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UCLA

Imam on a Mission

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By Bethania Palma Markus

Published Apr 26, 2011 8:30 AM


Last May, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf found himself in the middle of a political storm and media frenzy.

Months earlier, the former chair of the nonprofit Cordoba Initiative had announced plans to build Park51, an interfaith cultural center with a Muslim prayer space about two blocks from where the World Trade Center towers stood in lower Manhattan.

The project didn’t create a stir until anti-Islam bloggers panned it as the “Ground Zero mosque,” bringing on a national outrage that included threats by a Florida pastor to burn a Quran.

In hindsight Abdul Rauf says the debate over Park51 was kicked up for political purposes and died down after the midterm elections, even though the ripple effect is still being felt. But he now uses his public profile to spread a message of moderation.

He’ll bring his message to Royce Hall at 8 p.m. on May 4, in a lecture presented by the Hammer Museum.

“Extremism and the radical ideology that fuels it is our common enemy around the world,” Abdul Rauf said. “Moderates of all religions, Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, have to get together and wage the fight against extremists who are really the danger, that’s the big message.”

The talk will be part of the Hammer Forum, series of socially and politically-oriented talks, said Ann Philbin, the museum director.

“As a university museum we are not just about art but also ideas, especially ideas that are current, cultural and complex,” Philbin said. “The Imam’s work and beliefs, shared by many Muslims, are centered on healing conflict between Islamic and Western communities.”

That perspective, she said, is underrepresented in favor of “a rhetoric of fear and animosity.”

The Hammer has already started reaching out to various community leaders and campus groups about Abdul Rauf’s visit.

“There has been enthusiasm across the board, I think people recognize that he is an important leader dedicated to promoting interfaith dialogue and peace,” she said.

So far the Bruin campus hasn’t felt the need for security detail beyond that of any high-profile guest, she added.

But past talks by Abdul Rauf at other campuses have brought protests. Last month at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Virginia-based Christian Action Network rented a nearby hall to hold a discussion, film screening and candlelight vigil simultaneous to Abdul Rauf’s talk. They called Park51 “triumphalism” of Islam in the face of the Sept. 11 tragedy.

Jason Campbell, leader of the group, was traveling abroad and couldn’t be reached by phone or email. But Christian Action Network has followed the imam around the country and accused him of wanting to build a mosque “on the graves of 3,000 people” killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Abdul Rauf insists his goal is to improve Western relations with the Muslim world. He also said there’s a need for moderate Muslims to speak out.

Only national discourse can heal what he called a “gaping wound” left by the Sept. 11 attacks. And, he pointed out, pitting the Muslim world as the enemy isn’t good for anyone.

“More than 20 percent of the world’s population is Muslim,” he said. “To say 20 percent of the world’s population is America’s enemy is a very dangerous position to put the country in.”

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