The schism between Islam and the West seemed to grow deeper this month, as the pope’s comments about Islam incited worldwide riots. FP spoke with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the multifaith Cordoba Initiative, about the pope’s controversial remarks, the future of dialogue among religions, and the U.S. role in bridging the divide with the Muslim world.
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FOREIGN POLICY: Last week, Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as evil, in particular his command to spread by the sword the faith. In response, there have been protests from many corners of the Muslim world. What did you think of the popes speech and the ensuing controversy?
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf: My first thought was deep disappointment that the Muslim world reacted in such a destructive way. The burning of churches and things like that are completely antithetical to the teachings and principles of Islam. While we may have our grounds for disagreeingand some of us may disagree stronglywith the remarks that the Holy Father quoted, and while it might be offensive, destruction was not warranted by Islamic thought or jurisprudence.
But quoting a Byzantine emperor about the Prophet Mohammed is something that is not logical. We could just as easily quote many more references from the Byzantine time against Catholicism. The animosity between the Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire and the Catholic Church in Rome is arguably even more polarizing than between Christianity and Islam in general.
FP: The pope has said that he is deeply sorry about the reaction to his speech in parts of the Muslim world, and that the words of the Byzantine emperor did not reflect his own position toward Islam. Was his apology sufficient?
FAR: To err is human, to forgive is divine. The need for an apology is less an issue than the duty and responsibility of religious leaders to be educated on other religions and to make sure we are responsible in what we say. One of the cardinal rules of interfaith dialogue is that we should not judge the best of our traditions against the worst of another. There are episodes of history in the Catholic Church, like during the Inquisition, which Muslims cannot regard as normative to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Neither should certain actions taken by certain Muslims be judged as normative of the faith of Islam.
FP: What can the pope do to show that he is truly interested in a dialogue with Islam and other religions?
FAR: Pope Benedict can continue to commit himself to the legacy of Pope John Paul II in the area of interfaith work. All it would take is for the Holy Father to say to the Vatican staff that hes committed to interfaith dialogue and that he wants to promote it. Many peoplecardinals, professors, archbishopswould be very happy to suggest a host of specific proposals in a way that would rapidly improve relations between the Catholic Church and Islam.
FP: What are some of the steps that can be taken toward healing the rift between Islam and the West?
FAR: I have been actively engaged with some representatives of the Vatican, like [retired] Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, D.C., and Archbishop Migliore, who is the representative of the Vatican to the U.N. I invited [the archbishop] to a closed-door meeting yesterday with Prime Minister Badawi of Malaysia and with the head of the [Organization of Islamic Conferences, an association of 57 majority Muslim countries] to discuss how we can control the damage. The prime minister of Malaysia also arranged a meeting with [former U.S.] President Clinton. [Former U.S. Secretary of State] Albright was also present. She has written a book recently, The Mighty and the Almighty, where she recognizes the need to be smart about factoring the role of religion into foreign affairs.
FP: Have you had any discussion with members of President Bushs administration about interfaith dialogue and the role of religion in foreign policy? What do you think is missing in U.S. foreign policy toward the Muslim world?
FAR: I have had meetings with Karen Hughes. However, I would welcome the opportunity to have further, deeper, and more nuanced discussions with other members of the Bush administration on how they need to understand religion and how it intersects with political affairs. To not understand the role of Islam and faith as a motivator is to be incapacitated in shaping a foreign policy that achieves the objectives of the United States.
The perception in the Muslim world is that the West wants to impose a secularism upon it, which to them is equivalent to the erasure of religion in society. As an American, I know that is not the intent of the United States at all. But thats the perception. The perception in America is that when people say they want an Islamic state, they want something like the Taliban. And that is not true at all.
FP: Theres discussion that the United Nations ought to impose sanctions against Iran until it halts its uranium-enrichment program. What is your opinion of the tension between the United States and Iran?
FAR: Imposing sanctions on Iraq had no impact on Saddam Hussein. It strengthened his authoritarian will on his own people. And it resulted in the people themselves suffering. When you employ sanctions, youre creating an artificial economic depression. If there are sanctions against Iran, it will strengthen [the Iranians’] resolve.
People basically want a few simple things in life: a decent meal, the ability to clothe themselves, and a roof over their heads. And they want their pride. To do that, you have to engage with people on an equal basis. A year ago, I was involved in discussions between Americans and Iranians. I asked one high-level Iranian official, who I wont name, what the price would be for Iranians to give up nuclear development. He said three things: 1) A nuclear-free zone in the region. 2) No talk or action about regime change. 3) To help develop the economy. This gentleman sounded very rational.
FP: Ramadan is just around the corner. What are your wishes for the world during this holy month?
FAR: That we remember that the two greatest commandments that God gave us through the mouths of his many prophets and messengers, including Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed: To love the lord our God and to love our neighbors.
It also means do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you. If that can be the criterion of our foreign policy, I guarantee you that our foreign policy will be successful and wildly popular.
Feisal Abdul Rauf is imam of the New York City mosque Masjid Al-Farah, the founder and chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, a multifaith organization dedicated to building bridges between Islam and the West, and the founder of the ASMA Society (American Sufi Muslim Association). He is author of Whats Right with Islam Is Whats Right with America (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).