Ron Radosh

A Response to Yossi Klein Halevi: Can one Really Dialogue with Imam Rauf?

Last week, I wrote a critique of a column that appeared on the New Republic’s Website by the distinguished Israeli journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi. As he promised, Halevi responded with a thoughtful and serious retort, which you will read below. One commentator wrote in the comments section that Halevi, who grew up in the USA, understandably has such a confused position because of his “liberal upbringing.”  I laughed at that one. Halevi came from the hard Jewish right-wing.  He was, as he wrote in a book about his experience, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, a protege of the late Meir Kahane and a member of the Jewish Defense League. This proves that all is not so obvious, and one should be sure about a comment before using it in an argument.

So here is Halevi’s response:

Dear Ron,

Thank you for the invitation to respond to your comments about my open letter to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

You called my letter “confused” because I showed respect to the Imam and treated him as a man of goodwill even as I acknowledged that he’s made statements that offend me.

For every problematic quote of his, one can find a counter-quote that shows sensitivity to Jewish concerns and occasional courage (like identifying himself as a supporter of Israel – words that can get a Muslim cleric killed).

So who is Imam Feisal?

One conclusion – yours – is that he’s a fraud, that his seemingly moderate statements are intended to conceal a jihadist agenda.

I don’t believe that he is an American Tariq Ramadan. (Ramadan would never call himself a supporter of Israel, even to deceive.) If I thought he was, I would not have addressed him with the respect that I did. I would not have bothered writing him at all.

How then to make sense of his contradictions?

One possibility is the opposite conclusion of yours – that Imam Feisal is cautiously advancing a moderate agenda by making occasional radical statements intended to reassure his community that he hasn’t sold out. You assume that he’s only telling the truth when he sounds like a radical; but it is surely no less logical to assume that he is telling the truth when he takes risks by making moderate statements and that his problematic statements are attempts to protect himself.

Having lived in Israel through the years of Yasser Arafat’s double-speak, advocating peace in English and jihad in Arabic, I’m wary of linguistic deceptions. But Imam Feisal seems to me to be engaged instead in a complicated balancing act = in part because even Arafat’s most extravagant “peace” rhetoric didn’t approach the powerful statements of reconciliation that Imam Feisal has made.

Is he engaged in a complicated balancing act? I don’t know. But having grown up in the Orthodox Jewish community, I’ve seen my share of good men who feel compelled to make the occasional moral compromise in the name of communal loyalty and discipline.

There is another possible explanation for Imam Feisal’s conflicted statements and that is that he is genuinely conflicted.

Religion is not political ideology. When dealing with a person’s soul, contradictions are almost inevitable.

Consider Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, one of the most important religious figures in Israel. Yosef heads Israel’s largest ultra-Orthodox party, Shas. Yet he is also one of the most lenient rabbis among this generation of leading halakhic authorities. He recently called for the death of “the Palestinians” – all of them –  one outrageous statement among many over the years. Yet he also issued a ruling permitting Israel to withdraw from holy land for the sake of peace, an halakhic position that could one day offer vital Judaic legitimacy for an agreement with the Palestinians.

So which is the real Rabbi Ovadiah? Many in Israel, especially secularists, dismiss him as nothing more than a genocialist, while his followers insist he is loving man who intends no harm to any human being and that his words were as usual taken out of context. A more nuanced approach would denounce his incendiary words while acknowledging that he may also play some positive role in Israeli life.

I use this example not to compare Imam Feisal and Rabbi Ovadiah, but to show the sometimes unbearable contradictions that occur within a believer’s soul.

Perhaps the main disagreement between us, Ron, is over how to conduct an interfaith argument, including one as bitter and traumatic as the one over Imam Feisal’s Islamic center and mosque. I believe that religious arguments need to be conducted differently than political arguments — though Islamism has blurred those distinctions, and this rule doesn’t apply to Islamists.

So that brings us back to the question of who is Imam Feisal.

Perhaps if there were large numbers of unequivocal moderates, I wouldn’t need Imam Feisal as a dialogue partner. But there aren’t. And as an Israeli and a Jew, I need him desperately. I need him because large parts of the Muslim world are going the way that large parts of the Christian world went in the 1930s.

Yes, Imam Feisal has advocated a one-state solution, and I’ve spent much time over the last years countering the demonization of Israel generally and the pernicious notion of  the“one state” destruction of Israel in particular. Yet he is also a Muslim who is willing to publicly engage with Jews, to unequivocally condemn suicide bombing attacks against Israelis and is open to discussing the religious meaning for Jews of our return home to the land of Israel. That is a basis for engagement and debate.

Rather than seek the telltale quote that will supposedly resolve whether he is a genuine moderate or a closest jihadist, I prefer to treat him with respect and

— not as a tactic, as you suggest, but because that is the prerequisite for genuine dialogue.We need an approach that doesn’t resort to the blinders of the left or the sledgehammers of the right.  If the result sounds “confusing,” I’m willing to live with a certain amount of disonance, at least in my religious conversations.

And on the next page, my response.

Ron Radosh responds:

Dear Yossi,

As I expected, your answer to my critique is serious and respectful,  and demands an equally serious answer.

In contrast to your original article,  you now argue that Imam Rauf is perhaps engaged in a “complicated balancing act.” But if this is what he is doing, why does he have to put what you call “communal loyalty” first? Loyalty to whom: radical Islamists with whom he purportedly opposes?

The reason I doubt he is doing this stems first from his refusal to condemn Hamas and acts of terrorism by Islamists, as any true moderate Muslim would not hesitate to do. If he does this because of religion, I would have to ask: What is the difference between his view of religion, and his view of political ideology?  Perhaps to him, religion and ideology are one and the same. If he cannot criticize or condemn Hamas because he sees them as co-religionists whom he does not wish to offend, then he is indeed guilty of sympathy to terrorists and to enemies of true democracy.

Unlike you, I cannot talk about the works and arguments of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. I take your description of what he believes as accurate. But can one extrapolate from this Rabbi, whom you know well, to Imam Rauf? They are members of two very different religious orders. As Ami Taheri points out today in The New York Post, and M. Zuhdi Jasser argues in today’s Wall Street Journal, the Imam’s words and actions make quite clear what he really is about.

Jasser writes:

Imam Rauf and his supporters are clearly more interested in making a political statement in relation to Islam than in the mosque’s potential for causing community division and pain to those who lost loved ones on 9/11. That division is already bitterly obvious…I must ask Imam Rauf: For what do you stand—what’s best for Americans overall, or for what you think is best for Islam? What have you said and argued to Muslim-majority nations to address their need for reform? You have said that Islam does not need reform, despite the stoning of women in Muslim countries, death sentences for apostates, and oppression of reformist Muslims and non-Muslims.

Rauf, he continues, argues against politically motivated American protests. Yet he says nothing about the global impact of dangerous groups like The Muslim Brotherhood, and indeed, praises the radical Islamist Imam Yusuf Qaradawi as a “moderate.” Indeed, Jasser notes that Rauf is making Ground Zero an Islamic rather than an American issue, thereby “showing his true allegiance.”

And for his part, Taheri points out that there is no such thing as an “Islamic culture;” hence the concept that he wants to build an Islamic cultural center rings false. What he wants to build, Taheri argues, is a rabat, “a point of contact at the heart of infidel territory,” to prepare the way for the expansion of an Islamic society.

As for the original plan to call it Cordoba House, after the period in Southern Spain in which the followers of the three Abrahamic religions supposedly lived in peace, Taheri says this is a false picture.  He writes:

In fact, Cordoba’s history is full of stories of oppression and massacre, prompted by religious fanaticism. It is true that the Muslim rulers of Cordoba didn’t force their Christian and Jewish subjects to accept Islam. However, non-Muslims could keep their faith and enjoy state protection only as dhimmis (bonded ones) by paying a poll tax in a system of religious apartheid. If whatever peace and harmony that is supposed to have existed in Cordoba were the fruit of “Muslim rule,” the subtext is that the United States would enjoy similar peace and harmony under Islamic rule.

Cordoba, contrary to the popular impression, was the opposite of what President Obama said it was: a facility that would be used to propagate “moderate” Islam. Taheri writes:  “A rabat in the heart of Manhattan would be of great symbolic value to those who want a high-profile, ‘in your face’ projection of Islam in the infidel West.”

I think you would agree that Rabbi Yosef’s conception of Judaism as a religion bares no comparison to the concept of Islam as enunciated by Taheri and Jasser.  So the question becomes, if the issue is carrying out an “interfaith argument,” how indeed does one carry his out with Islamists? You yourself say this is impossible, since Islamists blur the difference.  So if Imam Rauf too is an Islamist, it is from both our points of view impossible in fact to carry out such a dialogue.

So, I ask you. Why do you “need him desperately?” Are there no other truly moderate Muslim leaders you could carry out such a dialogue with? In fact there are, and a number of them have organizations they work with in the United States. Why cannot you approach them, rather than Imam Rauf, whom you met accidentally, and were charmed by?

The give-away is, as you acknowledge, that Imam Rauf advocates a one-state solution, or in other words, an Arab state in place of Israel in which Jews would be dhimmis. So what if he is willing to publicly engage with you and other Jews? What this does is give him and his call for a unitary Arab state new legitimacy rather that would not be taken as seriously if people like you did not answer to his outreach. All that does is make a radical appear moderate, which is precisely what Imam Rauf really desires. I do not see anything he says as a real basis for “engagement and debate.”

If you persist in viewing him as a person to treat with respect, what you will get is not dialogue- he does not indicate now, for example, any willingness to compromise- but only provide cover for him to advance his own spurious agenda. You might be carrying out a true religious conversation; the Imam Rauf will take advantage of your own seriousness and kindness to walk all over you.

It is most interesting that you say he is no Tariq Ramadan, with whom you would not reciprocate or engage in a dialogue with. Are you not aware that so many of your American counterparts, men like Alan Wolfe, a fellow contributing editor of yours at TNR, consider Ramadan just such a real moderate with whom one can dialogue- and use the same reasons you advance for talking with Rauf?  Do you not know of the vicious attacks on Paul Berman for his own exposure of Ramadan, from well- known liberals like Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash and Melise Ruthven, who also aim their fire at heretics from Islam like Aayan Ali Hirsi and in contrast respond with respect and admiration to people like Ramadan? It certainly looks like one man’s moderate is another man’s Islamist.

Finally, if it turns out your estimate of Imam Rauf is correct, it will be all to the good. Somehow, especially given the evidence in this country this past week, that unfortunately does not appear to be the case.

Sincerely, and best wishes for the New Year,


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