In 1915, the brothers Henry and Solomon Weil provided an endowment to the oldest state supported university in America, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to sponsor an annual lecture on the meaning of American Citizenship.
Robert Taft, Eleanor Roosevelt, J. William Fulbright and Jimmy Carter are merely a few of many Weil lecturers who have appeared at the ancient venue, Hill Hall.
This year, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative in Manhattan joined the long and distinguished list of Weil speakers at Hill Hall.
Security was tight at this year's Weil lecture, because the Imam shot to fame last year as the protagonist in the controversy over the establishment of an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. In the elegant and stately auditorium of Hill Hall, every seat was occupied, and the sophisticated audience of six hundred academics and intellectuals was expectant and rippling with anticipation.
Since 1983, Imam Rauf served as the leader of a mosque in Lower Manhattan. On 9/11, Rauf was in Denver for the marriage of his daughter, but he swiftly returned to New York where he became the primary Islamic consultant for the FBI on the subject of Islamist terrorism. In the tragic weeks following 9/11, the Imam lectured more than 1000 FBI agents on the culture of mainstream Islam and the radical distortions of the terrorists.
In the intervening years, Imam Rauf has become one of the world's leading interfaith advocates of peace, love and understanding between all faith traditions. Through his work for interfaith dialogue, the Imam became a recipient of the annual Alliance Peacebuilder Award from the Alliance for International Conflict Prevention and Resolution, and he was the major speaker at the Parliament of the World's Religions when it convened in Melbourne, Australia in 2009.
Adopting a conversational format for the Weil Lecture, Professor Hodding Carter served as the Moderator and asked the Imam a series of questions that permitted him to address his subject, "Unfinished Dreams: America, Religion and Citizenship."
During the evening, Imam Rauf assured the audience in Hill Hall, "The American Muslim community is to play an important role in mediating between America and the Muslim world."
Explaining that America's involvement with the Muslim World metamorphosed dramatically after WWII when the USA adopted, "A colonialistic type approach evolving into the Cold War dynamic and how the Muslim World in large part was the chessboard on which the Cold War was played."
Presenting his analysis, Imam Rauf used elegant and diplomatic language to describe the phenomenon of postwar colonialism against the stark backdrop of the Cold War:
How the relationships between the United States and the Soviet Union and their desire to have certain types of leadership in much of the world including the Muslim World that would be advantageous to the pursuit of their policy, rather than pursuing policies that engendered the rise of democracies in much of these countries.
Turning to the current tide of popular pro-democracy revolutions sweeping across the Middle East, Imam Rauf drew his audience back to his theme of American Islam:
And now we see a new chapter which is the post-Cold War chapter, in which the ongoing desires of people to have what we have here; to enjoy the freedoms we have here; to enjoy democracy which means among other things -- a government which is for the people, as Abraham Lincoln said of being, 'of the people, by the people, but for the people.' A government that sees itself at the service of its constituents; not a government that regards the assets of the country and its people as belonging to themselves is the paradigm shift which people in the Arab and Muslim world have been longing for for a long time and want to see. And to the extent that our policies can further that objective, it will no doubt enhance relationships between America and much of the world, the Arab and Muslim World and play an extremely important role in reducing acts of terrorism against the United States of America.
In addressing the long and savage history of the horrors of religion and war, Imam Rauf stated bluntly, "Every regime which tried to destroy religion has been destroyed."
Vividly recalling cases from history, Imam Rauf cited:
In reflecting on the extravagant brutality of violent religious confrontation, Imam Rauf observed, "The notion that you can wage a war against a religion is something that is really dangerous and has never historically succeeded and should not ever be sought."
Returning to his leitmotif of American citizenship and Islam, Imam Rauf frequently emphasized his central thesis that Islamic values resonate strongly with American values.
The Imam stated: "I believe that our Founding Fathers established a country based upon the concept of religious freedom which is something that Islam fundamentally demands -- although not all Muslims do that -- they are violating their own religion."
Driving his point home Imam Rauf defined the origins of modern notions of democracy in the moral dimension of monotheism stating, "The notion of the equality of human beings is something that emerged from the Abrahamic faith traditions."
While describing the ideals of equality and justice that are at the heart of the ideal Islamic society, Imam Rauf surprised many in the audience when he explained, "Many Muslims believe that America is more of an Islamic state than their own countries."
A short distance away from the Imam's address at Hill Hall, the Christian Action Network staged what they hoped would be a huge anti-Muslim rally. Several speakers arrived from New York to upstage Imam Rauf. Led by Tim Brown, a 9/11 responder who has become a professional and peripatetic Islamophobe, a small crowd of around three to five dozen people gathered in a hotel conference room to see a highly publicized free movie and to decry Imam Rauf and his religion.
Tim Brown denounced Imam Rauf as, "an imposter Imam" with a secret agenda to, "victimize the families of 9/11" by building a Muslim "victory tower" near Ground Zero. Expecting a much larger audience in what they had presumed to be the backwoods of the Bible Belt, Tim Brown was visibly disappointed by the paltry turnout and the sparse and intermittent applause. Brown praised the controversial Congressional hearings into Islamist radicalism of Rep. Peter King (R-NY), and his thin audience obediently demonstrated their approval.
One of America's most prominent self-proclaimed Islamophobes, Ilario Pantano, enthusiastically joined Brown to excoriate Imam Rauf. Pantano is a failed Republican politician who got the backing of the Tea Party. However, the voters of North Carolina rejected Pantano's candidacy when they learned about his troubling military record and his extremist Islamophobic ideology. Pantano gained his notoriety as an ex-Marine discharged from the USMC after he was accused of the premeditated murder of two unarmed Iraqi Muslims in his custody. The charges were eventually dropped, but Pantano soon thereafter resigned from the military, claiming terrorist threats to his family.
According to the Raleigh News & Observer, the Christian Action Network, "follows Abdul Rauf to many of his speaking events, often lining up to counter his (appearances)." In effect, the Christian Action Network is now functioning as an Islamophobic posse modeled on the notorious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. While the Christian Action Network's original mission was a campaign against the rights of gay Americans, today they stalk their opponents via a national campaign of defamation, slander, libel and disingenuous distortions of facts aimed at demonizing Muslims strictly because of their religion.
It is inescapable, that the Christian Action Network is fueling hatred of Muslims during a period of rising Islamophobia in the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Christian Action Network along with hate groups, and the state of Maine has banned them for their "inflammatory anti-Muslim message." The Christian Action Network was founded by Martin Mawyer in Virginia as a political offshoot inspired by the radical religious fundamentalism of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Returning to the Imam's penetrating discourse during the question and answer session in Hill Hall, Imam Rauf explained his new vision of a Muslim community center that would replicate the functions of the YMCA and Jewish community centers as an institution that will be free and open for all members of the increasingly diverse American community: Muslims; Christians and Jews. Imam Rauf's community center will provide services and facilities where people from all walks of life can share a gymnasium, meeting rooms, restaurants, accommodation and classes in physical fitness along with cultural programs and exhibition spaces for art, music, drama and film. For those who attended Imam Rauf's lecture, Brown and Pantano's protestations seem both extremist and ill-informed.
In Hill Hall, Imam Rauf described the personal mystical experience that led him on his spiritual journey as:
A moment where the boundaries of myself dissolved ... I felt that I was at one with the universe. Poets have written about this. Mystics have written about this. So did Blake when you see eternity in a speck of sand. I felt that moment where I never forget: the yellowness of the sun; the greenness of the green; the sound of the bus; a complete sense of oneness and in that moment a direct and absolute knowledge and conviction that god was there. I was confronted by the awesome omnipotent power of: absolute being; absolute love; absolute knowledge and wisdom that embraced me and embraced everything in creation. To experience that reality in that moment was what our Indian friends call satchitananda, absolute being-consciousness-awareness. Absolute mercy and love and compassion propelled me along to my readings of the Sufis and the mystics and the writers of religious philosophy, and I tried to pull it all together, but -- at every moment in the recognition that it is not about being a Muslim or being a Jew. It's not about being labeled. It's about your personal relationship with the creator.
In closing his comments at Hill Hall, Imam Rauf reassured his audience, "The real battle today is between the moderates of all faith traditions and the radical extremists of all faiths."
In defining faith, Imam Rauf put it succinctly, "True faith is always following your inner conscience."
Imam Rauf received a tumultuous standing ovation from the six hundred North Carolinians in Hill Hall, who moved to the reception where they bought dozens of copies of his book: What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America
Correction: This wording in this post has been changed to more accurately reflect the nature of Mr. Pantano's military discharge.
Follow Michael Carmichael on Twitter: www.twitter.com/alchemistoxford