Debating Moderate Islam – Stanford University Press Blog

On the post-9/11 Muslim American experience and the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy.


Military and civilian personnel attend a Muslim prayer service at the Washington Navy Yard Chapel, Washington, D.C., 2010. Public domain.


In December 2009, Feisal Abdul Rauf, a prominent imam, Sufi shaykh, and the internationally recognized leader of the Cordoba Initiative, announced plans to open Cordoba House, a thirteen-story Islamic community center in Manhattan. The proposed center was to be built on a location two blocks from the World Trade Center site. Though designed to educate Americans about the truths Islam shares with other faiths and to exemplify “moderate Islam”—something Rauf had spent nearly a decade promoting—the proposed center was quickly embroiled in debate that eventually became known as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy.

After 9/11 both local leaders and international elites had widely praised Rauf’s core message, delivered at his mosque, in his public appearances, and in his 2004 book, What’s Right with Islam. That message emphasizes Islam’s place within an ethical tradition originating with Abraham (the biblical patriarch common to Judaism and Christianity). Further, it holds that of all the governments in the world, American liberal democracy best embodies this ethic in social form. Because US multiculturalism, pluralism, and “democratic capitalism” are expressions of the “Abrahamic” ethic, Rauf argues, US laws and institutions comply with Islamic law (shari‘ah). Consequently, non-Muslim American can accept Muslims as Abrahamic siblings, while Muslim Americans can promote American liberal values and social systems worldwide.

Because US multiculturalism, pluralism, and “democratic capitalism” are expressions of the “Abrahamic” ethic, Rauf argues, US laws and institutions comply with Islamic law (shari‘ah).

Given the generally positive reception his message of Abrahamic commonality had enjoyed, the imam did not expect significant opposition to his Cordoba House initiative. Indeed, many religious, political, and financial leaders responded positively to the project, and a Manhattan community board gave its approval. Others, however—especially politicians practiced in using fear of Islam for electoral gain—denounced the center, turning it and Rauf’s claims of moderation into subjects of international debate.

While Rauf describes American society as “Abrahamic,” his opponents and critics insist it is “Judeo-Christian” in culture and origin and had argued well before the Ground Zero Mosque debate that Muslims pose a threat to the nation’s Judeo-Christian character. For example, when the first Muslim elected to Congress—black American Keith Ellison from Minnesota—performed his oath of office with Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an instead of a Bible in 2006, Republican Congressman Virgil Goode wrote a cautionary letter to hundreds of voters warning that “we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to infiltration by those who want to mold the United States into the image of their religion rather than working within the Judeo-Christian principles that have made us a beacon of freedom-loving peoples around the world.”

For evidence of the Abrahamic-American ethical convergence, Rauf points to the liberal philosophies of religion, reason, and rights.

Despite the differences between Rauf and his most prominent critics, both he and they define the nation’s identity in terms of an exceptional “American Creed” based on US founding documents, fortified by religious roots and replete with economic implications. For evidence of the Abrahamic-American ethical convergence, Rauf points to the liberal philosophies of religion, reason, and rights expressed most clearly in the Declaration of Independence. Because the Declaration “ground[ed] itself in reason, just as the Quran and the Abrahamic ethic did in asserting the self-evident oneness of God,” he declares, it embodies the same moral and philosophical worldview revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. In other words, shari‘ah is not just complementary to American values, for Rauf, it is based in the same mixture of reason and revelation. Consequently, although no political society on earth will ever embody Islamic precepts as fully as the Prophet Muhammad’s did, the United States comes as close as possible and constitutes a “shariah-compliant” state.

Although Rauf promoted a vision of moderate Islam that echoes standard narratives of American exceptionalism, his Cordoba House project faced vociferous resistance and the controversy intensified in the summer of 2010, during which Republican Congressman Peter King claimed Rauf only posed as a moderate and should be investigated for ties to radical Islam. King was not the first public official to castigate the imam this way; Newt Gingrich, then an aspiring presidential candidate, argued that the medieval city of Cordoba for which the project was named signified not interreligious coexistence, as Rauf argued, but Islamic conquest over a Christian kingdom. This was something, Gingrich claimed, that Muslims sought to repeat in the United States. Such accusations prompted Sharif El-Gamal, the project’s developer and one of Rauf’s Sufi dervishes, to rename the proposed community center after its street address: “Park51.” Still, Gingrich likened building Cordoba House to placing Nazi signs near Holocaust memorials or to erecting a Japanese cultural center near Pearl Harbor.

Several commentators, including former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, responded to such hyperbole by comparing the situation of contemporary Muslim Americans to that of Catholic and Jewish Americans during the early twentieth century. Similarly, reiterating one of his constant themes of the preceding decade, Rauf described overcoming nativist discrimination in the United States as part of the general “immigrant religious experience”—a sociological process Catholics and Jews had completed, providing Muslims with a template for how to successfully Americanize while retaining core tenets of faith. Rauf had long joined this story of assimilation, upward mobility, and moderation to another exceptionalist narrative—one created by earlier immigrants who emphasized that they could contribute to the nation’s exemplary progress because they supported the same ethics (including work ethics) as dominant white Protestants, as well as the moral obligation to engage in community service so as to shore up America’s free-market system. Community service and voluntarism, in this scenario, were often proffered as alternatives to the government aid that was increasingly associated with non-white populations.

Rauf described overcoming nativist discrimination in the United States as part of the general “immigrant religious experience.”

Articulating this narrative helped earlier generations of immigrants and marginalized religious and racial groups to prove their loyalties when they were suspected of having uncivilized mores or Communist sympathies, but it also perpetuated the fiction that “white” Americans (whoever is included in that category at any particular period of time) have experienced upward mobility because of their own efforts in a meritocracy, rather than because of the social capital connected to whiteness in the United States and the government-funded welfare programs (e.g., Social Security and the G.I. Bill) that largely benefited white Americans.

Rauf did not personally hold to the racist beliefs this older exceptionalist narrative perpetuates, nor did he even recognize that it perpetuates them. Still, he began to tell a somewhat different story after the Cordoba House controversy, in part because the controversy coincided with a recession so severe it made painfully apparent many of the economic and racial inequalities built into neoliberal free-market capitalism in the United States.

Making Moderate Islam

Other aspects of Rauf’s work also changed after that, including his public emphasis on combatting Muslim-led terrorism with Sufism, a body of tradition that involves not just the five daily prayers and other required Islamic practices but additional formal reflection and observance (dhikr). The idea that Sufism is the opposite of dogmatic (some would say “fundamentalist”) Islam is as old as the idea that the United States is a true meritocracy—that is to say, it is relatively recent. Both popular and newly politicized for domestic and international purposes, this discourse of Sufi moderation is also one with orientalist roots and racial ramifications that were unapparent to Rauf when he echoed it.

In the years since 9/11, both scholars and activists have questioned the pressure on Muslim Americans to prove their moderation, particularly the demand—perhaps most recently revisited in the second presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle—that Muslim Americans act as liaisons between the US government and Muslim communities in other locations. Today critique abounds around the usefulness of the “moderate” label and the politics behind it, but these critiques focus mainly on foreign policy issues rather than on the domestic ones discussed here. Examining Rauf’s model of moderate Islam and the assumptions that underpin it lays bare the power dynamics in which Muslim Americans are caught at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Moreover, it calls into question the larger limits of liberal inclusion for religious and racial minorities in the United States and the nation’s longer history of extending provisional tolerance under the guise of “acceptance.”

This post has been adapted from Rosemary R. Corbett’s Making Moderate Islam.

Rosemary R. Corbett is Visiting Professor at the Bard Prison Initiative and author of Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy.

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