Reconsidering Ground Zero Mosque Leader Feisal Abdul Rauf

Back in August, I wrote a post criticizing efforts to use government power to stop the building of the Ground Zero Mosque and explaining why I see no good objection to having a Muslim cultural center or mosque near Ground Zero. But I was also highly critical of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, leader of the mosque project. My main objections to his record were his tendency to draw a moral equivalency between the US and Al Qaeda, his claim that the US government was an “accessory” to the 9/11 attacks, his praise of Iran’s repressive government, and his refusal to admit that Hamas is a terrorist group. In this recent National Review piece, conservative columnist Henry Payne claims that Rauf’s record has been misrepresented:

[A]s Rauf repeated — again — on Frank Beckmann’s conservative radio show last Friday, he strongly opposes Hamas and terrorism. “Hamas is a terrorist organization. They have committed terrorist acts,” he told Beckmann in an impassioned denunciation of Islamic extremists who “pose more of a threat, in fact, to Muslim-majority societies,” where bombings have killed thousands of innocent people…..

In an interview last September on Larry King Live, Rauf told guest host Soledad O’Brien, “I condemn everyone and anyone who commits acts of terrorism. And Hamas has committed acts of terrorism….”

“The reason we were supported by many of the masses of the ex-Soviet countries is because publicly we called their leadership — Reagan called them — an ‘Evil Empire,’” Rauf told Beckmann in urging American leaders to denounce corruption in Muslim nations. “This had great appreciation among the masses. We called their leadership for what they were.”

Since I wrote my August post, Rauf has indeed denounced Hamas as a terrorist organization, and he deserves credit for that. It is interesting, however, that he pointedly refused to do so before the Ground Zero Mosque controversy became a major national issue. Cynics might interpret his new stance as an effort to appear moderate and allay criticism. Payne claims that the Park51 project website denounced Hamas as a terrorist group earlier than September. But I found no record of such a denunciation when I looked in August.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Rauf is insincere when he denounces Hamas today. It could be that he had a genuine change of heart on the issue. Alternatively, maybe he believed that Hamas is a terrorist group all along but refused to publicly admit it until recently (perhaps for fear of alienating potential Palestinian supporters of his group). On balance, I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt on this issue, unless and until we get substantial proof that he’s insincere.

On the other hand, Payne’s column says nothing about any of Rauf’s other objectionable statements. As far as I know, he has not retracted them. It is true, as Payne says, that Rauf praises American religious freedom, denounces Al Qaeda, and urges various Muslim governments to become less repressive. I noted these points in my original post. But that does not address his comments on 9/11, moral equivalency, and Iran. As I noted in the earlier post:

I don’t think the man is a radical Islamist or a defender of terrorism. Nonetheless, Rauf’s statements are sufficiently troubling that there is good reason to to be skeptical about his mosque initiative unless and until he retracts the above comments or proves that he was somehow misquoted. To borrow from [Charles] Krauthammer’s Treblinka analogy [which I criticized earlier in the post], it is as if the hypothetical German cultural center there had a leader who claimed that US and British efforts in World War II were morally comparable to the crimes of the Nazis, asserted that Jewish leaders were “accessories” to the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism, refused to describe the SS as mass murderers, and praised the ideology of a fascist dictatorship. Even if he also denounced the Holocaust, claimed to oppose anti-Semitism, and urged fascists to drop some of their most objectionable policies, we could legitimately harbor serious doubts about his organization. The same goes for Rauf and his Islamic Cultural Center.

In sum, I think that the jury is still out on Rauf and his record. I have not kept close track of all his statements over the last several months, so it’s possible that he has retracted or reinterpreted his other objectionable comments as well. If so, readers will have to judge the sincerity of any such retractions for themselves.

To avoid misunderstanding, however, let me reiterate what I said here and here: Even if Rauf does have deeply objectionable views, the use of government power to shut down his Islamic Cultural Center would still be an immoral and unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and property rights. A government that violates such rights when it seems popular to do so is far more dangerous than a mosque run by an imam with views like Rauf’s – regardless of where it is located. At the same time, it should be possible to defend Rauf’s rights while also being skeptical about his record and his credentials as a Muslim “moderate.”