Imam at center of Ground Zero controversy helped Bush administration

Controversy continues to rage over the proposed Islamic center that would house a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan. New polls show strong opposition to the project in New York and nationally, and every Republican front-runner for 2012 has been quick to condemn it. Even some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have said they think the mosque should be built somewhere else.

One of the tactics of mosque opponents has been to vaguely accuse the imam behind the project of having “radical ties” – a charge that’s been floated by  Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and New York gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, among others – while also casting aspersions on the project’s funding. (A spokesman for the project said through Twitter that the center’s backers have not yet begun fundraising.)

But such characterizations don’t square with the project’s mission – or the career of its spiritual leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. (Rauf  heads up the Cordoba Initiative, the organization sponsoring the center.) Rauf was considered moderate enough during the Bush years to lecture FBI agents about Islam. And he is targeted on theological grounds by the same militant Islamists that mosque opponents claim he represents.

Rauf was sent by the State Department on several speaking tours in the Middle East under President George W. Bush, the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein reports. He also attended a U.S.-Islamic World Forum with close Bush adviser and then-Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes. (Hughes has so far not commented on Rauf and his project, though another former Bush adviser, Michael Gerson, wrote in the Washington Post that “a mosque that rejects radicalism is not a symbol of the enemy’s victory; it is a prerequisite for our own.”) Right now, Rauf is on another goodwill tour in the Middle East sponsored by the State Department, where he will talk about religious tolerance in the United States.

In 2003, the Kuwaiti-born Rauf was called on to speak about Islam to FBI agents, Stein reports. He is currently an adviser to the Interfaith Center of New York, which has come out in support of his plan to build the Islamic center, which Rauf says will be open to people of all faiths.

New York Times contributor William Dalrymple noted in an op-ed this week that Rauf represents a peaceful, mystical sect of Islam called Sufism. Sufi mosques are often attacked by more radical Muslims in the Middle East who oppose its pluralistic teachings, as well as the Sufi practice of permitting a wider public role for women in religious worship. Dalrymple points out that “in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, [Rauf] is an infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate; they no doubt regard him as a legitimate target for assassination.”

Despite Rauf’s past promotion of interfaith cooperation, he has also made controversial statements that opponents now quote as proof of his radicalism.

He told a radio interviewer, for example, that he would not denounce Hamas as a terrorist organization, as the United States, the European Union, and other nations do.

Rauf told WABC radio in June, “Look, I’m not a politician … I am a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy.”

It didn’t help Rauf’s credibility when the same radio host tracked down a Hamas leader who said he endorsed the building of the Islamic center – however irrelevant Hamas’s opinion might be to the lives of New Yorkers.

In 2001, Rauf said in a widely quoted “60 Minutes” interview: “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened, but United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened,” referring to the country’s support of repressive regimes in the Middle East. (In the same interview, he said: “Fanaticism and terrorism have no place in Islam.”)

In a July column for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” page, Abdul condemned “opportunistic rabble-rousing” of politicians who “twisted” his record as a peace builder.

“We are not the extremists,” he wrote. “We are that vast majority of Muslims who stand up against extremism and provide a voice in response to the radical rhetoric. Our mission is to interweave America’s Muslim population into mainstream society. We are a Muslim-American force for promoting the universal values of justice and peaceful coexistence in which all good people believe.”

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