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Facing Towards Mecca: Episcopal Cathedral Confronts “Islamophobia”Jeff WaltonMay 19, 2011
The following is one of two articles about the “I Am My Brother’s Keeper: Confronting Islamophobia” conference in Seattle. To read the other article click here.
The call to sunset prayer issued by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf echoed through the room, and worshippers came forward – some in Muslim garb, others in western clothing. Removing their shoes and kneeling to face Mecca, the worshippers uttered prayers from the Qur’an, led by the controversial cleric known for his plan to build an Islamic center near the Ground Zero site in lower Manhattan.
Yet this Muslim prayer observance took place not in a mosque, but in the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle.
Gathered for a conference entitled “I Am My Brother’s Keeper: Confronting Islamophobia,” hundreds had come to hear the imam give a keynote address, as had local television crews and about a dozen protesters across the street. What they heard was a warning that irrational fear of Islam was sweeping the United States, and a plea that the alleged purveyors of such fear – fundamentalist Christians, Tea Party members, Republican candidates, the Israel lobby, and “Jewish neo-cons” – needed to be silenced.
Rauf was brought to St. Mark’s Cathedral by several Muslim and liberal Christian groups, among them the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Sabeel North America, and Trinity United Methodist Church of Seattle. Episcopal Bishop Greg Rickel, United Methodist Pacific Northwest Conference Bishop Grant Hagiya, and Bishop Chris Boerger of the Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America were all listed as honorary co-chairs of the event.
“Unitarians with an Arabic Liturgy”
Rauf and other Muslim speakers at the event portrayed Islam as a tolerant faith, stating that the Qur’an called for religious freedom to be protected. The imam also downplayed tensions between Jews and Muslims.
“The notion that Muslims and Jews have always been at odds is disputed by hundreds of years of history,” Rauf asserted. “It has not been until recently that these relationships have begun to shift as the result of certain political agendas.”
Describing Muslims as “Unitarians with an Arabic liturgy,” Rauf defended shari’a (Islamic law), summarizing its objectives as a Jeffersonian “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Muslim leader contended that many aspects of shari’a were already practiced in many ways in the United States. Focusing upon harsh punishments under the Islamic criminal code, Rauf said, was like focusing on the U.S. prison system first as the primary way to evaluate the United States.
Rauf also drew attention to a recent incident in Memphis, in which several imams dressed in clerical garb were asked to depart the airplane they were on, because the pilot refused to fly as long as they were on board. The cleric decried the incident as an example of pervasive Islamophobia, and other subsequent speakers also cited it. No speakers mentioned another piece of news from that weekend: an attack near Cairo that left a Coptic Christian church burned and 12 dead, part of growing anti-Christian violence in the country.
While the imam was received warmly by most of those gathered at the conference, he did not escape difficult questions from some members of the audience. One questioner asked if Rauf would consider building the proposed Cordoba House Islamic center elsewhere, or take money intended for the initiative and use it to support Seattle Weekly cartoonist Molly Norris. Norris was the objected of a fatwa last year from Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who urged Muslims to kill her for her depictions of Muhammad. On the advice of the FBI, the cartoonist changed her identity and went into hiding.
Rauf did not directly answer the question about Norris. He dismissed controversy over the Cordoba House project as a “wedge issue” used to influence the U.S. midterm elections. He said he would willingly shift the planned Islamic center to another site if one were suggested.
Another questioner asked about Islamic views of equality between men and women. Rauf admitted that gender equality had not been achieved in Muhammad’s lifetime, but credited the Islamic prophet with beginning the process.
“Much oppression against women is cultural, not religious,” Rauf maintained. He put the blame on the cultures of some Islamic countries, not on Islam itself. The imam pointed out that women did not always have a vote in the United States. Rauf predicted that as women in the Islamic world began to be employed and to inherit wealth, their situation would change. The Muslim leader also described his participation in a project to end female genital mutilation, a practice still common in some Islamic cultures.
Lastly, Rauf challenged the use of the term “Islamist” for militant movements in the Muslim world. “The name has been used deliberately by people who want to link Islam and terrorism,” he said, comparing use of the term to dubbing Pentecostal minister Terry Jones “Christianisty.” The imam did not suggest an alternative term to describe movements seeking to institute a political order based on shari’a.
Rauf was joined by several speakers and workshop presenters from Muslim, Jewish, liberal Christian, and evangelical backgrounds at what was billed as an interfaith conference.
Referring to the anti-shari’a activists demonstrating outside, the Rev. David Mesenbring, a pastor at St. Mark’s, declared, “The signs across the street remind us of how needed this event is.”
Mesenbring was echoed by Imam Jamal Rahman, who said it was human nature to judge a religion by the terrible acts of some of its practitioners, but that, quoting Gandhi, every religion has truths and untruths. Rahman said the Qur’an prescribes that people must celebrate each other, “not just tolerate.”
Anti-shari’a protesters were effectively demanding that “Muslims cannot be Muslim,” said Georgetown University Professor Yvonne Haddad, a keynote speaker who argued that shari’a was a core part of Islam. “What Muslims overseas see is that the U.S. is against Islam because we renounce shari’a,” Haddad concluded.
Purveyors of Islamophobia
While most of the Muslim speakers were content to present Islam as a moderate and tolerant faith, Jewish and Christian speakers engaged in aggressive critiques of their opponents, and in some cases, their would-be allies.
Freelance journalist Richard Silverstein criticized the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). According to Silverstein, the center had initially agreed to co-sponsor the anti-Islamophobia conference, but backed away upon learning that CAIR would also be a sponsor. “I mostly feel sorry for their [SPLC’s] caution and cowardice,” he said. Silverstein attributed the SPLC’s pullout to its fear of losing money from Jewish donors.
“Even liberal Jews get spooked by charges about CAIR,” Silverstein said. CAIR was named an unindicted co-conspirator by the U.S. Department of Justice in the 2008 trial of the Holy Land Foundation and its former officials. That trial resulted in several convictions of CAIR leaders who, through their involvement in the foundation, had funneled millions of dollars to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
Silverstein saved most of his rhetorical fire for New York Congressman Peter King, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, and blogger Pamela Gellar. He faulted all three for pursuing the “alleged issue of shari’a.”
“After 9-11, the Republican Party discovered there was gold in them there hills in Islamophobia,” Silverstein asserted, echoing Rauf’s earlier allegation that opposition to the Cordoba House project was rooted in cynical posturing by candidates ahead of midterm congressional elections.
“Hatred of Islam was wrapped up in devotion to a far-right brand of nationalism,” Silverstein charged, adding that the anti-shari’a movement represented by Gellar and Gaffney was “profoundly offensive to American values.”
The decision of St. Mark’s to sponsor the anti-Islamophobia conference alongside CAIR was in character for a congregation that has not shied away from controversy. In 1999 the cathedral became the first in the Episcopal Church to install an openly partnered homosexual, the Very Reverend Robert V. Taylor, as its dean.
In 2007, Ann Holmes Redding, the director of faith formation for St. Mark’s, made headlines after announcing that she was both an Episcopal priest and a Muslim.
But being on the leading edge of the Episcopal Church has not always benefitted the cathedral. In 2008 Taylor resigned his leadership of St. Mark’s under a cloud He departed with a generous severance package after the congregation, which had been one of the 10 largest in the denomination, dropped from a weekly attendance of 1,600 down to less than 500. Staff positions at the cathedral were slashed, including Redding’s position.
Redding herself was defrocked in 2009, after being unwilling to acknowledge that her dual belief systems were incompatible. Both her Episcopal bishop and many local Muslim leaders had noted the contradiction, which somehow escaped the so-called “Islamopalian” clergywoman.
In 2010, the cathedral again attracted attention by hosting “A Celebration of the Tree of Life in the Time of the Great Turning,” an environmental spiritualist event centered on “the ancient mythic image of the Tree of Life.” Redding returned to the cathedral for the event, where she joined pagan, Jewish, and Christian clergy, alongside a “Gaian teacher,” in a syncretistic blending of religions and environmental advocacy.
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