On July 20, Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager conducted a lengthy interview on his radio show with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, author of “What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America,” who is best known for his plans to build an Islamic community center, including a mosque, near the World Trade Center in New York. What follows is the transcribed text of that interview.
Dennis Prager: Imam Rauf, welcome to the Dennis Prager show.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf: Thank you very much, Dennis. It’s my pleasure to be with you.
DP: Nothing interests me more than the question of what will be Islam’s future. Anybody, whatever their position, has to be almost preoccupied with the question. . . .
Let me begin by asking you for a governing definition of an “Islamist.” Mine is: A Muslim who wishes Sharia to be the law of a land. What is yours?
IR: The Sharia is nothing more than the principles of the ten commandments, the principles that Jesus said, the two major commandments: To love the Lord, thy God, with all of your heart, your mind, your soul, and your strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. . . . Sharia law, in terms of its positive law, Dennis, is the protection and furtherance of six basic human rights: The right to life, the right to honor and dignity, the right to freedom of religion, the right to pursue your intellectual pursuits, to have a family, and to practice the faith of your choice, and to pursue property.
DP: Let me give you an example of Sharia law, and tell me where this falls under one of those six headings. During the month of Ramadan, on a street in Morocco, I was smoking my pipe and a man came over and said, “This is Ramadan. You can’t smoke.” Another example is the Somali cab drivers in Minneapolis who refuse to take passengers who have a bottle of beer in their car because of the ban on alcohol.
IR: This is a misapplication of Sharia. God’s law involves giving human beings the freedom to sin, the freedom to make mistakes, and part of the law of the land has to be to give people these freedoms. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misapplication of Islamic law in many countries.
DP: But is it not a basic yearning of, as you call yourself, orthodox Muslims, to want to see an Islamic state?
IR: Well, you see, there is a lot of basic misunderstanding around that. The action of the cab driver is no different than the action of a devout, fundamentalist Christian who kills a doctor who provides abortion services because he believes it is wrong. Taking the law into your own hands is wrong. Even under Islamic law, no human being is allowed to take the law into their own hands.
DP: But is it not the dream of every faithful Muslim to have an Islamic society, meaning that the state is Muslim and enforces Muslim law?
IR: That is not really completely true. In fact, in many countries, like in Pakistan, the Islamic political parties have never gained more than 25% of the vote. This is the problem: what has happened in the Muslim world in the last fifty, sixty years is that we have adopted the bad systems of what happened in Europe centuries ago when the state established a particular religion. This is the scourge which has become quite prominent in many Muslim countries, or sectors of Muslim-majority countries, and this is the battle that we have to wage today internally within Islam.
DP: So you think that all of these bad things that we see today in the Islamic world are all aberrations. Let me cite Ibn Khaldun, considered by both non-Muslims and Muslims be the greatest Muslim thinker ever, outside of Muhammad. He wrote that Jihad, for example, means waging war to convert people to Islam; and that Islam is a greater religion than Judaism or Christianity, because those two religions do not believe in Jihad, whereas Muslims do. Now, is he an aberration?
IR: Look, he is a sociologist. That statement is disproven by the vast majority of Islamic history from the very earliest times, when the followers of the prophets conquered other countries. Their system of rule until the ottomans a century ago, developed systems where people of every religion other than Islam were protected. And that is the system that we need to reintroduce to the Muslim world today. The aberrations we have today are just like the aberrations in Christianity centuries ago, when you had the inquisition.
DP: My study of Islamic history does not have such a rosy picture. The most dramatic example is Hindus in India, where Hindu historians estimate that many tens of millions of Hindus, because they were not monotheists—Jews and Christians were generally treated differently—were just slaughtered by the Islamic invasions of India. So yours is not my understanding of the Muslim past.
IR: I beg to differ with you, Dennis. In fact, almost 80% of India was ruled by Muslims, and they ruled over Muslims and non-Muslims. If that were true, in the lands where Muslims ruled, there would be nothing but Muslims like you see traditionally in Europe where any religion other, or any interpretation other than that particular opinion of Christianity—you don’t find other churches existing in those countries until right recently in European history.
You find under Ottoman rule and Muslim rule, all kinds of other religions. It’s only in the last century or even half a century that this triumphalist Islam has become dominant. This is the problem that exists in the Muslim world today. It only began about a century ago when the nation-state concept began and we created a religious nationalism. When India was split into Pakistan and India back in 1947-48, that’s when these problems really began and have become increasingly strong over the last fifty years and this is what we need to push against. This is why I say that the battlefront is not between Islam and the West, or Islam or Muslims and Hindus, or Muslims and Jews, although that is certainly a factor. The real battlefront is between all good, peace-loving, moderate people of all faith, traditions, against extremists of all faith, traditions, and that’s the battlefront we need to wage and to wage it together if we are going to win this battle for peace.
DP: Tell me what group represents extremist Christians today. There are one to two billion Christians. Who are the extremists that we have to battle against?
IR: Well, I mean, it is less of a problem in Christianity than it is among Muslims but those who have said negative things about Islam who, you know, the attitude of the doctors who kill abortion doctors for example.
DP: But they represent nobody. Let’s be honest, nobody fears being blown up by Christians. People don’t fear being blown up by Hindus or Jews or Buddhists. You could say the Tamils, but that was restricted to Sri Lanka. The reason that I take my shoes off at the airport is fear of Muslim extremists, not Jewish or Christian or Buddhist.
IR: And we accept that. We acknowledge that fact that the Muslim extremists today are the problem. We acknowledge that. I acknowledge that and Muslims acknowledge that.
DP: Well CAIR doesn’t. I’ve debated CAIR on national television and they say that there is more terror in the world by non-Muslims than by Muslims. That’s their basic line. You’re not a representative of CAIR, but please don’t say this is what all Muslims acknowledge.
IR: I’m not saying all Muslims acknowledge but the vast majority of Muslims acknowledge that.