In an interview last night with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf stressed that he could not move the Ground Zero mosque because it would threaten “national security.” From the CNN transcript:
RAUF: As I just mentioned, our national security now hinges on how we negotiate this, how we speak about it, and what we do. It is important for us now to raise the bar on our conversation–
O’BRIEN: What’s the risk? When you say “national security,” what’s the risk?
RAUF: As I mentioned, because if we move, that means the radicals have shaped the discourse. The radicals will shape the discourse on both sides. And those of us who are moderates on both sides — you see Soledad, the battle front is not between Muslims and non-Muslims. The real battle front is between moderates on all sides of all the faith traditions and the radicals on all sides. The radicals actually feed off each other. And in some kind of existential way, need each other. And the more that the radicals are able to control the discourse on one side, it strengthens the radicals on the other side and vice versa.
Throughout the interview, Rauf tried to argue that America’s dedication to freedom of religion and separation between church and state meant that it was appropriate for the mosque to be built. But although he said that he was “extremely concerned about sensitivity,” he continually returned to the argument that if the mosque wasn’t built, national security would be threatened. “If this is not handled correctly, this crisis could become much bigger than the Danish cartoon crisis, which resulted in attacks on Danish embassies in various parts of the Muslim world,” he told O’Brien.
At no point did he suggest that he, and other Muslim leaders, could explain the situation to Muslims throughout the world, let them understand that the majority of sentiment was not anti-Islam, but was motivated by a strong feeling that this it was inappropriate to have Ground Zero — a site of triumph for radical Islam — have a huge mosque nearby. Nor did he suggest that they could point out that throughout New York City, many, many mosques currently exist, without organized objection. For him, it appeared to be a black and white situation: either build the mosque and avoid extremist Islam violence, or not build the mosque and run the risk of a national security threat.
O’BRIEN: Will you turn down money from people who, say, give money to Hamas?
O’BRIEN: No question about it? Anyone who supports Hamas cannot give money to you?
RAUF: We will do whatever is absolutely correct and legal and the safe thing to do.
O’BRIEN: Which means what exactly? I mean, because that’s — that’s an extra condition.
RAUF: You see, I’m the visionary behind it. I’m not the actual builder. I’m not the financial expert. I’m not the legal expert on these things. But I have a vision here of establishing something which I know in my heart of hearts will be a powerful instrument of peace.
Of course, Rauf may not have wanted to be too adamant here: the New York Post reported a few days ago that the site’s current owner, Hisham Elzantay, has given to Hamas in the past. (Elzantay’s attorney said that he was unaware that the donations he was giving to an “orphanage” were being funneled to Hamas.)
But what is most striking is that Rauf, who stressed throughout the interview that he wanted to bring about peace via building bridges between Islam and the US, still doesn’t realize that this mosque isn’t a test of America’s tolerance. That tolerance is already there: objectors acknowledge the group has a constitutional right to build the mosque there. Instead, it’s become a test of Islam’s empathy, of whether its leaders can acknowledge that the actions of extremists from their faith have made this particular site inappropriate for a huge Islamic structure.
“If I knew this would happen, [that] this would cause this kind of pain, I wouldn’t have done it,” Rauf told O’Brien. Right now, Rauf still has the opportunity to move the mosque and prevent that pain. Will he?