Feisal Rauf & I: A (Very Long) New York Story

By , 12 September, 2010, 11 Comments

On Friday morning, my family and I celebrated Eid by attending a brief service in Westchester. The service was not in a mosque, but rather in a hotel. Men and women were sitting in the same room, side by side, though in two groups. Plain white sheets covered the floor and everyone was reading off crib sheets with phonetic transliterations of Arabic words. Many were glancing at their neighbors to figure out exactly when to sit, stand or bow. Though Eid marks the end of a month of fasting, several of us–all of my family, for sure–do not keep all the fasts. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen any of the women in a hijab.

Welcome to a Feisal Rauf congregation.

Rauf has been our family’s imam for many years, so many that we couldn’t agree on the car ride home just how long it has been. However many years ago it was, he decided to start performing holiday services outside his main Tribeca mosque for New York’s large population of liberal and essentially secular Muslims. People like myself, whose families had perhaps set foot in a real mosque less than five times in ten years. His goal, to be sure, was to bring us back into the fold, and for some of us, he succeeded. I went through a phase in high school and into college, for example, where I prayed frequently and kept all the Ramadan fasts, and Rauf’s super-liberal version of Islam had much to do with that.

But what is more interesting is that when I gave up my religious practice five years ago, Rauf’s teachings did not lose their appeal, or their spiritual value. I still attend and I am still, consistently, moved by what he has to say. That is because he is a true pluralist. He is not someone who sees the differences between various faith traditions and says, “We disagree, but I tolerate your views,” but a someone who says “I find my own spiritual gratification IN the richness of our differences.”

The way he put it on Friday was particularly striking. Like many moderate theologians, he began by putting forward the argument that the real conflict is not between Islam and the West, or indeed between moderates and extremists inside Islam. But he took this premise in a direction that I’ve never seen another leader of an organized faith go.

According to Rauf, true spirituality exists above, beyond, and outside the organized faith. It exists in the daily choices, the human relationships and social conflicts that test our moral character and in the individual psyche’s longing for ultimate truths. This is what Rauf calls ‘authentic spirituality,’ and it can be exhibited by people of all faiths or no faith, so long as they are morally upright, socially tolerant and rigorous in their quest for what is right. Let me repeat: instead of setting up as ‘good’ the coalition of moderate believers, Rauf sets up the coalition of authentic spiritualists, leaving room–in a way that most other moderate leaders do not–for atheists and agnostics who also think deeply about morality and the ultimate sources and meaning of human life. That’s why his holiday services still have room for folks like me. Against this coalition, Rauf would like us to see an alliance–though they do not recognize themselves as allies–of ‘counterfeit spirituality,’ of extremists hijacking the language of faith, or secularists hijacking the language of justice, in other words anybody hijacking the language of any code of morality, to promote or commit evil. All of this was more beautiful and more interesting in Rauf’s own words, and if I can succeed in finding a record of his remarks, I will post it here.

What was not so beautiful was the fact that this year’s attendance was the lowest I have seen it since we started this tradition. To me, that says something extremely troubling about the effect that the hoopla over the Cordoba House project has had on religious freedom–in very real ways, it is scaring people into staying home. Rauf noticed, remarking that he had officiated weddings in which the families were larger than Friday’s congregation. He went further, chastising the people gathered–among the richest and most influential Muslims in the tri-state area–for failing to come forward and support this project as a center for authentic spirituality. “The biggest support,” he said, “has come from people of other faiths,” naming Scott Stringer, Manhattan’s borough president, and Mayor Mike Bloomberg as two heroes of the current debate.

That comment stood out to me because both Stringer and Bloomberg framed their support for the project as protecting the identity, the community, and the staggering diversity of New York from the prejudices of those outside. It’s significant, you see, that most of the opposition to the Cordoba House comes from outside this city. That has something to do with the vast gap between the experience of 9/11 IN New York and the experience of 9/11 outside.

On the morning of 9/11, I was at school, on the Upper East Side, in a 10th grade history lecture. When the lecture ended, at 9:50, I went back to my homeroom for Recess, where someone mentioned that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. To my continued shame, my first reaction was to assume my friend was joking. It was only when a teacher entered the discussion to tell me to shut up because bodies really were all over lower Manhattan that I processed what was going on. For the rest of that day, our teachers tried to conduct classes until parents could get in touch and come pick up their children. By lunchtime, they had abandoned that effort and many of us packed into the school’s video screening room to watch CNN on a massive screen. By the time the school day officially ended, they’d shifted us into the auditorium in the basement, where, every half hour, the teachers would call a list of names and those students were free to go upstairs, get their things and meet their parents in the lobby. I escaped to the art studio, where, with one friend and my art teacher, I worked on a set of deeply disturbed sculptures that became our small monument to the day. Sometime in the early evening, my mother arrived and my sister [who was in the elementary school] and I were free to go.

At the time, we lived in downtown Manhattan, on the 34th floor of a high rise where my bedroom window looked right onto the towers. My mother, getting ready for work in the morning, had seen the planes hit–both of them–before setting out to walk the length of Manhattan in search of us. And for many days that fall, we lived with the suffocating smell of burning rubber, billowing smoke and decaying bodies, breathing what several lawsuits now suggest was toxic air. But for all those days, and indeed for many months afterwards, I do not remember feeling that we were living in a war zone.

What I remember were the practical and local questions: how many bodies have we found? is the water safe to drink? where can I report a missing relative? how will we reroute the subway now that the WTC station is gone? These were, in essence, the same questions New Yorkers might have had if the city had been hit by an earthquake. That the disaster was manmade, was politically and ideologically made, was something that many of us who lived in sight of it did not have the time to think about until much later, indeed until the lead up to Iraq. By that time, the rest of the country had developed a political narrative about 9/11, indeed had launched a war in response to 9/11 [a war that I–who now WRITE ABOUT IT–do not remember the start of], and while it’s true–and important–that the administration at the time took great pains not to stigmatize Islam, it seems as though for many Americans outside New York the narrative was built as a clash of civilizations anyway. New Yorkers, whose names are now called up by those seeking to frame their clash of civilizations narrative as a defenses of our honor and victimhood, were not actually part of the conversation, because we were too busy with the nuts and bolts of disaster relief.

The local experience of 9/11 is important, crucial, today in making the case for the Cordoba House. Because 9/11 was and is a local experience for many of us BEFORE it was a national one. And what comes to sit on the ‘hallowed ground’ downtown should be a matter of local choice, not up for national referendum.  That is the way that I would like Mayor Bloomberg–who has been among the boldest in defending the project–to frame his next steps. I would like him to expend some political capital raising local money for the project–and there’s no shortage of cash for real estate investments in New York–and then I would like him to announce that he is (a la Eisenhower) dispatching special divisions of the NYPD to protect the area when the builders break ground. I would like him to address the nation–because he does have national recognition–and say that he is reclaiming 51 Park Place for New York. If politicians and pundits elsewhere want to debate the place of Islam in America, so be it, but there is no reason for New York to be held hostage to that debate. That is not our 9/11 story, and for better or worse, 9/11 happened here.

11 Responses {+}
  • shazia rafi

    its very good, i hope bloomberg hears it

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    @shazia Thanks. I suppose I’ll have to send it his way.

  • Sam

    I liked this, Maha, but I’ve got to object to something (that’s sort of what I do):

    The “New Yorkers’ ownership of 9/11” trope comes up a lot in commentary on this thing. And while it is obviously true that New Yorkers had a vastly different experience of those events than everybody else, I don’t know if I buy the argument that local interests are more legitimate than national ones. 9/11 was a national event, and while the New York experience was unique, it’s certainly not the only one worth considering.

    In any event, casting 9/11 as a national event is important to winning the battle of ideas on this thing. Neighborliness, tolerance, and pluralism aren’t just New York values. They are (or at least should be) American values. Cordoba House should be built because of this truth, not because a bunch of New Yorkers think their losses and emotional experiences are more valid than everyone else’s.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    Sam, thanks for the comment. I agree that 9/11 was a national event in addition to a local one. I also agree that tolerance and pluralism should be American values and most of the time I think they are held and practiced as American values.

    But in this particular case, the national opinion (a large majority opposed) is in tension with the local opinion (a narrow majority, as of today, in favor).

    I wish most Americans would be in favor of this project. But they aren’t. And they hold the memory and national meaning of 9/11 as their core reason for opposition. If we decide that the the national understanding and memory takes precedence, then it’s difficult to argue that a 70% majority should be ignored.

    By contrast, if it is assumed that in questions relating to 9/11 and New York, the New Yorkers’ local memory should take precedence, the national polling becomes irrelevant vis-a-vis building the site.

    That does not remove the longer term problem of changing the national opinion on matters of tolerance, but it does provide a solution for how to achieve liberal goals at the local level in an increasingly illiberal national climate.

  • Sam

    I agree that framing Cordoba House as a “New York thing” helps it get built, but so what? Where does that get you? It strikes me as a somewhat myopic goal. We have one more Cultural Center, and all it cost us was vastly increased anger towards and distrust of Muslims and “East Coast elites.” Is that a trade worth making?

    Of course, that’s a question of little use now. With the political capital expended by both sides, no one can really back down at this point.

    The idealist part of me wants to believe that they’ll build the thing, and when the sky doesn’t fall and Cordoba House proves itself a good neighbor and community asset, we’ll all have learned something and be better off. The realistic part of me realizes that ours isn’t exactly a truth-based politics, and that the narrative significance of the building will have very little to do with reality.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    Let’s look at the worst case outcome you suggest–that building the project over national objections could do more harm than good to tolerance even if the project goes off well and does good for the community. IF we’re considering that likely or even plausible, then the particular group of people and the kind of national discourse we’re starting with must be so far away from tolerant that the idea that we would be able to first persuade people to be more open and then go about building seems to me off the table altogether.

    That said, I’m less pessimistic than you are overall, in that while I do still think it’s going to be impossible to persuade people to be in favor of this nationally before it gets built, I also think it’s likely that most of them will come around afterwards if the larger conversation about emphasizing American tolerance continues, as I think it should, and if the project is a success, as I think it will be.

  • shazia rafi

    Its not just one more cultural center, liberal Muslims have no place large enough to pray together in an open inclusive way and our numbers are growing, which is something we all should be happy about. As Fareed Zakaria said if this was a mosque overseas the State Department would be funding it; this Imam is the extremists worst nightmare

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    @shazia, I don’t think Sam is disagreeing with that. He’s disagreeing–as I understand him–with the way I’ve framed the rhetorical case for the mosque.

  • Sam

    That’s more or less it. In an ideal world, public sentiment, local or otherwise, has no bearing on whether or not the mosque gets built. In the real world, I tend to think appeals to “American values” as such are more productive in the long term, even if they fall on deaf ears in this case.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    Gotcha. And you’ve made the case well. I think we have to agree to disagree on the relevance or usefulness of appeals to the local when the national debate hits the deaf ears impasse.

  • roclafamilia

    Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!

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