Last year Feisal Abdel Rauf, the Imam of a small Tribeca mosque, and his wife Daisy Khan announced their intention to build a large Islamic community center, with events and sports facilities, a 9/11 memorial, and a mosque that could accommodate their growing congregation. Rauf and Khan were inspired by the multicultural openness of an uptown Jewish community center, and envisioned their project as a place in which people of all faiths could encounter and learn from each other. As modern Muslims completely comfortable in a multicultural, secular, democratic society, it was natural that they would seek to locate their faith within this larger society, interacting with and contributing to other currents of life, both religious and secular.
Unfortunately, they planned to locate this center on Park Place, several blocks from the World Trade Center site. Perhaps they should have expected the hysterical, paranoid reaction. Many people were apparently convinced that there is no such thing as "moderate" Islam; that all Muslims are either terrorists or "sleepers," overtly or covertly working to impose Shari'a law. This odd belief was fed by the haters and the narcissists and, most shamefully, the political calculators, with everyone from Pamela Geller and Sean Hannity to Newt Gingrich and John Bolton piling on. I wrote something about this here.
Rauf and Khan got death threats. At the height of the affair, the New York Post ran an unflattering picture of Khan, which was republished on the extremist site freerepublic.com. The comments exploded in hatred: "Dead eyes... Lifeless, soulless, evil."
When I met Daisy Khan at a lunch sponsored by More Magazine, that wasn't the impression I got at all. Khan is a warm, thoughtful, and charismatic person, who very clearly explained her commitment both to democracy and the open society and to the spiritual, human-rights-respecting form of Islam that her husband follows and teaches. Perhaps more importantly, she spoke of how there is no contradiction between these things. She isn't trapped between two irreconcilable worlds; Khan, an ambitious and successful interior architect who used to work at One World Trade Center, is living in two distinct but mutually-reinforcing systems of identity. She explained how, after 9/11, she felt a special responsibility to speak up for the vast majority of Muslims who embrace democracy and human rights, and to address the vexed issues of violence, status of women, leadership, and democracy within Islam. She wanted to show that the Islam of the fanatics is a distorted and poisoned version of the true message of the Koran.
I must say that, as an atheist, I don't buy this idea of a "distorted" Islam that stones the infidel and a "true" Islam that respects human rights, any more than I buy the idea of a "distorted" Christianity that justifies racism and a "true" Christianity that fights it. Since I don't believe in any revealed religious truth, a religion simply is what it does. All actions in its name are equally its "true" face.
But of course there are vastly different ideas about Islam that result in vastly different practices of Islam, just as there are vastly different ideas about and practices of Christianity. Those who think that Islam is inherently and universally violent simply don't know anything about how it is conceived and lived in much of the world. From a purely pragmatic (and democratic, and American) perspective, then, it's extremely helpful that there are people like Rauf and Khan who are out there living and teaching a form of Islam that contributes to peace, human rights, and multicultural understanding in our multicultural society. That's what we supposedly want, right? And that's why the crazed opposition to the Park51 center was so discouraging.
At the More Magazine event, Khan wanted to talk about the importance of communicating the commonalities of Islamic and American values, but also about the practical ways that she is working for change. She spoke of the importance of giving women a voice in Islamic cultures and societies, both as an influence for moderation and democracy, and as a matter of human rights. She described her organization, WISEWomen's Islamic Spirituality and Equalityand how it is working to develop female leadership and to challenge Koranic teachings that justify the suppression and abuse of women. She talked about multiple change theories in economics, education, and religious interpretation, and the need to challenge and expose al-Qaeda's attempts to recruit women by using the idiom and style of modernity, but without its content.
The idea of change in the Islamic world coming through the empowerment of women is not merely a theory, and it's not a marginal trend. It is the focus of many, many experienced international development agencies, and a major subject of the Arab Human Development Reports, sponsored by the UN and written by Arab scholars, economists, and officials. Women's capacity as a force for change has been demonstrated most powerfully by female leadership in the recent and continuing uprisings against authoritarianism in the Middle East, through the strength and tenacity of women like Mozn Hassan, the executive director of the Nazra Center for Feminist Studies, who was deeply involved in the Egyptian revolution; or Egyptian writer and feminist dissident Nawal El Saadawi, at 79 a lifelong rebel who is doing everything in her power to make sure that women are active and included in the new Egyptian political reality; or Tawakkol Karman, who led dangerous protests against the government in Yemen; and thousands of other women without whom the regional revolts would have been quite different in character.
Khan has been doing specific things to work for democracy and human rights through the empowerment of women in the Islamic world, not only organizing an intense international conference of female leaders but, through WISE, sponsoring a project in Afghanistan that exposes Imams to Koranic teachings on female equality, and another in rural Egypt that works to stop the practice of female genital mutilation. I must say that if she is indeed a stealth agent of Islamic radicalism, as some of her critics charge, these would be rather odd projects to undertake.
Khan spoke about the tremendous opportunities in this moment of flux in the Arab world, opportunities for democracy and freedom and human rights, and of the importance of working with women to help bring these societies into alignment with American political values while respecting the context of their Islamic culture. It's a huge and tremendously important topic that engages our interests as a democratic nation, but also as individual human beings.
Unfortunately, she also said a few words about the present status of the mosque and Community Center project. In a roomful of journalists, this was a mistakeespecially since Khan had little to say that she was comfortable putting on the record. And the next day all the stories that came out of the meeting with her focused on the "Ground Zero" mosque.
Which was really too bad. This focus on a single, local controversy is missing the real storythe big story about democracy, change, and human potential.