08/23/2010 11:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf Speaks Out (AUDIO, TRANSCRIPT)

Since speaking with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf on July 16 about the Muslim community center to be built in lower Manhattan, it has been painful to watch the national dialogue around this issue deteriorate into misinformation, hysteria and fear of Islam.

Imam Rauf has been overseas and not able to readily answer questions of the media, so the rhetoric from individuals like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and others who share their views has continued to distort the real issue at hand. Not all Muslims are terrorists, and the actions of terrorists are certainly not Islamic. This point must be realized if the conversation is ever to elevate beyond these harmful sound bites. It is my sincere hope that by releasing this audio recording and transcript of our recent conversation, those who honestly seek understanding about the Islamic center and the good leaders behind it will find it.

LISTEN to the July 16 interview here:

READ the transcript of the interview below (edited for clarity):

Joseph: Can you explain what the Cordoba House is, why it's being constructed and your role in that process?

Imam Feisal: Sure. One of the things that I have noticed from my studies of religious evolution, or religious relationships or interfaith relationships in America was the role played by institutions... like the YMCA... which started 30 years ago, to improve relationships between members of the different protestant Christian religions by bringing young people... together. It became a worldwide movement. [T]hen the Jewish community established the young men and young women Jewish association known as [the] 92nd street Y, and the Jewish Community Center, which are centers in which membership is open to everybody... to come in and to do, not only athletics, but cultural programming, [hear] lectures on important issues and so forth.

So for over 10-12 years now, I've had a vision and a dream of establishing a kind of a 21st-century equivalent of the JCC or... 92nd Y which duplicates that kind of programming or builds on that kind of programming for the needs that we have to address... both within the Muslim community and between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities that are causing tensions and problems.

Joseph: Many opponents of Cordoba House are not able to understand how this community center would be able to facilitate the same type of activity that a Y would facilitate. How... would you address [the] opinion of those who think it's not possible?

Imam Feisal: Well first of all, let me say that there are over a dozen 9/11 institutions and... the vast majority support us or are neutral [compared to] those who are against us. Yet in spite of that, we have reached out to them and we have expressed our understanding of their concerns and our willingness to sit down with them and talk to them and make sure that our project reaches out and includes and finds ways to address issues that they are concerned with.

In regard to the particular question you are concerned with, it is... the capability of Muslims to reach out and learn from others [which] is proven by our history. Our long-standing history. Not the history of the last 50-100 years, but the history of the very earliest couple of centuries of Islamic history when Muslims learned and absorbed philosophy from the Greeks, and the Indians, and the Chinese and utilized them...

What we want to do here is to establish a direction for Islam, Islamic thought [and] Islamic thinking that harkens to the best of our heritage, not the worst of our heritage. We have problems within the Muslim communities. We understand that. I have been very concerned, and I lecture and I go everywhere, and right now I'm in Singapore... at a conference here called "The Role of Muslims in Multi-Cultural Societies" [about] how we build multicultural societies.

Our heritage was initially multicultural. We have created, in the last century, ideas... that have captivated the imagination of some... which are very problematic... but we have to combat these ideas by demonstrating that the peak of Islamic civilization was when we were multicultural, and [by establishing] the forums which show how they may work. [W]e have already done this in a number of our projects. [In] our "Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow" project, we brought people who think completely opposite from each other... in their way of thinking, [and brought] them together in an atmosphere that they actually can engage and share... their real concerns. So we have shown that we can actually develop the formulas that can lessen the tensions within our communities.

So what my vision is for this [Park 51/Cordoba House] is to establish a center that develops such programming, just like the YMCA, [which] last century became a global phenomenon. Hopefully, with this success, to have Cordoba Houses all over the world which serve to address these issues that are divisive. So lets say Cordoba House in New York that we proposed to establish will address the issues both within the Muslim [community], such as Sunni-Shia problems and tensions, and also between Muslims and Jews and Christians. A Cordoba House in Mumbai, for example, would focus on Muslim-Hindu relations, as well as intra-Muslim issues. So by developing the formulas for new ways of discourse... and amplifying and creating this as a new wave of thinking -- there are millions of people everywhere I go, Joseph, wherever I go in the world -- Muslim world, or even Australia, Canada, Europe you name it. There are countless people who come up to me who want to be part of something that builds a better future. This is our answer to that demand.

Joseph: Can you speak anything about why the location, adjacent to Ground Zero was chosen for the center?

Imam Feisal: Well, because I am a member of that community. My mosque I've been Imam of which is just 10 blocks north of there, it's part of the Tribeca area. I've been a good neighbor of this community for the last quarter of a century. They know me -- I know them. I have a track record, and... this is the neighborhood that I have been Imam in for the last quarter of a century. This is where we looked at; this is where we have a need for something. And we looked at other places, this is the one that destiny brought our way."

Joseph: It's the simple answer to a lot of those questions that this is really the home of your constituency?

Imam Feisal: Yes, I have a constituency... I have even a... global constituency in the broad sense that I speak about issues that are on the hearts and minds of people all over the world, both the street level as well as the government level, think-tank level. This is the issue that is on the minds of everybody. It's one of the issues which must be addressed if we are going to have a safer world for our children and grandchildren."

Joseph: I had a chance to speak with a blogger named Urban Infidel who covers a lot of protests ... and different types of activism in NYC. She felt... and this is a direct quote, "that the center would become a hub, a pilgrimage for extreme fundamentalists." How do you respond to that?

Imam Feisal: Such a statement flies in the face of reality, misinformation, plugged images to Ground Zero... we make pilgrimage to Mecca. The choice of language shows a misunderstanding of how Muslims think and who Muslims are, and what the vast majority of Muslims are concerned with. The vast majority of Muslims, 99.99999 percent of them are concerned about life and the pursuit of happiness issues. We want safety for our families and children. Muslims are the largest victims of Muslim extremism. We don't like it, we hate it, we abhor it. My track record in speaking to... members of Congress, think tanks, at churches, at synagogues, at mosques, is a track record of focusing on the spiritual dynamics of our faiths, of enhancing the ethical principles of our faiths, in trying to steer people away from radical understanding of our faiths.

And so, the poignancy of this all is I've been called and accused, even by the radicals, of being a moderate. People have said, 'Where are the voices of the moderate Muslims?' and here I am trying to do something that expands and amplifies the voice of the moderates in Islam. And how they can conclude this would be a pilgrimage for the radicals is the very opposite of the truth. The fact of the matter is that we are a threat to the radicals because we are the most articulate advocates for combating radicalism. You have to transform people by utilizing the values that they think. When I speak to Muslim audiences, I use the verses of the Koran which we, Muslims, believe to be God's words. I use the teachings of the Prophet because these are the things that convince them. I use these languages, these methods, to calm that radicalism. So our stated objective is to establish this as a launching point, as a headquarters if you want, of a global understanding, of a moderate Islam that is true to its fundamental principles. And to accuse us as being the opposite of that flies in the face of our stated vision, our mission, my track record and everything I've ever done or stood for.

Joseph: I want to ask you questions about what some people have said about your record. A republican candidate for NY governor was at the Landmarks Commission hearing, and he suggested that... there should be an investigation of you specifically, and he had cited your positions... that you have said that American policy was an accessory to the attacks on 9/11, that you spend time "with some of the most militant organizations" and he feels that we have to ask questions in this regard to "keep the people of New York and downtown Manhattan feeling safe."... How do you feel your record is being interpreted... as the Cordoba House conversation and dialogue progresses?

Imam Feisal: I welcome the questions regarding my record. However, I must say also that a number of things have been twisted and spun in a way that does not correctly, honestly, explain my work and what I stand for... [W]hen you try to bridge relationships between any two sides where there have been tensions reaching such a level, one of the things you have to explain to each side is why the other side feels angry. Whether it's, you know, marital counseling between the husband and the wife. You have to explain to the husband's actions that he has done which in the perception of the wife has offended her and vice-versa...

When there is pain on each side you have to explain to each side what has caused the pain of the other, and part of my role has been to explain to each side, you know, the position of the other side so people can understand it. That is how you are able to bring about an understanding to change the reality. I have taken upon myself the role of bridge builder. To be a bridge builder, Joseph, you have to have an ability, to have a foot on each side of the divide if you are going to become a bridge. And it requires developing relationships with each side -- relationships at the highest level, in Israel and in Palestine, in order to be able to bring about a positive change. I alone cannot do it all. It requires the involvement of governments, and there is also a role for religious leaders, a role for civic society, and for us to play this role in partnership with all the stakeholders and all the participants of the conflict; and you have to do it in such a way that draws people together and does not alienate people from a commitment to forging a new tomorrow.

Doing this is difficult work, it's tough work, but this is the work that my track record is all about. And anybody who is honest in trying to bridge a better tomorrow, a peaceful tomorrow, is required to be a participant of the change of the discourse. You do not change a relationship by continuing the language, the language of hysteria, the language of mutual condemnation. We cannot afford to do this anymore. The world has become too small; the world has become too dangerous. We need to calm down; we need to look at the issues and, from a perspective of enlightened mutual self-interest. And to do that requires a certain nature of dialogue. Dialogue is not just about yelling at each other. Dialogue is helping everybody understand the other, and helping create a situation where we are true to our fundamental beliefs but can live together in a state of harmony. This is what we have succeeded so well in America in spite of our difficulties and challenges -- [and] it's challenging. But we have succeeded in doing this in America. We need to do this at a global level. And I am happy to say that I have had partners from major Jewish leaders, major government leaders and participants on both sides of a particular conflict... I suppose that the creator has destined me to play a small role in this particular narrative and it is my duty to fulfill it.

Joseph: Can [you] talk about the role that interfaith organizations like Intersections, or secular organizations... how you see their role in the development, the support, and relationship with the Cordoba House?

Imam Feisal: Oh it is essential. It is critical. The very name Intersections recognizes the fact that... the problems are at intersection points. I remember... I was at the inauguration of Bob, [the Executive Director] of Intersections, and you know we had a meeting last year or some time, and I talked to him about the various projects that we at the Cordoba Initiative have developed and that we view are all important together to help bridge Muslim-West divide as it is called, which includes Muslim-Christian, Muslim-Jewish divides, and all the various things which enter into what people either refer to globally as the West-Muslim world divide or U.S.-Muslim divide. [W]hen I mentioned the Cordoba House project, that was a project which Bob said 'that is a project I'd like to work with you the most on' of all our projects and you can remind him of that.

It shows because this project relates to a couple of areas of specialty that Intersections has. It's understanding of New York real estate -- you know, when you study real estate 101 the biggest thing they say is location location location, and there is no doubt that the location of Cordoba House has been the cause of all this brouhaha. [B]ut the location is important if you want to sell a product or sell an idea, and we're about an idea of the kind of future that people like Intersections are committed to building. This is why I have been extremely gratified by the expressions of support from leaders like Bob Chase, and other Christian leaders and Jewish leaders and even friends who are from secular institutions who have worked with me over the last decade or two or three... ranging from people like Rabbi David Rosen, Michael Paley, people like Rev. Bob Chase, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, as well as many other friends who know what we are all about ...

So the role of entities like Intersections is critical, because had it not been for their role and our track record with them on trying to address these very challenging problems... we would not have been able to get the recognition and understanding and support that we have... from the faith community. The fact that we got the overwhelming and closely unanimous support of the local community board, the unanimous support of our politicians... our Mayor Bloomberg supports this... our burrow president Scott Stringer came in support of this project on the most unequivocal terms... Andrew Cuomo, supports this project, the Governor supports this project, and it is clear that to anybody who understands what is happening in the gubernatorial race that our Cordoba House project has been used by Rick Lazio as a political football in his attempt to advance his particular campaign against Andrew Cuomo. So, you know, we are not naive to not recognize the extent to which this project has become politicized.

We do not wish to see the politicization of religion. The whole idea of the separation of church and state as we understand it in America is not to build a faithless society, but to build a society in which the right kinds of relationships... between institutions of religion and religious discourse, religious authority, and institutions and players of political power and authority. [I]t's clear to anybody who is fair minded that Rick Lazio's comments are motivated by political concerns and he has come very close to the line (if he hasn't crossed it yet) of... what we value and pride so highly in America, is the clear separation of boundaries between... the right kind of discourse between politics and religion. This is certainly part of what we are also trying to do, is to make sure the discourse is the right discourse, and the helpful discourse.

I am most concerned about issues of national security because as I have mentioned, Joseph... my faith community was impacted by 9/11, too. Members from my congregation are among those who died... in 9/11. We are equally hit by this, we are equally offended by it, we [have] equally condemned it as strongly, and we want to show that the vast majority of Muslims want to be part of the rebuilding of lower Manhattan, of the area of Ground Zero -- to give back to the city that gave us so much... to condemn with one voice the actions of [those] that have brought about 9/11, to work to eliminate the kinds of things that have resulted in 9/11, and to prevent it from happening again. This is what I'm all about. This is what the project is all about. Thank you for helping me. What we all need to do together with institutions like Intersections is to make sure that the momentum, and that energy, and commitment, is there... that's what we are all about.