A former Aspen mayor and a New York imam launch the Crdoba Initiative | AspenTimes.com

A former Aspen mayor and a New York imam launch the Crdoba Initiative

Allyn HarveyAspen Times Staff Writer

In the fall of 2002, former Aspen Mayor John Bennett wandered into Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s mosque, Masijid al-Farah, just 12 blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.It’s far from a stereotypical mosque, tucked into the dense Tribeca district on three floors of an otherwise unremarkable building. But as Bennett watched the building fill with hundreds of mostly young Muslim worshippers, he was impressed.”What struck me most was not the space, but the people in it,” he said. “It’s extremely crowded, popular.”And then there was Imam Feisal himself, an Egyptian-American who was born in Kuwait and educated in England, Egypt and Malaysia. He has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Columbia University and a master’s degree in plasma physics from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. And Imam Feisal speaks three languages: English, Arabic and Malay.He teaches Islam and Sufism at the Center for Religious Inquiry at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York and at the New York Seminary, as well as at his mosque, where his duties are quite similar to those of a parish priest. He has published two books on Islam, and has a third, “What’s Right With Islam,” scheduled for publication in January 2004.Bennett had been exchanging letters with Imam Feisal over the few months following their introduction during a summer seminar in Aspen. He saw the imam as an outspoken and accomplished Muslim moderate, and a potentially important player in the success of the Spirit 21 Dialogues.”The Spirit 21 Dialogues: The Role of Spirituality in the 21st Century” were conceived by Bennett and three other Aspen-area residents, Father Thomas Keating from St. Benedict’s Monastery, Betsy Fifield and Merrill Ford, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks. Their plan was to bring leaders together from all the major faiths – Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism – to talk about conflict and how it might be reduced. A key Spirit 21 element was geography – leading thinkers from each religion would convene in hot spots of religious conflict around the world and discuss interfaith cooperation with local leaders. “It’s about increasing tolerance where religious violence is out of control,” Bennett said in an October 2002 interview. “Religion is so often a cause of violence. This is an attempt to use the leverage and the wisdom of spiritual leaders to try and counteract the violence.”The time he met Imam Feisal, Bennett was organizing the Spirit 21 Dialogues through his role as an advisor to The Garrison Institute, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes spiritual learning and dialogue.The imam liked what he heard from Bennett, but he wasn’t as impressed as one might have expected.”I thought about it and said it’s good – but it’s not enough,” Imam Feisal told The Aspen Times in a recent interview. “You need to convince political leaders to implement these things, otherwise you are spitting into the wind on a windy day.”The big questionsImam Feisal believes there are some big questions that need to be asked and pondered before they can be answered in any meaningful way, namely:”Why did the attack on 9/11 happen in the name of religion?”Why is the language of hatred for the United States and Christianity ingrained in the religious doctrine of Islam?”How do we fix it? How do we heal this religious hatred, this divide?”Those big questions led Imam Feisal and Bennett to expand on the Spirit 21 Dialogues and create The Crdoba Initiative.The Crdoba Initiative, named for the capital of Spain under Moorish rule, is built around four broad program areas that are subdivided into smaller initiatives aimed at “healing the relationship between Islamic countries and the West.” It has garnered enough attention since its launch last spring to gain financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation. And while financial support is needed for the initiative to succeed, Imam Feisal and Bennett say they are not out to create a new nonprofit organization. Rather, they want to work with existing organizations – nonprofit, educational, private, governmental – to connect moderate Muslims with each other and key decision-makers.The first program area, the American Muslim Initiative, has two components known as the Shariah Project and the American Muslim Identity Project. The Shariah Project is a scholarly effort to compile evidence that demonstrates how Islam and democracy share many of the same principles. “The research will be used to counter the claims of fundamentalists, to stimulate debate among intellectuals and leaders both here and in the Middle East, and to develop new Islamic education programs encouraging pluralism,” reads a white paper currently being drafted on the Crdoba project.”In addition to its inquiry of democratic principles, the Shariah Project will revisit a variety of assumptions about cultural traditions that may or may not be truly Islamic in origin, such as the role of women, clothing, fashion, facial hair, relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and similar issues,” the white paper continues.The second component of the American Muslim Initiative is The American Muslim Identity Project, which is meant to create a network of American Muslim leaders that can exert the same moderating influence that Americans have had on other great religions.Bennett pointed out that as Catholic and Jewish immigrants have arrived in the United States, they have adopted American values – tolerance, egalitarianism, checks and balances. And Catholics and Jews abroad have been influenced by their American brethren.”This same process will inevitably happen with Islam. What Imam Feisal is trying to do is speed up the evolutionary process,” Bennett said.”The paradox is how to take ancient religious principles and recast them in modern society,” Imam Feisal said.The second broad program area is dialogue. Three separate topic areas are planned. The first, known as The Jerusalem Dialogues, will bring together leaders from the Muslim and Jewish communities in the United States. The initial plan is to bring 10 from each faith together to a retreat outside New York City for three days of round-table discussion that will hopefully prove influential, both nationally and internationally.Invitees will include members of the American Muslim Council, the Islamic Society of North America, the World Jewish Congress, the National Jewish Center for Learning & Leadership and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.One topic of discussion will be the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.”Many American Jews and Muslims remain frustrated that their nation is not playing a greater leadership role in settling the conflict,” Bennett and Imam Feisal write in their white paper. “Jewish and Muslim leaders, speaking together, could have a powerful effect on public opinion and American foreign policy.”The Democracy Dialogues, on the other hand, are meant to influence domestic policy in Middle Eastern nations. The Crdoba project will convene decision makers, opinion leaders and scholars from the United States and the Middle East to discuss means of adapting democracy and capitalism to Islamic cultures “in which such concepts are often rejected as `un-Muslim,'” according to the white paper. The third set of dialogues is the Spirit 21 Dialogues that Bennett and his friends in Aspen conceived last year. The initial conference will convene leaders from the major faiths for two days at the Garrison Institute up the Hudson River from New York City. The primary subject will be the role of religious leaders in promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding.The fourth and, so far, most developed of the program areas are the cultural and educational programs. The Crdoba Initiative has helped organize a series of meetings between young Muslim and Jewish leaders in which they share their lives and perspectives with each other. The Initiative also helped produce a national television program in which young Muslims fielded questions from non-Muslims who had been interviewed on the street. Last June, the Initiative organized the Crdoba Bread Fest under the banner “The Children of Abraham Break Bread Together.” More than 300 Christians, Jews and Muslims came together at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan to break bread and share stories about the role of bread in the three Abrahamic religions.The Initiative is also working to create a five-day seminar for high school students that will explore the roots of Western Civilization. It’s modeled after the Great Ideas Seminar for high school students moderated by William Cathers at The Aspen Institute. Imam Feisal speaks”The Bush Administration has done a lot of positive things within the Muslim world, but the reasons for doing all those things have been wrong,” Imam Feisal said.He compared the Bush Administration’s treatment of the Muslim world to that of a father who says, “I love you” in one breath to his child and “Don’t give me that bullshit” in the next.”Sincerity in action and sincerity in intellect and communication is absolutely critical to how you conduct foreign policy in the Middle East, or anywhere, for that matter,” Imam Feisal said.Imam Feisal says Bush spokesmen claim to be fighting for democracy and justice in their fight against Saddam, yet for years the United States supported his tyrannical regime. Such contradictions make the United States hard to trust, Imam Feisal said. “The view is that the U.S. is dispossessing people and killing them unjustly,” he said. “And we are allied with nations – Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, historically, Iraq – that deny people their inalienable rights.”Globalization has also taken its toll on America’s reputation on the streets of Cairo, Riyadh and Jerusalem. U.S. farm subsidies, for instance, subvert the administration`s claims in support of free trade, and they make it harder for developing nations to build their economies.”There is a ripple effect from U.S. domestic policy that affects the average man on the street [in Cairo],” Imam Feisal said. If the Crdoba Initiative works as envisioned, it will foster the cross-cultural and religious understanding needed to change U.S. and Middle Eastern opinion and behavior.”Nothing will delight me more than if six months from now the U.S. can find a way to adopt and project the ideas from this initiative,” Imam Feisal said. “If it can, it will immediately have a positive impact in the Muslim world.”Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com

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