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Interfaith at Ground Zero

By Diana L. Eck

Since Sept. 11, the interfaith movement has grown exponentially in American cities, towns, and college campuses, including Harvard.  Among these interfaith initiatives, is the Cordoba Initiative of Feisal Abdul Rauf.  So how is it that one of America's leading Muslim advocates of closer interfaith relations between Muslims, Christians, and Jews is now at the center of the controversy dubbed "the mosque at Ground Zero?" Many Americans heard Imam Feisal Rauf in person for the first time on CNN just last week. But those of us involved in interfaith work have heard him for many years. His book, “What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America,” has been read in classes, like my own, and in book clubs and study groups. I first met Imam Rauf when both of us spoke at an interfaith forum at the United Nations some five years ago. He was excited then about the Cordoba Initiative, a vision that comes from the period in the history of Spain when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in cultural and religious harmony and creativity. It was called the convivencia, the "living together." Now more than ever, we need a new era of convivencia—especially here in the U.S. The creation of Cordoba House was to be a place for that vision, and it was a plan that won the support of Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Park East Synagogue and Rabbi Joy Levitt of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, as well as Christian leaders in the city's seminaries and the National Council of Churches. When the plan for Cordoba House was announced last December, Imam Rauf said, "We want to push back against the extremists." He has walked that walk for many years.

Much has been made of polls that report that three out of five New Yorkers oppose a mosque or Muslim center near Ground Zero. But why was that the question to begin with? What if the question had been about support or opposition to an interfaith center near Ground Zero, a center that would bring people together across some of the deepest lines of division in our society and our world?  Would they have responded the same way? That is, after all, what the Cordoba Initiative has always beena bridge-building interfaith initiative.

For years, many of the interfaith initiatives in the U.S. and worldwide have been sponsored by Christian churches, often arousing the suspicion among Muslims that interfaith is just another form of mission.  In the past few years, however, it has been heartening to see major Muslim initiatives of outreach, such as the Common Word project, launched in 2007 with an open letter to Christian leaders signed by more than 300 Muslim leaders across the spectrum of the Muslim world from Indonesia to Indiana. It asked Christians to join with them in affirming the most important  "common word" of Scripturethe love of God and the love of neighbor. Imam Feisal Rauf was one of the first signatories.  It began, "Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world." This letter has led to a sustained and in-depth exchange between Christians and Muslims, one that continues today.

By the way, the Cordoba Initiative also involves Feisal's wife, Daisy Khan, whose American Society for Muslim Advancement, is to be part of the project. ASMA is "dedicated to strengthening an authentic expression of Islam in America, based on cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration, youth and women’s empowerment, and arts and cultural exchange." One of Daisy's projects has been the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity, aimed at empowering Muslim women to play a greater role in their societies worldwide. In sum, the life's work of both Feisal Rauf and Daisy Khan has been dedicated to fostering better relations between Islam and the West.

In the midst of this media maelstrom, we all need to ask some serious questions: How did this Cordoba vision become dubbed "the mosque at Ground Zero?" What political interests are at stake in perpetuating this public controversy, long after the official bodies of the city of New York have given it resounding approval? If it is really about "sensitivity" and "proximity to Ground Zero," why are protesters holding signs with the words "Sharia" lettered in red and dripping with blood? Why the rise of a frightening spate of Islamophobia just now?

The Pluralism Project at Harvard has followed the targeting of progressive Muslim leaders in America for the past 20 years. What has happened to Feisal Rauf is not new. It is part of a deeply disturbing and continuing pattern of groundless accusation, guilt by association, and the distortion of both words and motives. All these suspicions find fertile soil in which to grow, given the general inexperience most Americans have with Muslims, Muslim communities, and the Islamic faith. Now, more than ever, we need just the kind of Cordoba House that Feisal Rauf proposesand we need one in every city and town in America.

Diana L. Eck is a Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies and Director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University.

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