Dear Imam Feisal,
Ramadan Kareem. I pray that you are bearing up under the strain of recent months. I write as a well-wisher and friend. Though we met only briefly, our encounter turned out to be at a fateful moment, and, for me at least, was of lasting significance. We met, you will recall, on September 5, 2001, at a symposium on a book I was about to publish recounting my journey into Islam and Christianity in the Holy Land. (The book was actually released six days later, on September 11.) You appeared on the panel offering a Muslim response to my journey. I was deeply moved by your presence—it wasn’t easy finding a Muslim cleric willing to appear publicly with an Israeli—and by the warm words you had for the book itself, which was written from a position of deep Jewish attachment to the land of Israel. I felt grateful for the courage you showed then, supporting my call for the Muslim world to come to terms with the Jewish return home. And I recall you beaming with gratitude when I spoke of my experience in joining the Muslim prayer line and the reverence—the love—I felt for its choreography of surrender to God.
In recent weeks, in discussions with friends in the American Jewish community about your initiative to build a mosque and Muslim community center near Ground Zero, I’ve found myself repeatedly defending your integrity as an interfaith partner. If you are not a worthy dialogue partner for the Jewish community, then there is almost no one in Islam with whom we can speak.
When our mutual friend and veteran of Muslim-Jewish dialogue, Yehezkel Landau, spoke on your behalf at the Community Board public hearing recently held over your proposed project, I felt it was a gesture of what Jews call kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name. Yehezkel told the hostile audience that, as a former Israeli soldier whose son is now serving in the Israeli army, he affirms that you are “a spiritual ally, not an enemy.” Though other speakers on your behalf were heckled, Yehezkel was greeted with respectful silence.
That small moment of grace revealed how Muslims and Jews can help each other. As Judea Pearl—father of Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded by jihadists—has put it, Muslims can provide legitimacy for the Jewish people in the East and Jews can provide legitimacy for Islam in the West. I know that same sentiment inspires your longtime outreach to the American Jewish community. You told me that the model for Islamic modernization you sought was exemplified by modern Orthodox Judaism. That you would find inspiration in one aspect of the Jewish response to modernity says much about your openness toward Judaism and friendship toward the Jewish people.
I don’t deny being troubled by some of your statements on the Middle East. You have publicly called yourself a supporter of Israel—and how many Muslim clerics have dared speak those words?—yet you’ve also endorsed a “one-state solution,” code for the destruction of the Jewish state. You have rejected the subterfuge of some Muslim clerics who condemn terror against “innocent civilians” but exclude Israelis, yet you’ve refused to condemn Hamas.
Sometimes it seems that you want to be all things to all people—a liberal to non-Muslim Americans, upholder of Muslim grievances to traditionalists—and that you simply deny the resulting dissonance, as if every contradiction can be healed by your goodwill. Some of your statements about America and the Muslim world—partly blaming U.S. foreign policy for September 11, or saying that America has killed more Muslims than Al Qaeda has killed innocent non-Muslims, as if the terrorists and their targets were morally equivalent—pander to the most simplistic sentiments within your community. But where some see hypocrisy, or even a hidden agenda, I prefer to see the struggles of a good man who wants to help his community enter the American mainstream, while reassuring the faithful of his loyalty.
I believe that you intend to create a center of Islamic moderation near Ground Zero. And it is precisely for that reason that I am turning to you with a plea to reconsider your plans to build the center in its current form. Instead, I urge you to consider turning the site into a center for interfaith encounter. Build the mosque—but do so together with a church and a synagogue and a center for common reflection for all three faiths and for those with no faith. Do this, Imam Feisal, not to surrender to your critics but to honor their pain, and, in the process, to honor Islam.
My own point of reference in this controversy is the Auschwitz convent. You will recall that, in the mid-1980s, a group of Carmelite nuns established a convent on the grounds of Auschwitz. For Jews around the world, the convent was perceived as an attempt to “Christianize” the Holocaust, to deny the Jewishness of the overwhelming majority of the victims of Auschwitz.
In 1989, I went to Poland and discovered to my shock that the Jewish critics were wrong. The convent was founded in Auschwitz I, a slave-labor camp and administrative center for Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, the death camp whose purpose was the destruction of the Jewish people. The distinction was crucial for Poles: Thousands of Polish Catholics died in Auschwitz I, and the nuns were there to pray for their souls and counter the evil that had been done on Polish soil. There was, in other words, no intention to Christianize the Holocaust. Yet Pope John Paul II seemed to realize that, even if Jews had misunderstood the nuns’ intentions, their sensitivities toward that ground deserved respect. And so the Polish pope ordered a convent of Polish nuns out of Auschwitz—in the process sending an extraordinary message of spiritual generosity.
I am urging you to rise to your moment of spiritual greatness. You have dedicated your life to helping Islam enter the American mainstream. In its current form, though, your project will have the opposite effect. The way to ease Islam into the American mainstream is in the company of its fellow Abrahamic faiths. The great obstacle to Islam’s reconciliation with the West is the adherence of even mainstream Muslims to a kind of medieval notion of interfaith relations. Muslim spokesmen often note how, during the Middle Ages, Islam provided protection for Christianity and Judaism. But that model—tolerance under Islamic rule—is inadequate for our time. The new interfaith theology affirms the spiritual legitimacy of all three Abrahamic faiths. Whether or not we accept one another’s faiths as theologically true, we can affirm them as devotionally true, that is, as worthy vessels for a God-centered life.
What will define a genuinely American Islam will be its ability to embrace this modern notion of interfaith relations. A 15-story Islamic center near Ground Zero will undermine that process. In the Muslim world, as you well know, architecture often buttresses triumphalist theology. Throughout the Holy Land, minarets deliberately tower over churches. However inadvertently, your current plan would be understood by large parts of the Muslim world as a victory over the West. Merely adding an interfaith component to the proposed Islamic center would not counter that distorted impression. Instead, it would likely reinforce the medieval theology of extending “protection” to Christianity and Judaism under the auspices of Islam. But an interfaith center in which the three Abrahamic faiths are given equal status would send the message that I believe you intend to convey.
There is no more appropriate place to assert the emergence of an American Islam than Ground Zero. And no American Muslim leader is better positioned to birth that process, dear Imam Feisal, than you.
With respect and blessings,
Yossi Klein Halevi
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. This article ran in the September 23, 2010 issue of the magazine.