The New York Times Rushes to Defend Ground Zero Imam

August 23rd, 2010 8:25 PM

The New York Times offered still more moral support for the controversial Ground Zero mosque on Sunday's front-page profile by Anne Barnard of the man behind the building project, imam Feisal Abdul Rauf -- "For Imam in Muslim Center Furor, a Hard Balancing Act." Among the contributors to the report: Thanassis Cambanis and Mona El-Naggar in Cairo, and Kareem Fahim, Sharaf Mowjood and Jack Begg in New York.

Mowjood? As Alana Goodman of the Business and Media Institute reported earlier this month, Sharaf Mowjood is a former lobbyist for the Council on American Islamic Relations, an interest group that strongly supports the mosque. Mowjood coauthored a glowing Dec. 9, 2009 article on the mosque with reporter Ralph Blumenthal and also contributed to a sympathetic story by Barnard August 11 about public relations missteps by the mosque sponsors.

Barnard began with an anecdote about a Rauf lecture in Cairo where the imam (with a voice the Times describes as "soft, almost New Agey") was accused by radical Islamists of being an American agent (a story which of course bolsters Rauf's moderate credentials). Barnard seemingly took it as her mission to rebut charges of extremism against Rauf.

In his absence -- he is now on another Middle East speaking tour sponsored by the State Department -- a host of allegations have been floated: that he supports terrorism; that his father, who worked at the behest of the Egyptian government, was a militant; that his publicly expressed views mask stealth extremism. Some charges, the available record suggests, are unsupported. Some are simplifications of his ideas. In any case, calling him a jihadist appears even less credible than calling him a United States agent.

Barnard insisted that Rauf's views, in context, placed him "as pro-American within the Muslim world."

He consistently denounces violence. Some of his views on the interplay between terrorism and American foreign policy -- or his search for commonalities between Islamic law and this country's Constitution -- have proved jarring to some American ears, but still place him as pro-American within the Muslim world. He devotes himself to befriending Christians and Jews -- so much, some Muslim Americans say, that he has lost touch with their own concerns.

Barnard set up more criticisms for the sole purpose of rebuttal, and waited until paragraph 34 out of 35 to bring up, defensively, Rauf's failure to describe Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Mr. Abdul Rauf also founded the Shariah Index Project -- an effort to formally rate which governments best follow Islamic law. Critics see in it support for Taliban-style Shariah or imposing Islamic law in America.

Shariah, though, like Halakha, or Jewish law, has a spectrum of interpretations. The ratings, Ms. Kahn said, measure how well states uphold Shariah's core principles like rights to life, dignity and education, not Taliban strong points. The imam has written that some Western states unwittingly apply Shariah better than self-styled Islamic states that kill wantonly, stone women and deny education -- to him, violations of Shariah.

After 9/11, Mr. Abdul Rauf was all over the airwaves denouncing terrorism, urging Muslims to confront its presence among them, and saying that killing civilians violated Islam. He wrote a book, "What's Right With Islam Is What's Right With America," asserting the congruence of American democracy and Islam.

That ample public record -- interviews, writings, sermons -- is now being examined by opponents of the downtown center.

Those opponents repeat often that Mr. Abdul Rauf, in one radio interview, refused to describe the Palestinian group that pioneered suicide bombings against Israel, Hamas, as a terrorist organization. In the lengthy interview, Mr. Abdul Rauf clumsily tries to say that people around the globe define terrorism differently and labeling any group would sap his ability to build bridges. He also says: "Targeting civilians is wrong. It is a sin in our religion," and, "I am a supporter of the state of Israel."