Park51, Reconsidered

ASPEN, Col. – I stopped by a luncheon here to listen to a guest who, since the last Ideas fest, got a brutal reminder of what happens when idealism meets religion and politics. He was Feisel Abdul Rauf, the man behind the Cordoba Initiative, who went through the ringer in 2010 when his hopes to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero gave us the “Ground Zero mega-mosque” frenzy. (Rauf cheekily used that term to refer to the controversy.)

“Wherever I go in the Muslim world,” he said, “it’s the first question people want to ask me.” In the Arab world, he said, people were dazzled by the story. “When President Obama gave speech on Ramadan, the banner headline in the Egyptian Gazette was” Obama supports GZ Mosque. The narrative, in some important ways, gave [America] a boost.”

That word, “narrative,” seemed to come up in Rauf’s every other sentence. Many of America’s problems with the Muslim world could be solved with a narrative shift. “if Christians were to regard Muslims as Unitarians with an Arabic liturgy,” he said, quoting himself tongue-in-cheekly, “perhaps we’d get over some of this.” And “we need films to show Muslims in a positive light. I’ve commissioned three scripts.”

Most of the people listening nodded; the questions did not challenge his premises. But the talk was hard to take on its own if you considered what happened to Rauf’s ideas in the world outside Aspen. When he was asked about the ban on sharia law in Oklahoma (I wrote about that here ), he said he had been too busy to comment. I walked out of the lunch with Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, who couldn’t figure out this answer.

“That sort of contradicted his general point that most Muslims in the United States are moderates,” he said. “It’s not about him . Where were the other moderate Muslims to criticize the law?”