A Flip in Perspective

by Conor Friedersdorf

Is Imam Rauf of Park 51 "with us or against us" in the War on Terrorism? That's the stark formulation used by many of his critics, who complain about his various shortcomings. Stephen Schwarz rounds up his most controversial statements in The Weekly Standard:

-- On March 21, 2004, he told the Sydney Morning Herald that the U.S. and the West would have to recognize the damage they have done to Muslims before terrorism can end. The Australian daily reported “Imam Feisal said the West had to understand the terrorists’ point of view.” The paper also cited Rauf’s arguments that “the Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians . . . it was Christians in World War II who bombed civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima.”

-- On June 23, 2004, Rauf told Chris Hedges, then a writer for the New York Times, that, in Hedges’s words, “Islamic terrorists do not come from another moral universe--that they arise from oppressive societies that he feels Washington had a hand in creating.”

-- On February 7, 2010, Rauf told the Egyptian daily Almasri Alyaum, “I have been saying since the 1967 war that if there is peace between Israel and Palestine, in time the Palestinians will prevail.”

Excluded from the article, but ubiquitous in public discourse, is his remark about US foreign policy being an accessory to the 9/11 attacks. These statements aren't exhaustive, but I think it's fair to say they're a representative sampling of the utterances his detractors find objectionable. I have mixed feelings about Imam Rauf. In a debate, I'm certain he and I would forcefully disagree on some matters, and I'm sure I'd find some of his opinions wrongheaded and offensive. It is nevertheless noteworthy that these are the most damning things he's said in public life, that his views about the complicity of US foreign policy in the 9/11 attacks are held by many Americans, including Ron Paul, and that he's never said anything nearly so radical or violent as Ann Coulter's post 9/11 remark that America should invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.

Thus far I haven't succeeded in convincing Imam Rauf's detractors that they're holding him to a higher standard than other Americans because he is Muslim, or that based on the evidence currently available, after intense public scrutiny, he is "on our side" in the War on Terrorism (if we must use the binary formulation).

Perhaps it'll help my case to offer a flip in perspective. Take a look at an imagined conversation between two radical Islamists in Saudi Arabia who are having their own argument about whether Imam Rauf is with them or against them.

Jihadi 1: Maybe he is on our side. He does seem to sympathize with the Palestinians.

Jihadi 2: No more than lots of American liberals. Being pro-Palestine hardly makes him a soldier of Allah.

J1: He is also building a monument to Islam at Ground Zero.

J2: It's two blocks away. And he has publicly promised that he is going to let Jews in.

J1: Really?

J2: Yes, he even reached out to two rabbis before announcing the project.

J1: Even so, he seems critical of America.

J2: Yes, he is mildly critical once every few years, when he's not busy doing the bidding of their State Department, or helping to train their FBI agents.

J1: He cooperates with their FBI?

J2: He is very friendly with them. And he lets his wife go on television too. Without a burka or even a headscarf.

J1: I heard he attended a Hizb ut-Tahrir conference.

J2: It turns out that story is false. In fact, when radicals from the group confronted him, he defended the United States Constitution!

J1: Andy McCarthy thinks that he is a radical.

J2: You fool. Andy McCarthy also thinks that President Obama is allied with radical Islamists in a grand jihad against America.

J1: Seriously? That bastard Obama just killed an Al Qaeda cousin of mine with one of his drone strikes. At first I thought maybe he's just trying to shore up his domestic political support, but then I realized that his administration is taking pains to keep most of them secret. Still, I hear than the mosque being built will signify the beginning of the United States of Arabia, and that it marks their surrender to us.

J2: That makes no sense. Their voters can't even manage to pass gay marriage bans without them getting struck down and you believe people who say that they're about to submit to sharia law? And how would the construction of a mosque even be a factor in transforming their legal system. I think you're listening to too much of their talk radio.

Insofar as this conversation is unrealistic, it's because every actual radical Islamist would know perfectly well that an imam who works with the FBI, tours on behalf of the State Department, denounces terrorism, defends the US constitution in an Arabic exchange with radicals from Hizb ut-Tahrir, has a good relationship with New York City rabbis, and preaches on behalf of women's rights isn't on their side. In fact, he is exactly the kind of imam that Islamist radicals target and kill when they dare to do these sorts of things in other countries.