Since 9/11, many have asked: Where are the moderate Muslims? Why don’t they stand
up and denounce those who pervert Islam to justify violence?
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf exemplifies the type of individual they should be embracing. The man I heard speak at the Fourth Annual Bridges of Understanding Conference, held at the Meridian Center in Washington in early December, bore no resemblance to the stereotype that some have promulgated: that of a stealth Islamic supremacist who seeks to build a “megamosque” to humiliate those who lost loved ones on 9/11. Quite to the contrary, I found him to be polished, engaging, warmly humorous and humble — in a recent interview, in fact, the Imam said that if 9/11 were to happen again, he’d want to be the first to die.
I’m hardly saying that we should agree with everything he says — I certainly have my disagreements with him. But in the grand scheme of things, he’s an ally of our country, not an enemy. As the old saying goes: “the best way to make one an enemy is to treat one like an enemy.”
Islamic terrorists frequently argue that America’s war on terrorism is little more than a war on Islam. They condemn the U.S. as the Great Satan, the archenemy of a peaceful faith. What better way to expose those lies than to proceed with the construction of the Park51 Community Center? It bears noting that the Muslim prayer space will only be a small part of the complex. The center will contain a memorial to victims of 9/11 and will work to encourage women’s empowerment, youth development, sports and religious tolerance — all three of which, the Imam will be the first to tell you, are sorely lacking in the Islamic world. Think of Park51 as a big YMCA, only interfaith rather than just Christian.
Now that Park51 has been cleared for construction, criticism of the Imam has intensified. Drowned out in the debate about his character and his motivations for building it is a powerful reality: When completed, the center will expose the propaganda that Osama bin Laden and his affiliates use to justify their hatred.
It’s true that there aren’t enough moderate Muslims speaking out. When they do speak out, however, as the Imam has courageously done, we should embrace them with open arms, not condemn them with reflexive prejudice. Park51 stands to embody what makes America who she is at her core: a beacon of hope and acceptance.
Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership and civility locally, nationally and in the world community.