Top imam spoke at past Freshman Studies lecture

When Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf held a lecture four years ago at St. Edward’s University about his book, “What’s Right with Islam,” he was, to most students and faculty, the relatively unknown author of the required freshman reading for the 2006-2007 school year.

Today Imam Rauf is a driving force behind the construction of Park51, an Islamic cultural center two blocks away from the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

As the proposed construction of Park51 brings controversy and debate, faculty and students at St. Edward’s share their views on the connection between the author, the university and the Park51 controversy, as well as their personal perceptions of the Imam.

The Park51 controversy is crucial to understanding how Americans identify with religion, according to religious studies professor Jennifer Veninga.

“This [Park51] story has been misinterpreted by media and used for [other] purposes; it highlights the United States’ continued wrestling with [the events of] 9/11 almost 10 years later,” Veninga said.

In a survey conducted by  Time magazine, 61 percent of Americans oppose the construction of the Park51 project, while 26 percent support it. In New York, 71 percent oppose Park51.

“Being a native New Yorker, I think it is an awful idea,” junior Vincent Caruso said. “Right now it is just too soon to put up a mosque where so many brave men and women lost their lives.”

Although various media outlets have constantly been sending out mixed messages about the community center and the imam behind it, Park51’s vision remains unchanged.

Park51’s mission statement includes “[dedication to] pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet.”

“I saw enough [from the lecture at St. Edward’s] to gather that [the Imam] was passionate about helping Americans understand his religion,” St. Edward’s alumnus and former Hilltop Views Editor-in-Chief Bryce Bencivengo said in an email exchange.

Rauf has also been the target for negative claims and criticisms by both citizens and media centers.

Those opposed to the Park51 project have called Imam Rauf “an Islamic extremist in sheep’s clothing,” according to

However, not all perceptions are unfavorable or controversial.

“Imam Rauf is a scholar of his religion and to a lesser extent a scholar of American religious culture. He is not a terrorist or an extremist; quite the contrary, in fact,” Bencivengo said.

Director of Freshman Studies Lynn Rudloff, who chose “What’s Right with Islam” as a freshman reading, said her view of the imam differs completely from the perception of the media, and noted that the imam is a New Yorker who felt the pain just as other citizens of the city.

“I believe that Imam Rauf is doing a great job advocating for the Park51 community center, and that the media is portraying this project as just a mosque and not as a community center that consists of a 500-seat auditorium, a theater, performing arts center, fitness center, swimming pool, basketball court, childcare area, bookstore, culinary school, art studio, food court and a Sept. 11 memorial,” freshman Salva Khataw said.