Last night, Bwogger and on-campus lecture correspondent Mark Hay hopped over to the security pit that was Lerner, where he attended the highly publicized Conversation with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Read Hay’s reflections about the man behind the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
Lerner was on lockdown last night—a roped-off corridor stretching down the ramp from the second to first floor and manned by half a dozen guards at regular intervals led to a final checkpoint before the door of the auditorium. They shut the elevator access to the first floor down too. There was more visible security than the last world leader to visit Columbia received. And it was for an appropriately controversial figure: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (Engineering’69), the man behind the Cordoba House, a Muslim-interfaith initiative that later was dubbed by the vicious news cycle the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
Or maybe he’s not so controversial. The security seemed to think he was, and the buzz and chatter about the event—about the mosque, the campaign ads putting his face in the shadows as a sinister, unknown evil—all made this event seem as if it would be a roaring good fight between those who identified Rauf with radicalism, and those who identified him with peace this summer. But when pressed, few at the event either knew enough about the man himself or knew enough of the story as to what to fear he would be attacked for. And maybe that is why the attendance at an event with such buzz was, in the end, rather poor. No attempted sign wavers, no hecklers or aggressive questioners. And nothing for a small army of security guards to worry about in the least.
When host Maria Kucheryavaya, CC’11 and Editor-in-Chief of the Columbia University Journal of Politics & Society mentioned Rauf’s summer misadventure, the man did not bristle. He just pursed his lips and cast an eye down, solemn and silent.
Rauf had regrets and misgivings about the summer. He felt used—his project, modeled as a Muslim-founded interfaith YMCA, a facility that would “seed new cultural understanding” between the world’s faiths, in his words, had been public since 2009. But it was only once they reached hearings before Manhattan Community Board 1 that anyone attempted to stir the pot, deep in the midterm season of 2010.
What ensued was, as Rauf said, “a focused attempt to cast us as something we were not”—radical Muslims bent on desecrating the site of 11 Sept. 2001. Soon enough, Fox News was reaching out and it became clear to Rauf that they did not want to hear his side, but instead were just, as he says, “an Islamophobic and political agenda masquerading as a news organization,” manipulating Rauf’s image for midterm boosts for the Republican base.
His discontent vented, Rauf lamented not reaching out to the families of 11 Sept. 2001 victims earlier, noting that now 90 percent of them stand behind or are neutral on the Cordoba House project. He laments losing control of the story, but notes that after a time he surrendered, accepting his fate as a target of screeds and lampoons. This was what prophets endured, he said, and he had faith at the time that God would sustain him through the ordeal.
And that was all Rauf would say of the summer’s misadventures. But discussant Dean Peter Awn, wearing a striking pair of grey and pink striped socks, took the chance to draw the conversation away from the Ground Zero controversy and launched into a lively conversation for the remainder of the evening on spirituality, the evolution of a unique Muslim faith in America, Rauf’s own adherence to the mystical tradition of Sufism, and dreams for peace among faiths.
Of Rauf’s many spiritual and personal beliefs, those most salient, clear, and resonant with the audience: Especially in an age of multiculturalism, the search for identity presents itself to us all at some point. And most of us, unfamiliar with anything beyond the basic articles of our faiths, feel a vacuum, a lack of identification, and desire something more. He urged all to study more about their religions, urged all to recognize that Muslims want to love America and that Americans want to love Muslims. He warned against turning your foes into a monolith equivalent to the culture they come from. And he speculated as to the development of a distinctly American form of Islam, as to the future of the Middle East, and the core yearning for freedom, rights, and joys in all of humanity.
All noble sentiments, all touching and sincere and based in a deep knowledge and passion on Rauf’s part. Few in the audience could feel anything but respect for the man by the end of the evening. But that respect did not stop the audience from asking some pressing questions—is Israel an apartheid state and how do you reconcile that with your beliefs on empathy and dialogue? Is the tenant of jihad inherently diabolical?—but the questions were asked respectfully. Whether it was Rauf himself as a speaker—“I do not like to say things that are inflammatory,” he said side-stepping the apartheid question—or the limited audience willing to pass through multiple checkpoints, but the civility of what could have been a tense evening was something to be admired. Even if it was not the smack-down controversy some in the audience had perhaps hoped to indulge in as midterms escapism, perhaps.