Imam Feisal Adbul Rauf and Daisy Khan: “We Are Simply People Caught in the Middle”

They are the co-founders of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), a not-for-profit organization “dedicated to strengthening an authentic expression of Islam based on cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration, youth and women’s empowerment, and arts and cultural exchange.” Until recently, both were closely involved in the Park51 project — which they called “Cordoba House” — to build a mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan, during which Imam Rauf came under attack by some vocal critics as a radical Muslim extremist.  In this extended interview, they discuss their motivations to pursue Cordoba House and the sources of their disagreement with developer Sharif El-Gamal over the direction of the project. Both say they were caught off guard by the reaction to the project, and Khan describes facing its opposition as “the first time in my life in America that I actually felt that somebody didn’t want me here and somebody didn’t like what I represented.”

At what point did you realize that this was going to become much more of an issue than perhaps you’d expected?

DAISY KHAN: We had a community board meeting, the first community board meeting for the financial committee. Fifteen members were there, and we presented the project in its entirety, and 15 hands went up. Everybody thought it was a fabulous project. They were welcoming it in their neighborhood.

The next morning when we woke up, we saw in the [New York] Daily News an article that said [there would be] a 13-story mosque at Ground Zero. And the way it was framed was frightening to me, because I realized that it was being framed as a place of worship which was very close to Ground Zero and that those people who would have wanted to oppose that would naturally come out.

And then sequentially, days after that, we started seeing front-page news articles about the “Ground Zero mosque,” and we knew that the project was in jeopardy.

What was the first time that you actually came up against the opposition?

“We were trying to be proactive and create a countermomentum against extremism so that we could give voice to moderate Muslims and amplify the voices of those of us who don’t have a platform. … Our intention is very peaceful, but it’s been completely misconstrued as being something that it’s not. That’s very hard.”

IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Right after that finance subcommittee meeting on May 5, the very next day, there was this immediate explosion of news coverage and requests from almost every television channel to interview us. There was a sense that this story had grabbed enormous interest, but it wasn’t until Fox News requested [a] third, fourth interview, came to my office, interviewed me and kept repeating certain questions with a sense that I felt they tried to get me in some way, and I felt that I was like some kind of prey. For the first time in my life, I felt I was targeted, and I felt there was some negative intent behind that. It was not a nice feeling.

KHAN: And then, in addition to that, the first time that we came face-to-face with the entire opposition was the second large [meeting], which was the entire Lower Manhattan CB1 [Community Board 1] meeting where all 40 members were there.

And as we were getting ready to go there with our attorney and other people, we were told that there was so much media there, that every truck of every major mainstream media was out there, that all the opposition had joined forces together, had come together, and that there was standing room only. We had to actually be escorted because there was a concern that somebody may come after us at that time.

When we walked into the room, it was the first time that we saw placards with his face with an “X” on it, with certain kinds of framing and messaging that the opposition had been putting out in the media. But it was the first time that we came across [that] face-to-face with people.

For me, the most ironic moment was when a gentleman came up to me, and he said: “My name is Lee Hanson. Do you remember me?” I said no. He said, “I am Uncle Lee.” And he had a photograph of his son around his neck; Peter was his son. And he said, “I am your best friend’s uncle.”

And of course I remembered immediately that from my childhood in Kashmir, there was an Uncle Lee that used to come and visit from Singapore with his two children. My best friend Halima was half-Muslim, and her mother was American. I had actually grown up seeing Uncle Lee come there, and Uncle Lee was our biggest opponent.

Him and his wife had tears in their eyes, and they said that Peter died, and I had never knew that Peter had died. It was the first time that I actually began to identify with the families, because I actually saw their pain, because I knew who they were.

It was a difficult moment for me, and it was a difficult moment for him [Imam Rauf], because he was seeing certain images of him being portrayed. I remember seeing him, and he was in a corner in a chair. He didn’t want to even see what was going on.

It was a very difficult moment for us.

RAUF: We have had experiences with the pain of the 9/11 families right after 9/11. … We [had] people like Talat Hamdani [the Pakistani-American mother of an NYPD cadet who was killed in the attacks] and friends of ours who had family members or children, sons die in 9/11. This has become very much part of our story.

The mosque that I’ve been an imam of since 1983 [is] just a dozen blocks from the World Trade Center, so we’ve been part of this neighborhood. So the trauma of 9/11 is something that we experienced right from the very beginning.

So what actually happened at this meeting?

RAUF: We were presenting our case before the full Lower Manhattan community board because we had had meetings with some of them. There was incredible interest from before it became a public story that we were establishing a community center.

It was a great desire by the Lower Manhattan community that has been increasing in numbers in terms of residents, people who actually live in that part of Manhattan, to have a center which serves the community with community facilities, swimming pool, athletics and so forth. They had had hopes of something like that being built at the new World Trade Center rebuilding, which did not happen, [and] they were really disappointed nothing had happened.

So when we approached them and said, “This is our vision to establish a center that would be open to all; everyone would be a member,” they were very delighted about that idea. They knew me for the last quarter of a century or more; they knew our work; they knew what we stood for. They wanted facilities like this.

They wanted to improve the block. The block is not really one of the most attractive blocks in downtown Manhattan. It would be bringing jobs — both construction jobs as well as employment once the center was opened — [and] would serve the needs of the community, so they were very welcoming to it.

We wanted to go and get their official support. We had the plans of our discussions, but since two or three weeks earlier on May 5, when this drumbeat occurred as we went to the places of public hearing, we were greeted by many people who really were opposed to us, who were bused in from all over the city and even outside of New York state. So it was increasingly clear that this was a very well-organized, well-funded anti-Islam group in the United States that targeted us very, very, very clearly.

How did you feel when you walked into that room?

RAUF: Well, the noise continued. It wasn’t like a moment. They were there, and every time we got up to speak, they would shout and scream and holler and say all kinds of nasty things.

Friends of ours who are from the civil rights movement were reminded of the scenes of the black girl who was required to go into the school in I think Alabama, and it reminded them of that moment. And they were aghast at the fact that such bigotry still existed in the United States.

[Editor's Note: On Nov. 14, 1960, Ruby Bridges was escorted by U.S. marshals to a formerly all-white school in New Orleans.]

So, Daisy, you were walking into this community board meeting on May 25. What’s going through your mind?

KHAN: I’ve lived in America for more than 30 years, and I have basically been wearing these rose-tinted glasses. I’ve seen in America, that has given me all the opportunities, with hard work I could have accomplished anything here.

And as I walked into the room, those rose-tinted glasses were coming off. It was the first time in my life in America seeing a different America, an America that I had never ever seen before. And I had heard of many issues that other faith communities had gone through — the civil rights movement; I’d heard about the struggle of the Jews; I’d heard the struggle of the Christians, the Catholics specifically. But those were all ideas, and I’d never personally felt marginalized or discriminated against.

And it was the first time in my life in America that I actually felt that somebody didn’t want me here and somebody didn’t like what I represented, and that was very, very hard, because I tend to be an optimist. It was hard to actually experience discrimination for the first time.

And what were these people afraid of?

KHAN: There is a lot of misinformation. Much of what we see is very distorted stereotyping of an entire community.

There is a link between this group [led by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer] and a group that was formed in Europe called Stop the Islamisation of Europe (SIOE), and they just linked the two groups up and came up with very fearful messages that Islam is here to dominate, all Muslims are extremists, women are suppressed, 9/11 was done by Muslims, and that every Muslim is to be feared and is an extremist, including myself. So I just feel that it’s a campaign of misinformation.

We realized very shortly that we became an election issue and that politicians jumped into this because it was convenient for them to use us as a wedge issue.

So this wasn’t about only 9/11 families and the proximity of the center to Ground Zero. It was a very organized opposition that was up against us.

What sorts of things did you see and hear in the hall, and were there any images that seared themselves into your minds?

RAUF: Most people screaming. When Daisy got up to speak to the microphone they said: “Oh, she’s so charming. Don’t believe her.” There were some moments which were almost humorous.

One of the things which occurred to me from the very beginning was, from a spiritual point of view, is the path that our prophets have taken — the prophet Muhammad, when he visited Ta’if, the inhabitants of Ta’if threw garbage on him and the entrails of freshly slaughtered animals; Jesus Christ in the last days up to … when he was crucified, and this frenzy that people can create where you’re accused of something that you are completely innocent of, where people build up this emotional frenzy. And that seems to be a path along our own spiritual lives we somehow are tested in. This was perhaps the strongest image which came up to me and the strongest image which strengthened me at the same time.

KHAN: Yeah, the wolf in sheep’s clothing [accusation] was the best one that I saw; that our intention was being questioned and who we were as people was being questioned.

Here we were trying to rebuild our own neighborhood; we were trying to be proactive and create a countermomentum against extremism so that we could give voice to moderate Muslims and amplify the voices of those of us who don’t have a platform. … Our intention is very peaceful, but it’s been completely misconstrued as being something that it’s not. That’s very hard.

RAUF: Another thing also is that since 9/11, since I founded the Cordoba Initiative with the aim of bridging U.S.-Muslim relations, … to be fraught with this particular kind of accusations, this was perhaps the most virulent I have gone through. But in the West, in the United States, I am accused of being an agent of some terrorist, malignant, negative intention of Islam to take over the West. And when I’m in the Muslim world I have had moments also when I’m accused of being an American agent with some sinister attempt to advance American imperialist intentions towards the Muslim world. There is that fear on both sides, but I believe that there is a possibility for peace.

[For] those of us who have committed ourselves to being peacemakers and who have committed ourselves to designing and creating the programs and projects that would help further that, this is one of the hazards that we have to endure a lot in the attempt to bring these two important communities in the world together.

Your husband, Imam Feisal, is he a radical?

KHAN: He is a radical moderate, I would say.

We are people who are caught in the middle. We embody the best of what the West has to offer and the best of what Islam has to offer. We have found a way to blend the two, and that seems to be a threat to some people.

Most people say, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” Here we are, and here he is, and many people see him as a model of moderation and of peace and tranquility and community collaboration. But yet we are the people who have now been defined as the opposite.

So we are simply people caught in the middle.

RAUF: One of the nicest moments actually was when one of the members of the community board … said he checked us out, made some phone calls to his colleagues and network in Washington, D.C., and he said, “Imam Feisal and this group and what they have done, they are the Kiwanis Club of the Muslim community. If you can’t work with them, you can work with no one,” or words to that effect. “If you can’t work with them, who are you going to work with?”

The key point about that was that you are not going to be able to turn around relationships between America or the West and the Muslim world without the active involvement of Muslims. And we, the Western Muslims and American Muslims who understand both America, the West, as well as the Muslim faith and Muslim religion and community well, we are the ones who are best positioned to be the interlocutors between these two great civilizations, to identify the areas of overlap between them, and to help craft the road back on how we can move forward toward a better and more harmonious relationship.

And this has become something which is critical for our future. This is a homeland security issue. How we speak about this cogently, coherently and harmoniously is an important human security objective.

So Imam Feisal isn’t a radical who is trying to impose Shariah law on the United States?

RAUF: Not at all. My role is to explain to each side in the language and vocabulary of the other. You cannot speak to the West in concepts alien to the West, and you can’t speak to the Muslim world in concepts alien to the Muslim world. Therefore it is very important to, when you want to create the bridge-building work, you have to translate not only into a different language of Arabic; you have to put it into concepts which are part of the concepts and essential worldview of the Muslim world.

Islam, its religion, its ethical principles, its worldview, its law, is part of the vocabulary of 1.5 billion people in the world, so you have to do that. And the same thing the other way round. When you want to explain to Westerners or Americans, you have to speak in terms of their constitutional values and so forth. And that’s part of the work that we do. But am I moderate? Am I passionate about my moderation? Yes.

The charges laid against you by various blogs [are three arguments]: that you said that the United States effectively had brought 9/11 upon itself; that you support Hamas; and that America has more Muslim blood on its hands than Al Qaeda has innocent American blood.

RAUF: Well, the reason why the tensions exist between American and Muslim world is because we have a very heavy footprint in the Muslim world.

America is very much engaged. We have bases in the Muslim world, bases in Bahrain, in Qatar. We have tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan, in Iraq. And the way we conduct our policy is a very big part of the reason why people in the Muslim world feel certain ways.

The way we speak to the Muslim world, the way we engage with the Muslim world is extremely important. You engage one way you will get one result; you engage another way, you speak a different way, you get a different result. And the more we understand the Muslim world and speak to it on terms that they can get and receive, well, the better will be the response.

KHAN: Well, you know, for somebody who lives with this man every single day I can tell you for sure that he absolutely abhors the actions of all extremists, all terrorists, including Hamas, and [this] is absolutely neither one of us nor anybody else that we know.

He preaches against it. In fact, those have been some of our supporters that have come forward and said: “Wait a minute. I’ve heard this man preach. I’ve heard him give sermons against terrorists, especially shortly after 9/11.”

So once again, I think the opposition has taken certain speeches out of context, because I have had to speak about a number of these accusations, where I’ve had to clarify his name, because this is a man who loves peace, a man who absolutely abhors violence. This is a man who walks out of a movie theater when there is too much violence. He cannot even see violence let alone support it in any form.

So I can say with conviction that all of these statements have been completely taken out of context, and one has to look at the long record of peace building. One also has to look at why so many people rallied around us — the interfaith people, everything from the Jewish community, the Christian community. These are people who have worked with us, have built long-term trust with us, because they know who this person is, and they know that this person is a person who loves peace and loves pluralism and loves community cohesion.

Extremists believe in exclusion, and this is a person who believes in inclusion. … I learned a lot of my Islam from my husband, who is very much entrenched in the orthodoxy of Islam. But there is a very gentle side of Islam which is very inclusive and very nonjudgmental, and that is what Sufism to me is all about.

Those are the values that attracted me back to my faith, because I struggled with my faith for a while. And it’s because of his teachings that I was able to stand on strong footing, and it is the reason why right after 9/11 we were equipped to go out and speak at every church and every synagogue.

It’s because we had kind of embodied that nonjudgmentalism and that kind of love for the other, and we understood the fear of people.

And this is why he was so effective and so many doors opened up during that time, including FBI, who said: “You know what? We need to train our 1,200 agents.” So who do they pick? They pick Imam Feisal Rauf, whose mosque was so close, and there was a recognition that this was a man who understood the Muslim world but who also could engage with these agents who were very tough, who had just been taken off of drug enforcement and had been put into this position of having to look at Muslims and profiling.

Once again, you have a person who embodies peace and has been spreading it for years and years, and then the opposition takes it and turns it into something which is the exact opposite.

Imam, what do you say to your accusers?

RAUF: I have condemned Hamas. I have condemned terrorism. I was invited to speak to all 1,200 FBI agents in New York to not only explain to them about Islam but to explore how we can work with the law enforcement agencies to make sure that any potential radicals or terrorists in our mosques would be filtered out.

We are very much aware that there is a radical extremist element in our faith community. That’s why I say that the real battlefront is not between Muslims and Westerners or Muslims and Jews or Muslims and Christians, but between the moderates of all of our faith traditions against the extremists. … This is the battle that we have to wage right now, and we are waging this battle. And I think we are gaining ground.

Like any game, there’s give-and-take. But in the long run, I am convinced, especially with what is happening in terms of the revolution of moderation we are seeing right now in the Arab world, where people are banding together — [the] vision of an Egyptian holding the Quran next to an Egyptian holding the Coptic cross, protecting each other, while they are doing their prayers — is a sign that the moderates are banding together.

And what we were pleased to see also is the moderates in this country rallied around us, against the extremists. It’s the extremists who are the enemy. They are the enemy of all of us, and this is a battle that we have to wage.

Looking back, what was the community center’s role?

RAUF: The objective of our community center was to be a rallying point, to be a place where people could get to know about each other’s religions. We want Muslims to learn about Christianity and Judaism. We want members of other faith traditions to know about Islam and to know about what the orthodoxy of our faiths are truly about.

I studied Christianity. I studied Judaism. I studied Buddhism. I studied Hinduism. And [I] know that there is a common golden rule, and there are common ideas and common aspects of mysticism and spirituality that underlie every faith’s tradition.

Every authentic prophet is part of my prophet, according to the teachings of the Quran. It’s those teachings that I stand for, embody and preach.

And just as there was Inquisitional Christianity at the time of the Inquisition, which no one would say represented the teachings of Christ, there is also an Inquisitional Islam today, wherever it might exist, whether it exists in Iran or Saudi Arabia or even in the United States, maybe in some small circles, here and there. But it’s this philosophy we have to fight against.

It is the genuine teachings of our faith that we must stand for. We must stand for each other’s true teachings, which is why we are having this rally here in New York City tomorrow morning with our Jewish friends, with our Buddhist friends, our Christian friends, to say that this polarizing discourse has no place in modern society today.

Can you tell me how you felt when people accused you of being the opposite of what you are?

RAUF: Of course you feel angry. You feel angry because you know you are fighting the demons, this existential battle between God and Satan, or between good and evil. …

This is an existential battle that describes everything we’ve gone through. And we see this battle being waged, even among human beings, as agencies of good and evil. And good and evil comes packaged in every kind of a package. Evil can come packaged in the form of Islam, the form of Christianity, in the form of atheism, but so can goodness. Goodness also comes packaged in all these varieties of packaging.

So the battle between good and evil is not between Islam and Christianity or Islam and the West, but between the good of all varieties and all packages, against the evil in all packages. And this is the lesson that we must learn and recognize and identify. And that’s the demand of the time.

KHAN: And for me, the center was going to be a place where we could amplify the exact opposite ideology of the extremist.

RAUF: [The] platform for all of our work and objectives to promote peace and harmony.

KHAN: But not only peace, but also in addition to that, an ideology of inclusivity, because the extremists promote the ideology of exclusivity: my way or the highway.

So this is why there was going to be such an open center, which was going to be open to all religions, to disprove, number one, that Islam is just an exclusive ideology, so this was going to be a major amplifier of that reversal of that ideology, because this is what our president said. He said it’s ideologies that we have to fight against. So we know that the only way extremism can be fought is to an account or ideology, and this is what we were prepared to do as peacemakers and as people who are in the center to mobilize that center. But, unfortunately, our opponents don’t want us to do that.

The story has moved on since last year, hasn’t it?

KHAN: Well, the dream is certainly alive. We are committed to the vision that we set out for ourselves. We are currently assessing meeting varieties of people, and we have decided to go on a tour to engage Americans, a listening tour to hear as many voices.

We had a meeting with one of the 9/11 family groups, and one of the ladies there said, “It’s really important for you to get out and meet as many Americans as you can,” because once they got to know us personally, they said: “We don’t fear you anymore. You’re actually good people, and we understand what you’re trying to do. But you need to get out there and meet more people.”

So this is when we decided that we should really engage Americans and try to get rid of the disinformation that people have about Islam, about Muslims and about the Muslim world in general.

The location of the community center became profoundly symbolic. How do you feel about being separated from that?

RAUF: I always feel good when I do what I believe God is inspiring as being the right decision, and God’s interventions are revealed in real time.

The concept of the center, as the Cordoba House, which is owned and belonged to the whole community of different faiths, that concept is very much alive, and the vision, God willing, will be fulfilled, whether it’s at this location or another location. The story is still not fully written yet. We are at this point uncertain as to what the next chapter in the book will look like.

Having said that, the more important question, or the questions raised by the issue of Islamophobia in America, [is] what will America stand for, the issue of how will America engage with Islam, Muslims, domestically and internationally? These are the larger questions which far, far, far outweigh this particular product and this particular location. We have seen the rise of Islamophobia all over the country. There are proposed mosques in Tennessee, in California that were targets of such Islamophobia. We have seen just in Orange County, [Calif.], politicians saying that we are against multiculturalism.

So there is a small voice, but a very loud voice, that seems something to them more threatening. And this is something that I think which exists in various parts of the world. …

KHAN: Just going back to the original question about the location, most people do not realize this, but this project had been on the drawing table for over 10 years. Just prior to 9/11, we actually tried to purchase another building called the McBurney Y, on 23rd Street. So for us, that specific location was not selected other than the fact that it just was available.

There are a lot of buildings available in the neighborhood, and it was close to where we were already, but we have never been that committed to the location. But we are committed to the vision. …

Initially the location was an accident. That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?

RAUF: If the location was really a problem, and the people who are opposed to us could have offered us [another option, saying], “Hey, here’s another place; do it here instead” — no one offered us another space. So it’s a specious argument.

Didn’t various people make an attempt to buy you out?

RAUF: No.

Donald Trump?

KHAN: This is also a typical New York real estate story. New York doesn’t have that many buildings. Lower Manhattan is a tight little triangle. It’s not that vast, and there are a lot of dilapidated buildings there, and this one just — the price happened to be right. So this location was not selected just because of its close proximity, but because there was an owner who was willing to sell. And that’s a New York real estate story.

The location was happenstance?

KHAN: Yeah. The location was happenstance. Fell into our lap. And it was close enough to the current mosque where he was, about 10 blocks away, and it made sense to stay in the neighborhood.

We also felt that it would be very good for us to be part of the rebuilding process of Lower Manhattan. I personally worked in those towers — for about four years, not at that time — so it was my office building that came down, and I had a personal commitment to help in whatever way I can. He had a personal commitment because it was his neighborhood, so we were ready to roll up our sleeves and help America restore itself, and help restore Lower Manhattan, and bring about change, and get through all the extremists.

There were many, many dreams wrapped up in this location, many, many dreams and many aspirations for ourselves, for our community, for the larger society.

Were either of you worried because of the proximity to Ground Zero?

RAUF: I have been part of this community for the last quarter of a century or more. After 9/11, when we finally could come back to the mosque, I was surprised to see notes of support, bouquets of flowers: “Are you OK? What can we do to help you?” The police gave us protection, because there were words of potential threats against mosques after 9/11 after what happened to somewhere in the Midwest.

So my experience with this committee has always been positive. The support of the community was overwhelming. The very first subcommittee meeting of the Lower Manhattan community board was unanimously in support. And even when we had this full board meeting, where there was this screaming against us, they all knew these were outsiders. Even with threats, personal threats made to them [board members], the vote was still 29-1 in favor.

So when you have community support, when you are part of the community, the community knows you, regards you as one of itself, even the face of that, the confidence you feel is very inspiring, and it became even more difficult to consider succumbing to these screams. …

Sharif [El-Gamal] had a problem with the name Cordoba House, which I recognized. Then he came to me and said, “It will be called Cordoba House.” And we presented to the Lower Manhattan community board. Their resolution speaks about the multifaith work of the Cordoba Initiative by name. And after we got this support of the local community board, he reneged on his agreement and insisted they call it Park51.

I felt betrayed, and many of my supporters in the interfaith community who loved the name Cordoba House, who supported it, were very upset about the change of name. … For him to unilaterally change the name like that felt to me that he put me in a position where I felt he had compromised my relationship with my supporters within the Lower Manhattan community and my supporters in the interfaith community. This is an example of the kind of things that I personally was deeply hurt by.

And that’s the kind of thing that happened that after a while made it just [impossible], and the desire to insist on controlling the makeup of the board, who the board is composed of, was just something that I didn’t see happening. It would not attract the kind of board members that we needed to make this project, this vision succeed in the manner that I envisioned it and wanted it to be and knew that it could [be].

KHAN: But, you know, he [El-Gamal] also had had a different experience, because he’s born in America. As an American and as a businessman [he] has a very can-do attitude, and he feels that he can do it by himself and he doesn’t need the help of others. This is why it’s difficult for us to work with him, because he fundamentally believes that he can do everything on his own, including [that he] doesn’t have to work with the multifaith community because we can do it by ourselves.

I think it’s just an issue of experience. We cannot impose an experience on to another. It’s where he’s coming from. And we have acknowledged that, and we’ve recognized that, and we wish him well.

Many of the people who attend Park51 are people whose weddings we’ve conducted, many of them. So we wish everyone well, and we hope that he can build something there. We genuinely hope that he can build something there.

But your partnership is over?

KHAN: Our partnership as it exists right now, unless there is some major change and there is some change of heart where we come to a different agreement.

We adore him. We adore his family. We’ve conducted his wedding. We’ve conducted weddings of his brother. So we are people who are there for the service of our community, and if it means joining forces again to serve our community in a better and bigger way, we’ll do it, but with a different arrangement.

What exactly was the problem with the name Cordoba?

RAUF: Whatever you do, there always will be people who will be opposed to you. There’s hardly a decision one makes in life which gets 100 percent support. And because we have people who are deliberately against us no matter what we do, for whom the only good Muslim is a dead one, whatever we call it, the name Park51 didn’t make a difference. As neutral a name as possible didn’t make a difference.

But Cordoba, for those of us who like that name, represented a period in Islamic history and in our common history in European history where there was a convivencia [period of peaceful coexistence in medieval Spain], as they call it in Spanish, of the different faith communities [Muslims, Christians and Jews].

Cordoba was where [the Jewish philosopher and scholar] Moses Maimonides was born. It was from where he and the Muslims, the Jewish community and the Muslim community in Andalusia in southern Spain, were forced to leave by the Inquisition. But before, it was one of the most enlightened cities on earth.

It was the place where Europeans [from] as far as England came to study. There was a tremendous exchange of knowledge. It was the location where the Enlightenment was kick-started in Europe.

The intellectual heritage of the Greeks, of the Arabs, of the Indians, which had all been translated into Arabic, and even developed in Arabic, were translated into Latin by scholars, especially in Cordoba. It was a period of great intellectual ferment in a very positive way.

From the discussions with our friends in the Muslim and non-Muslim community in America, who were committed and still are committed to improving relationships between what is called the Western Islamic civilizations, the concept of a new Cordoba was a very appealing one; that we need an initiative that would be a moment in time and in space, spanning not only the United States but the Western and Muslim worlds, that bring about the momentum of a new Cordoba.

So what was Sharif’s problem with that?

RAUF: Sharif’s problem with that was that he succumbed to the criticisms of some people that this was an attempt to create a Muslim triumphalist center.

Why would they say that?

RAUF: You know, the opposition who is against us believes that anything that is associated with Islam is fundamentally negative or fundamentally opposed to Western civilization.

It’s part of the fallout from Samuel Huntington’s thesis that the next existential enemy to Western civilization after communism would be Islam. And this was one of the most dangerous pieces of writing which influenced a lot of opinion leaders in the Western capitals.

I’m just trying to find the logic of Sharif’s argument.

RAUF: No, there’s no logic. There’s no logic at all. It’s an attempt to rewrite history.

So why could Cordoba be considered triumphalist?

RAUF: No, there were those who criticized the Cordoba Initiative for that reason, and he was concerned about that.

KHAN: He thought that the project would get impacted because there was so much criticism against the name that maybe to save the project changed the name, but what happened was, he did not know that this opposition is just going to go after something else.

So they were accusing us of the name, and then when the name was dropped, they continued accusing us of other things. So this is what I mean by not having the experience to know that this opposition is just going to reconstitute itself into something else. …

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