Ron Radosh

The Confused Open Letter to Imam Rauf by Yossi Klein Halevi---Why his Plea to the Imam Won't Work

The Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi, a contributing editor of The New Republic, has issued a challenge to Imam Rauf. Halevi, whom I met a few years ago in Israel, has believed for a long time that the only road to peace in the Middle East is through a coming together of the three Abrahamic faiths. Indeed, this is the theme of his well-received book, At the Entrance to The Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.

At first glance, Halevi seems to hold many illusions about Rauf’ s beliefs. He writes his open letter to the imam, he says, as “a well-wisher and friend.” His approach is the opposite of someone like Andy McCarthy, whose many articles on are devoted to exposing the hidden agenda of the imam (a view which I have come to believe is correct). Halevi, in contrast, begins by noting what he believes is Rauf’s willingness to endorse Halevi’s call “for the Muslim world to come to terms with the Jewish return home.” Halevi recalls with pride how Rauf beamed when Halevi talked of “joining the Muslim prayer line and the reverence-the love-I felt for its choreography of surrender to God.” As for himself, he and a friend he quotes both believe that the imam is “a spiritual ally, not an enemy.”

At this point, I had the reaction many of you readers undoubtedly will have: How much is it possible for someone so smart, as Halevi is, to be taken in by the evidently personally charming Rauf? So what lies behind this rather fawning opening of Halevi’s article? Does he really believe all this about Rauf, or is Halevi using a technique he has adopted so that the challenge he lays out will be hard for Rauf to ignore?

I suspect the latter is the case, although it is possible he does have these positive feelings about Rauf, and reminding the imam of what he said to Halevi back in 2001 will make him listen to the points he next raises. He says the imam favors an “outreach to the American Jewish community,” that he favors creating an Islam for America modeled on Orthodox Judaism.

But in the second part of his article, Halevi tells Rauf that he is now “troubled by some of your statements on the Middle East.” After all, Halevi above all knows that one cannot be a supporter of Israel, as Rauf said he was, and advocate a one-state solution for Israel which, as Halevi says, “is code for destruction of the Jewish state.”  And, Halevi tells Rauf, “you’ve refused to condemn Hamas.”

Somehow, I think that Halevi is writing with his tongue in his cheek. The kind of contradictions he accosts Rauf with are hardly accidental slips; they reveal what he obviously really thinks. So Halevi next tells the great imam that “sometimes it seems that you want to be all things to all people.” Really, how could Halevi get such an idea, since he is talking about a person he told us earlier is an ally of Israel? Well, perhaps Halevi is really confused. He writes:

“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.”

But wait a minute; isn’t that last sentence also a major contradiction? Does one reassure the faithful by accepting their most radical views as the way to enter the mainstream? Shouldn’t an imam who really seeks that goal be opposing these views, rather than pandering to them?  And how then can Halevi tell Rauf that “I believe that you intend to create a center of Islamic moderation near Ground Zero”? If he did, would he recently have made all these objectionable statements that Halevi throws in Rauf’s face? Could it be that Rauf believes what he says? And these statements were made not to Islamic audiences abroad, but to Americans at home. It was to a question from a reporter about whether he would condemn Hamas that Rauf sought to evade an answer.

Finally, having buttered Rauf up, Halevi comes out with it. He says in effect: prove to me, good imam, that you actually want tolerance and understanding. How to do that? Halevi’s answer:

“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.”

What he requests is what he argues in his book is the only path to understanding: through the common elements Halevi believes exist in the Abrahamic faiths. And Halevi, like other critics, brings to the imam’s attention the pope’s refusal to allow Polish nuns to build a convent next to the site of Auschwitz.  Thousands of Polish Catholics had died in Auschwitz 1, and that’s whom the nuns sought to honor. Halevi writes: “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.”

Then, finally, Halevi hits the imam with his fists:

“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.”

A nice idea, Yossi. But I recall that at the end of the talk you gave our small group a few years ago, you admitted that such a hope was really your dream, perhaps so impossible that it would not happen. As the great scholar Bernard Lewis commented a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal forum about the search for a moderate Islam: “For the moment, there does not seem to be much prospect of a moderate Islam in the Muslim world. This is partly because in the prevailing atmosphere the expression of moderate ideas can be dangerous — even life-threatening. Radical groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban, the likes of which in earlier times were at most minor and marginal, have acquired a powerful and even a dominant position.”

So when you tell Imam Rauf that “a 15-story Islamic center near Ground Zero will undermine that process” [of building tolerance and reconciliation] and actually “buttress triumphalist theology,” and that the current plan of the iman “would be understood by large parts of the Muslim world as a victory over the West,” you are in fact repeating to him what the majority of critics of the Park51 mosque have said. Could it possibly be the case, I ask Yossi Klein Halevi, that this might actually have been Imam Rauf’s aim in the first place?

Could it be that the imam was talking out of both sides of his mouth in order to fool the gullible and even sophisticated intellectuals like Yossi Klein Halevi, who seek out the good in everyone and ignore all the signs that others, like Imam Rauf, are not actually friends and allies of the Jews and Israel? Does Halevi really think that Rauf will understand since it comes from his good friend Halevi that an interfaith center is not enough, since that would “likely reinforce the medieval theology of extending ‘protection’ to Christianity and Judaism under the auspices of Islam”? In other words, dhimmitude near Ground Zero? Does Halevi really believe that after his open letter, Rauf will agree to not an Islamic center, but an “interfaith center in which the three Abrahamic faiths are given equal status”?

The answer is obvious. My prediction is that Rauf will ignore the open letter, not comment on it publicly, and not even answer Halevi personally. And if he does, he will explain why it must be a purely Islamic center.

When that happens, I wonder, will Yossi Klein Halevi give up his naïve belief that Rauf intended to convey the message that Halevi believes? If he does not, Halevi too will have to be added to the ranks of the very gullible.

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