alienated from their countrymen.
“The fact that we were not allowed to participate in this tragedy, that we were shut out … that was very traumatic for the community,” she said.
Establishing a presence so close to ground zero, she said, would send a powerful message:
“We stand for peace, and peace where it matters the most.”
And if the structure never gets built, due to financial problems or political difficulties?
“It certainly matters, but it will not be an impediment,” Rauf said. His work will continue, although, as Khan added, “It is a lot easier to bring people together in bricks and mortar.”
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