(Excerpt) Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the Ground Zero Mosque Controversy

An excerpt from Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy (Stanford University Press, 2016) by Rosemary R. Corbett With an introduction by the author.

Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the Ground Zero Mosque Controversy provides a history and ethnography of the community behind the highly contested Islamic center project that imam Feisal Abdul Rauf proposed for downtown Manhattan in 2010, and sets this local study within a larger examination of how Muslim Americans deal with the pressures they face to project religious moderation in political, social, and economic terms. The book covers the three primary facets of Rauf’s definition of Muslim moderation, which was widely lauded by politicians of all stripes before 2010, and reveals how all of these facets are highly racialized and gendered in different ways, although Rauf has not always been aware of the racial history or ramifications of his definitions. Two of these aspects are mentioned in the book’s subtitle: promotion of the orientalist idea that Sufism is the peaceful, apolitical, non-violent strain of Islam, and promotion of the more contemporary idea that engaging in community service projects (such as building an Islamic community center) will help Muslims to prove their moderation and Americanness just as such efforts helped Catholics and Jews overcome nativist discrimination in the past. The third aspect of moderation, which is not mentioned in the subtitle but is the subject of this excerpt, is promotion of an exceptionalist narrative of American economic and social progress—one that, like the other aspects of moderation I mentioned, has deeply racial and gendered ramifications. The fact that Rauf echoed this narrative—one promoted by even his fiercest critics, including Newt Gingrich—for years and yet still was tarred as a “radical” demonstrates the difficulties Muslim Americans face in gaining acceptance and the limits of American liberal inclusion.


In 2010, Mike Reynolds, author of a bill to ban the use of Islamic law in Oklahoma courts, defended his legislation by arguing, “America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles—that’s the basis of our laws, and people try to deny it.” Although midterm elections often seem unremarkable, the 2010 election was an exception, as various critics of the Manhattan Islamic community center project knows as Cordoba House—particularly Republicans on the far right and those catering to the Tea Party (a new right-wing political movement)—tried to harness opposition to a “Ground Zero Mosque” for electoral gain. Similar ballot initiatives appeared in over two-dozen states during the next two years, with supporters frequently emphasizing that the use of Islamic law in the U.S. would violate America’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage.

Use of the words “Judeo-Christian” to describe U.S. history and identity is ubiquitous in American political rhetoric. The term is a seemingly timeless characterization of American society. Not only does the expression have a much shorter and more complicated history than its ancient connotations convey, however, it is often employed euphemistically to denote a Christian (and, even more specifically, Protestant) perspective or position.[i] Despite this strongly stated conviction about the country’s dual heritage, for example, Reynolds clarified in his same comments the singular nature of the impulse that led him to introduce State Question 755: concern “about Christian values in our nation.”[ii]

Evangelical politicians cited America’s Judeo-Christian character as a reason why Muslims posed a national threat before the Ground Zero Mosque debate of 2010. When, for example, the first Muslim elected to Congress (black American Keith Ellison from Minnesota) performed his oath of office with Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an instead of a Bible in 2006, Republican Congressman Virgil Goode warned that “we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to infiltration by those who want to mold the United States into the image of their religion rather than working within the Judeo-Christian principles that have made us a beacon of freedom-loving peoples around the world.”[iii]

It was in response to claims like these that Feisal Abdul Rauf promoted his narrative of Abrahamic (Jewish-Christian-Muslim) tradition after 9/11 and penned his 2004 book What’s Right with Islam. Although many advocates of interfaith cooperation echoed his narrative after 9/11, it was not always well received—particularly not after the Ground Zero Mosque debate. At a January 2012 campaign stop in South Carolina, for example, presidential candidate Rick Santorum not only spoke in terms of “Judeo-Christian” heritage, he pointedly excluded Muslims from so-called Abrahamic traditions and from the ethical lineage that stems from them. Equality “doesn’t come from Islam… It comes from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” Santorum, a conservative Catholic, argued.[iv] (Muslims trace their religious lineage not through Isaac, but through Ishmael, Abraham’s first son.)

Santorum was not Rauf’s only conservative Catholic detractor. Newt Gingrich, another 2012 Republican presidential candidate, was a more prominent spokesperson for the anti-Muslim movement and against Cordoba House. Long active in trumpeting the nation’s Judeo-Christian history, Gingrich led the Republican takeover of Congress on a “family values” platform in 1994. After he was charged with eighty-four counts of ethics violations, the former Southern Baptist retired from Congress in 1998 and pursued a new religious and political path: he converted to his third wife’s Catholic faith and founded Gingrich Productions to promote his “vision of an America in which a belief in the Creator is once again at the center.”[v] This vision characterizes his 2010 film about the dangers of “radical Islam” called America At Risk: A War with No Name, as well as his 2010 and 2011 books, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine and A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters.[vi]

Between 2010 and 2012, Gingrich went to extraordinary lengths to condemn Cordoba House and the larger Abrahamic vision of America it was to instantiate. And yet, his rhetoric overstated his ideological differences with Rauf. Undoubtedly, he and politicians like Santorum are in many ways more socially conservative than the imam.[vii] Nevertheless, both Rauf’s and Gingrich’s philosophies are liberal in terms of the Lockean liberalism evoked in the Declaration of Independence, of Progressive Era liberals who viewed Protestant America as the triumphant culmination of world history (a theme each modifies to include Catholicism or Islam), and of the post-Great Society neoliberalism that stresses individual responsibility, the privatization or repeal of state welfare provisions, and government involvement in the economy primarily on behalf of the market.[viii] This latter variety of market liberalism has often come to define the political perspectives of politicians and pundits like Gingrich—ones more commonly called “conservative.”

Tellingly, although Rauf describes American society as “Abrahamic” and Gingrich insists it is “Judeo-Christian” in culture and origin, both define the nation’s identity in terms of an exceptional “American Creed” based on U.S. founding documents, fortified by religious roots, and replete with economic implications. A closer look at this creed reveals the liberal philosophies of rights and neoliberal economic arrangements—including those in which religious organizations, rather than the state, provide community services—central to each man’s story of American progress and uniqueness.

For evidence of the Abrahamic-American ethical convergence, Rauf points to the nation’s founding documents and the liberal philosophies of religion, reason, and rights they express. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution exemplify “the core values” of the Abrahamic ethic, he argues. Because the Declaration of Independence “ground[ed] itself in reason, just as the Quran and the Abrahamic ethic did in asserting the self-evident oneness of God,” he asserts, it embodies the moral and philosophical worldview revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.[ix] Referencing the third and thirtieth chapters (suras) of the Qu’ran, the imam also introduces readers to the Islamic concepts of nature (al-fitrah) and the “religion” of nature (din al-fitrah, which he translates as “natural religion”).[x] Rauf then compares these Qu’ranic teachings on what he calls the Islamic tradition of natural religion with the Declaration’s mention of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,’” concluding that the natural law referred to in the nation’s founding documents is synonymous with what Muslims call shari‘ah.[xi] For Rauf, shari‘ah is not just complementary to American values, it is based in the same mixture of reason and revelation. Consequently, although no political society on earth will ever embody Islamic precepts as fully as the Prophet Muhammad’s did, the U.S. comes as close as possible and constitutes a “shariah-compliant” state.[xii]

Additionally, Rauf addresses some of the potential concerns non-Muslim interlocutors might have about characterizing American society as Abrahamic rather than Judeo-Christian. One is that an Abrahamic framing cannot accommodate broad religious diversity. In response, Rauf points to the pluralistic history of many Muslim-governed societies (especially Cordoba) and repeatedly asserts that religious freedom is fundamental to Islam. (God, after all, endowed humans with free will). Additionally, he re-emphasizes the “natural” aspect of his argument and puts it in terms of the Founders’ prescriptions. Quoting Hamilton and Jefferson on the divinely inspired laws of nature, Rauf posits that when the Founders cited the God-given “rights of ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,’” they adumbrated “cardinal moral truths” that all religious groups uphold.[xiii] Because all Americans hold these founding tenets and rights in common, he concludes, these values constitute the American Creed—a “peculiarly American” form of the Abrahamic ethic to which even atheists subscribe.[xiv]

Finally, Rauf argues that divine law and the Declaration of Independence mandate certain economic arrangements—ones badly needed in the Muslim world. These are “free enterprise and a free market economy,” which, when coupled with individual rights and concern for the disadvantaged, he believes, “imply vigorous economic competition and high social mobility.”[xv] Together, Rauf asserts, democracy and free market capitalism create a social environment that enables believers to live out the primary commandment underlying all authentic religions: to “love one’s neighbor” as oneself. Proof of this resides in American “democratic capitalism,” which—because it combines “democracy with a free-market economy,” he argues—has fueled a historically unprecedented expansion of freedom and equality for all peoples.[xvi]

Rauf acknowledges that Americans sometimes fail to live up to their founding ideals and his 2004 book is not short on critique, from the labeling of civilians casualties in Iraq as “collateral damage” instead of “terrorism” to U.S. support for repressive regimes.[xvii] Nevertheless, he forecasts, once Muslims and other Americans recognize their commonalities, they can jointly re-orient wayward American practices back to their Abrahamic origins and—by extending democratic capitalism around the world—undercut extremism (what he defines as a response to both “militant secularism” and material deprivation).[xviii] With these goals in mind, Rauf explains in the book’s final pages, he created the Cordoba Initiative.[xix]

Five years after publishing his treatise on how to recreate the spirit of Cordoba (the multi-religious city of twelfth-century Spain), Rauf announced plans to open Cordoba House. Less than a year later, the backlash was so severe that Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote, “not since 9/11 has Islamophobia been at such a pitch in the United States.”[xx] This backlash took several forms, including violence against Muslims and those taken to be Muslim (often Sikhs) and the destruction or vandalizing of mosques and other Muslim-owned properties across the nation.[xxi] Instead of engaging in such overt acts of aggression, some Americans protested the creation or expansion of other mosques and Islamic centers,[xxii] while others concentrated on combatting the scenario Gingrich frequently warned against in his 2010 film: the Muslim conquest of America effected, in part, by replacing the Constitution with shari‘ah.[xxiii] As Cohen noted in his Times piece, “[s]hariah is the new hot-button wedge issue, as radicalizing as abortion or gay marriage, seized on by Republicans to mobilize conservative Americans against the supposed ‘stealth jihad’ of Muslims in the United States and against a Democratic president portrayed as oblivious to—or complicit with—the threat.”[xxiv]

It is unlikely Gingrich failed to notice the political benefits of denouncing the Cordoba House project or of vowing to outlaw Islamic law in the U.S. during his multi-year campaign for the presidency.[xxv] Admittedly, Gingrich’s reasons for opposing Rauf could be attributed to significant policy differences—particularly on Mid-East issues.[xxvi] Nevertheless, what many people might find surprising is the extent to which the premises of Gingrich’s philosophy overlap with Rauf’s. This overlap is most evident in the ways Gingrich similarly attributes America’s unique combination of religion, reason, and (economic) liberties to the “American Creed” exemplified in the nation’s founding documents.

The fact that Gingrich’s liberal creed so closely resembles Rauf’s is no accident, though it is also by no means intentional. Their commonalities stem from their reliance on common sources, which are not immediately apparent because the two do not cite the same authors in the portions of their analyses devoted to liberal democracy or U.S. republican history. Focusing on the neoliberal economic precepts each derives from the American Creed, however—and from the work of Michael Novak, a Catholic neoliberal thinker at the American Enterprise Institute with whom Rauf’s father collaborated in the 1970s while attempting to build alliances between Muslims, Jews, and Christians—reveals the complicated history behind ideas about American Muslim moderation. It also reveals the difficulty Muslim Americans have faced gaining acceptance even when, as many have, they vie for inclusion partly by echoing the exceptionalist narratives of their critics.


[i] See Moore, Silk, and Todd. On how conservative evangelicals adopted the term to express opposition to secularism and support of Israel, see Kevin Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[ii] James C. McKinley, Jr., “Oklahoma Surprise: Islam as an Election Issue,” New York Times, November 15, 2010, emphasis added.

[iii] Quoted in Edward E. Curtis, Muslims in America: A Short History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 106-107.

[iv] Luke Johnson, “Rick Santorum: Equality Comes from ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,’ Not Islam,” Huffington Post, January 21, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/21/rick-santorum-equality-islam-religion-south-carolina_n_1220767.html.

[v] Newt Gingrich, “Religion and Politics: The Legitimate Role,” The Heritage Lectures 507 (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1994), 1.

[vi] America At Risk: The War with No Name (Washington, D.C.: Citizens United Productions, 2010) is distributed by Gingrich Productions. For Gingrich’s books, see Newt Gingrich and Joe DeSantis, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2010), and Newt Gingrich and Vince Haley, A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2011). DeSantis was Communications Director at Gingrich Communications when he co-authored To Save America, while Haley was Policy Director of Gingrich’s 2011-2012 presidential campaign when he co-wrote their book. Because these co-authors worked as Gingrich’s official spokespersons, I refer solely to Gingrich as author in the text.

[vii] Gingrich repeatedly proposed the death penalty for drug-related offenses, for example (his “Drug Importer Death Penalty Act” failed in committee 1996 and 1997), while Rauf opposes capital punishment. See Rauf, Moving the Mountain (New York: Free Press, 2012), 68-71.

[viii] See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) and Wendy Brown, “Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” in Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 37-59.

[ix] Rauf, What’s Right, 82-83.

[x] Ibid., 16.

[xi] Ibid., 82-83.

[xii] Ibid., 83-84. For Rauf, the Abrahamic ethic lived out in the community of the Prophet and his first four successors (according to Sunni tradition) evidenced “the conceptual seeds of democratic governance.” While these years were the most exemplary of Muslim governance, with a few exceptions, “democracy as we know it today did not truly take root and flower until a few millennia later, with the advent of the American Revolution” (80).

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid., 85

[xv] Ibid., 85.

[xvi] Ibid., 6.

[xvii] Ibid.,153-154, 158-159, 205.

[xviii] Ibid., 6-8, 125.

[xix] Ibid., 275.

[xx] Roger Cohen, “Shariah at the Kumback Café,” New York Times, December 6, 2010.

[xxi] Incidents included a mosque site in Tennessee vandalized by arson, a New York cab driver stabbed, and a mosque in Florida bombed. See Paul Vitello, “Church Rejects Sale of Building for a Mosque,” New York Times, July 22, 2010; AOL News, “FBI Finds Pipe Bomb Used in Blast at Fla. Mosque,” May 12, 2010, http://www.aolnews.com/crime/article/fbi-finds-pipe-bomb-used-in-blast-at-fla-mosque/19475001; Lucas L. Johnson, II, and Travis Loller, “Tennessee Mosque Site Fire was Arson, Police Say,” Huffington Post, August 30, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/30/murfreesboro-mosque-fire-arson-accelerant_n_699696.html; John Eligon, “Hate Crime Charges in Stabbing of a Cabdriver,” New York Times, August 30, 2010.

[xxii] Plans to build mosques and community centers in locations across the country were challenged while the Park51 debate unfolded. Phil Willon, “Planned Temecula Valley Mosque Draws Opposition,” Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2010.

[xxiii] On Gingrich’s 2010 film, America at Risk, see Scott Shane, “In Islamic Law, Gingrich Sees Moral Threat to the U.S.,” New York Times, December 21, 2011.

[xxiv] Cohen.

[xxv] On Gingrich and other Republican presidential candidates’ pledges to outlaw shari‘a, see Andrea Elliot “The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement,” New York Times, July 30, 2011.

[xxvi] In addition to differences over Israel-Palestine, Rauf argues that the U.S. missed an opportunity to build alliances when it demonized Ayatollah Khomeini and sheltered the Shah (What’s Right, 160). In contrast, Gingrich has advocated isolating Iran’s “pro-terrorist, anti-American regime” since the 1990s (Gingrich and Haley, 168).


Rosemary R. Corbett is a Faculty Fellow with the Bard Prison Initiative and has a PhD in Religion from Columbia University with a focus on Islam in the United States. She has previously held positions as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University, and (most recently) a Young Scholar in American Religion with the Center for the Study of American Religion at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. Her research involves examining how racial and religious minorities navigate U.S. Protestant-derived norms by forming shifting alliances around civic or political issues, and her book—Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversyis available from Stanford University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *