Summer’s protests positive for Cordoba and Imam


BY Aline Reynolds

Those who thought the myriad protests against Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s plan to build an Islamic community center blocks from Ground Zero would create a movement of opposition, instead sparked another kind of movement altogether.

The result of the media frenzy surrounding the project has led to a new website, cordobamovement.org, which just launched yesterday. It will include an online forum in which members of the public can engage in dialogue about the Cordoba House at Park51 as well as learn about the programming that will be offered.

More importantly, the controversy that began here in Lower Manhattan proved to be a springboard for a larger initiative, one that includes the possibility of similar community centers popping up all over the world.

The Imam, who has performed services at a mosque on West Broadway for the last 25 years, said the movement is an outgrowth of an abstract vision dating back to the 1990s. The movement’s objective, Rauf explained, is to reclaim the discourse from extremists and radicals that captured the media’s attention over the summer, creating what he calls a “downward spiral.”

Yet the stark opposition that Cordoba at Park51 incurred from Pamela Geller and others, Rauf said, ironically gave the proposed community center global recognition that it wouldn’t have otherwise received.

While on a trip to the Middle East over the summer, the Imam was surprised when he was approached by officials in Turkey, Slovenia, Indonesia, and other Middle Eastern countries. The ensuing conversations ultimately swayed the Imam to begin thinking more broadly, both ideologically and geographically.

The goal of opening these centers, he added, would be to strengthen moderate groups worldwide, to bridge cultural and religious gaps, and to encourage peace.

“We need to build a coalition of moderates of all faiths and traditions and to strengthen that coalition, amplify that relationship, and we will [shine] the light on the voices of moderation,” Rauf said.

Many of them, he said, seemed to readily embrace the concept. Rauf said he plans to periodically follow up with the leaders to discuss the logistics of the projects.

Rauf’s intent, he said, is to clarify the misconceptions associated with the name “Cordoba,” which has fueled the opposition to the center. The protestors associate the term with Islamic imperialism starting in eighth century A.D., when Muslims erected a mosque in Cordoba, Spain.

What some don’t realize, he said, is that Cordoba became a thriving, bustling city in the centuries that followed, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in harmony.

“People are afraid of what they don’t know,” Rauf said. “When people know [about the Cordoba movement], this knowledge breeds friendship and trust, good relationships.”

Rauf is continuing to meet behind closed doors with 9/11 families from the various support groups to give them a better understanding of Cordoba’s mission both in Lower Manhattan and abroad.

Those, he said, who are angered by the concept of Park51 containing a Muslim prayer space are still reeling from their losses, and he relates to their feelings.

“I understand very much the feeling of pain – I understand it personally,” Rauf said.

He too, lost community members that attended Masjid al-Farah, his mosque on West Broadway.

“We’ve lived with this community, we’ve died with this community,” he said. “What we want to do is serve the needs of our community.”

Cordoba House at Park51 will be a separate entity from the Cordoba Initiative. Regardless, the community center still has a long way to go. The board must still secure the funds for the estimated $100 million in construction costs. An informed source said they’re hoping to get the majority of the funds from federal sources. Rauf, however, wouldn’t comment, since is not involved in the fundraising aspect of the project.

He will, however, play a role in deciding on the specific parts of the space. In addition to a Muslim prayer space, the future community center, as planned, will include a memorial for 9/11 victims, an auditorium, a gym, prayer space, cafeteria, and a restaurant.

When asked whether it would include separate prayer spaces for other religions, something he is considering for similar centers in other countries, the Imam replied, “It’s a possibility.”

One floor, he added, will be parceled out for people of different religions to use for “interfaith dialogue.” But the building’s interior layout is still a work in progress.

Rauf emphasized that the he seeks to localize the movement he hopes to proliferate overseas.

“We want to somehow take that concept of the space where we assert religious freedoms, encourage people to pray, and have religious activities to bond us as a community,” he said.