In March 2003, federal officials were being criticized for disrespecting the rights of Arab-Americans in their efforts to crack down on domestic security threats in the post-9/11 environment. Hoping to calm the growing tempers, FBI officials in New York hosted a forum on ways to deal with Muslim and Arab-Americans without exacerbating social tensions. The bureau wanted to provide agents with "a clear picture," said Kevin Donovan, director of the FBI's New York office.
Brought in to speak that morning -- at the office building located just blocks from Ground Zero -- was one of the city's most respected Muslim voices: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. The imam offered what was for him a familiar sermon to those in attendance. "Islamic extremism for the majority of Muslims is an oxymoron," he said. "It is a fundamental contradiction in terms."
It was, by contemporaneous news accounts, a successful lecture.
Flash forward six-and-a-half years, and Feisal Abdul Rauf occupies a far different place in the political consciousness. The imam behind a controversial proposal to build an Islamic cultural center near those same FBI offices has been called "a radical Muslim," a "militant Islamist" and, simply, the "enemy" by conservative critics. His Cordoba House project, meanwhile, has been framed as a conduit for Hamas to funnel money to domestic terrorist operations.
For those who actually know or have worked with the imam, the descriptions are frighteningly -- indeed, depressingly -- unhinged from reality. The Feisal Abdul Rauf they know, spent the past decade fighting against the very same cultural divisiveness and religious-based paranoia that currently surrounds him.
"Imam Feisal has participated at the Aspen Institute in Muslim-Christian-Jewish working groups looking at ways to promote greater religious tolerance," Walter Isaacson, head of The Aspen Institute told the Huffington Post. "He has consistently denounced radical Islam and terrorism, and promoted a moderate and tolerant Islam. Some of this work was done under the auspices of his own group, the Cordoba Initiative. I liked his book, and I participated in some of the meetings in 2004 or so. This is why I find it a shame that his good work is being undermined by this inflamed dispute. He is the type of leader we should be celebrating in America, not undermining."
A longtime Muslim presence in New York City, Feisal Abdul Rauf has been a participant in the geopolitical debate about Islamic-Western relations well before 9/11. In 1997, he founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement to promote a more positive integration of Muslims into American society. His efforts and profile rose dramatically after the attacks when, in need of a calm voice to explain why greater Islam was not a force bent on terrorism, he became a go-to quote for journalists on the beat.
"We have to be very much more vocal about protecting human rights and planting the seeds of democratic regimes throughout the Arab and Muslim world," he told Katie Couric, then with NBC, during an interview in October 2001.
Along the way, he rubbed elbows with or was embraced by a host of mainstream political figures, including several in the Republican Party. John Bennett, the man who preceded Isaacson as president of the Aspen Institute, was impressed enough by the imam's message that he became a co-founder of his Cordoba Initiative, which seeks to promote cross-cultural engagement through a variety of initiatives including, most recently, the center in downtown Manhattan.
In November 2004, Feisal Abdul Rauf participated in a lengthy discussion on religion and government with, among others, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In May 2006, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright placed the imam among a host of luminaries who inspired her book, "The Mighty and the Almighty." As the New York Times reported at the time:
She mentioned Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, the two Democratic presidents in whose administrations she served; King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah II of Jordan; Vaclav Havel and Tony Blair. She organized discussions with Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, a conservative Catholic.
''The epitome of this,'' she said, was ''a totally fascinating, interesting discussion'' with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a New York Sufi leader and author; Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Albright eventually collaborated with Feisal Abdul Rauf and others on more substantive political projects. In September 2008, the two, along with a number of other foreign policy heavyweights (including Richard Armitage and Dennis Ross) signed a report claiming that the war on terror had been inadequate in actually improving U.S. security. No less a figure than Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, embraced the findings.
"The Project's report offers a thoughtful analysis of the current state of America's relations with the Muslim world and constructive recommendations on how we can approach this pressing concern in a bipartisan framework," said the senator.
Not that the imam has been without controversy. The most famous quote circulated by critics came when he talked to the Australian press in March 2004.
"The Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians," he said. "But it was Christians in World War II who bombed innocent civilians in Dresden and dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, neither of which were military targets."
Then there is the interview he gave to CBS's "60 Minutes" shortly after the 9/11 attacks occurred. "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened," he said by way of explaining the attacks. "But the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened."
More often than not, he's pushed his audience to grapple with uncomfortable analogies in his efforts to contextualize Islamic radicalism, such as when he argued that the Ku Klux Klan was, likewise, drawn from a form of extreme religiosity.
Those statements, in the end, were not enough to convince the Bush administration that he was a militant. Feisal Abdul Rauf was dispatched on speaking tours by the past State Department on multiple occasions to help promote tolerance and religious diversity in the Arab and Muslim world. In 2007, he went to Morocco, the UAE, Qatar and Egypt on such missions, a State Department official confirmed to the Huffington Post.
In February 2006, meanwhile, he took part in a U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar with Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, a close adviser to President Bush. Months later, Feisal Abdul Rauf wrote favorably about his meeting with Hughes, noting that he wanted to further the discussion with other members of the administration.
The Huffington Post reached out to both Albright and Hughes for comment. Perhaps reflecting the political sensitivities of the situation, neither responded. Hughes' aide explained that the former Bush aide was "tied up with client travel and unable to give interviews at this time."