December 5, 2010
The Gift of Reconciliation: New York Times Magazine
As the ocean liner steamed in from the open sea and approached the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the boy worried that the ship’s superstructure would not clear. ‘‘It was a cold, sunny winter day, Wednesday, the 22nd of December, 1965,’’ he said. ‘‘There are certain dates etched in your memory.’’ His journey to America had begun in Egypt, where his father was a leading religious figure. ‘‘The image of the Statue of Liberty came into view slowly . . . such majesty and beauty. It was a life-changing moment in my life. I was 17 years old.’’ That Feisal Abdul Rauf’s American story began off the southern tip of Manhattan can seem foreordained, in light of the controversy that consumed him 45 years later. At his first glimpse of his new world, he told me, ‘‘I had an intuition that my work would involve introducing Islam to America.’’ Yet at that point, young Rauf was himself in the throes of typical adolescent questioning. ‘‘In such a free society — it was the ’60s! — religion had become a matter of choice.’’ Not so in Kuwait, where he was born, and where religion was inherited. In America, ‘‘religion was passé. I was bewildered by all that. I was asking, ‘Does God exist? What is the meaning of life?’ And I found the answers to my religious questions as a matter of choice. I could choose to embrace my Muslim faith — and I did.’’ That simply, Feisal Abdul Rauf glimpsed the meaning of the nation’s defining freedom. ‘‘America made it possible for me to freely and deliberately choose to be religious and Muslim.’’ Rauf would become an American citizen in 1979.
The boy enrolled at Columbia University, from which he graduated as a physics major in 1969. He earned a graduate degree at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., still within sight of Lower Manhattan. But he had become an apprentice to his father: Muhammad Abdul Rauf, a University of London Ph.D, who was director of the New York Islamic center from 1965 to 1970, a leading Muslim participant in the nascent ‘‘ecumenical movement.’’ After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the senior Imam Rauf frequently visited New York synagogues. ‘‘It was a difficult thing to do for an Egyptian Muslim in that tense time between Israel and the Arab world,’’ Feisal said. ‘‘My father waged the struggle for peace.’’
From 1970 to 1980, his father was director of the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., an elegant mosque on Embassy Row. In 1977, a fringe Muslim group, headed by a man with a history of mental illness, took over the Islamic Center and two other Washington buildings (including the B’nai B’rith headquarters), taking more than a hundred hostages. ‘‘My father was held at gunpoint for 39 hours at the Islamic Center by the Hanafi Muslims,’’ Rauf said. ‘‘He experienced the terror of extremist Muslims.’’ So did Rauf.