Mosque controversy the religion story of 2010

The national association of religion journalists, a group I belonged to for many years, has just named the top 10 religion stories of the year.

Can you guess what was number one?

The members of the Religion Newswriters Association chose the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy. I think it’s a reasonable choice. The debate over the proposed Islamic center raised all sorts of questions about Islam’s place in the U.S., almost a decade after 9/11. Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done.

But I don’t get Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious figure behind the Islamic center, being voted religion newsmaker of the year. He hardly said a word until the controversy was white hot. He has done a few TV interviews since, but has still stayed largely out of the limelight.

If you’re talking about newsmakers — people who make the news — I would have chosen the vocal opponents of the Islamic center before the reserved imam.

The other top stories?

Number two was faith-based relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti.

Number three was the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse problems exploding in Ireland and Germany and the pope’s possible role in past decisions made and not made.

Four? Religious voices in the Tea Party movement.

Five: The religious divide over health care reform.

The rest of the top 10: Mainline Protestants continuing to duke it out over sexuality; the recession’s effects on religious life; bullying; Americans’ poor performance on a survey of religious knowledge; and the newly Protestant-free U.S. Supreme Court.

Muslim notes for early September

Some interesting Islam-related notes:

1. The Islamic Center of Peekskill will hold a public celebration tomorrow or Friday of Eid ul-Fitr, one of the two great Muslim festivals.

It will be at Pugsley Park (at Main Street and Bank Street) from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. We don’t have a date yet because the Eid won’t be set until a sighting of the new moon.

A press release promises “an opportunity to meet your Muslim neighbors and learn how we would like to continue to serve the community.”

2. Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains will hold an interfaith panel on Saturday, Sept 18. (Yom Kippur) from 3 to 4:30 p.m.: “Visions of a Tolerant America: Jewish, Muslim and Christian voices discuss an Islamic Center near Ground Zero.”

Panelists will include three parents who lost children on 9/11, Ann Schaffer of the American Jewish Committee and Rabbi Shira Milgrom of Kol Ami.

3. The pastor of a small evangelical church in Florida still plans to burn some Qurans on Sept. 11. What will the fall-out be?

He doesn’t care that Gen. David Petraeus has warned that “images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan – and around the world – to inflame public opinion and incite violence.”

Numerous groups are coming out against the church, including the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which says: “We join with the sane voices from the highest offices of the American government, and religious and civic leaders around the world, to stand up against this seeming Inquisition on American soil and call for Terry Jones to call off this attack on religious freedom in a land of liberty.”

4. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is finally back on American soil and is finally speaking out about what the deal is with the proposed Islamic center.

He writes in the NY Daily News:

****

The project has been mischaracterized, so I want to explain clearly what it would be. Our planned 13-story community center is intended for Park Place between Church St. and West Broadway. It is not a mosque, although it will include a space for Muslim prayer services. It will have a swimming pool, basketball court, meeting rooms, a 500-seat auditorium, banquet facilities and many other things a community needs to be healthy. The center will offer theatrical programming, art exhibitions and cooking classes. These are amenities missing now from this part of the city.

And, yes, the center will have a public memorial to the victims of 9/11 as well as a meditation room where all will be welcome for quiet reflection. The center will support soul and body.

The center will be open to all regardless of religion. Like a YMCA, the 92nd St. Y or the Jewish Community Center uptown, it will admit everyone. It will be a center for all New Yorkers.

What grieves me most is the false reporting that leads some families of 9/11 victims to think this project somehow is designed by Muslims to gloat over the attack.

That could not be further from the truth.

Have you heard there are plans for a mosque near Ground Zero?

Back from vacation. A good (and sunny time) was had by all.

I’ll share my beach reading list in a day or two.

When I left, the GROUND ZERO MOSQUE controversy was a big story. Not it is a BIG STORY.

The Boston Globe and Portland Press Herald — yes, I was in Maine — had coverage every day. And it seems that every politician and interest group in the country has had something to say about whether the Islamic community center should be built.

What’s going on here? Lots of things, of course.

There seems to be a legitimate question of whether an Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero is simply too much — symbolically — for those who lost loved ones on 9/11 or otherwise had their lives changed forever. If a survivor feels that a mosque in that location would be inappropriate, who is to tell her (or him) that they are wrong?

The “They can build it, but not there” camp seems to be growing.

At the same time, this whole debate/controversy has revealed a deep anti-Muslim antipathy that some would like to take mainstream.

Many protesters make generalizations about Muslims or Islamic practice that show that we’ve learned little about a faith followed by 1.3 billion people. A Brooklyn plumber who attended yesterday’s anti-mosque rally has been widely quoted as saying that the people behind the project are “the same people who took down the twin towers.”

The whole debate is a classic example of a truism of public relations: “If you don’t define yourself, someone else will.”

As I’ve written before, the man behind the mosque proposal — Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf — and his advisers have done a terrible job of explaining themselves.

They seem to have not realized that their plans would provoke opposition.

They’ve done and said almost nothing to explain who they are — truly moderate Muslims — and why their project would be good for New York.

It’s almost hard to believe that Rauf is currently in the Middle East, representing the U.S. State Department, as his good name gets torn apart at home. Who’s running the show?

A terrific article in today’s Washington Post outlines Rauf’s utter failure at P.R.:

*****

So far, debate has been framed around whether a $100 million, 15-story Muslim community center and mosque should be built two blocks from where Islamic radicals brought down the World Trade Center. But interviews with people who know Rauf suggest that the project isn’t much more than an idea and that Rauf’s most controversial trait may be his ambition.

While he portrays himself as someone who runs two influential interfaith nonprofits (his Web site says he is “regarded as one of the world’s most eloquent and erudite Muslim leaders”), neither one has a staff, and the project that has inspired outrage hasn’t even begun fundraising, said Rauf’s wife and work partner, Daisy Khan.

*****

I’ve interviewed Rauf several times and believe that most Americans would like him if they got to know him.

But it’s probably too late for that.

Rauf and his wife, Daisy, needed to do an hour on Oprah.

Instead, they let a bunch of politicians introduce them to America.

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Those mosque controversies

These are tough times for proposed mosque developments in NYC.

The pastor of a Catholic parish on Staten Island has withdrawn his support for the sale of an old convent to a Muslim group.

Since a contract was signed last month to sell the property to the Muslim American Society, the move has faced fierce opposition at meetings and rallies.

Of course, plans for a big mosque just two blocks from Ground Zero have also drawn cries of indignation, including from people who lost loved ones on 9/11.

The downtown project is being run by the Cordoba Initiative led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Since 9/11, many people have called on moderate Muslims to condemn terrorism and forge new relationships with the West.

Rauf appears to be that guy.

The Cordoba Initiative is all about improving relations between Islam and the West. Rauf pursues this goal internationally and at home.

I got a chance to talk to him in 2005 in Yonkers, when he came to an interfaith lunch convened by the American Muslim Women’s Association. He told me about behind-the-scenes work he was doing to get Muslim and Jewish leaders to dialogue in several countries.

He also told me about his work to gather young American Muslims, potential future leaders, to talk about crafting a new American Muslim identity. In fact, he oversaw a Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow retreat at the Garrison Institute.

When I spoke with Rauf, it was apparent that he knew a tremendous amount about Judaism and Christianity and that he knows numerous American leaders from both worlds.

He told me then: “Because we believe that God created humankind in the divine image, to love your fellow human beings is to love God.”

In 2003, when the popular God Squad — Monsignor Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman — spoke at Purchase College and several other local spots, Rauf joined the squad to add a Muslim perspective on things. In the picture, that’s him on the right.

At Purchase, Rauf talked about trying to persuade a major American newspaper to print a religious edict declaring that American Muslims were religiously justified in participating in a war against Afghanistan.

The first mention of Rauf in the Journal News’ digital library is from 1998, was when he came to Valley Cottage to help celebrate the end of Hanukkah and the beginning of Ramadan with a gathering of Muslims and Jews.

I also interviewed Rauf for my book about natural disasters. I remember him as being gracious, insightful and funny. He told me then:

*****

We should care for each other and care for the planet, utilize our smarts and our resources to take care of the planet so it takes care of us. We should be reminded of our primal relationship to the creator and of the two basic commandments of the Abrahamic religions: to love God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love your fellow human beings.

*****

The guy doesn’t sound like a bad potential neighbor, does he?

Of course, any time I’ve written about Muslims, people write or call and ask me how I can know their ultimate motives. I can’t, obviously.

But Imam Rauf reminds me a great deal of the more impressive priests, ministers and rabbis I’ve met over the years.

If the Muslim community in New York is going to continue to grow — and it is — Rauf sure seems like the guy you want in charge.