Making Moderate Islam
Sufism, Service, and the "Ground Zero Mosque" Controversy
Rosemary R. Corbett



Debating Moderate Islam

In December 2009, Feisal Abdul Rauf announced plans to open a thirteen-story Islamic community center in Manhattan. A prominent imam, Sufi shaykh, and the internationally recognized leader of the Cordoba Initiative (founded in 2004 to “heal” the divide between “Islam and the West”1), Rauf designed Cordoba House to educate Americans about the truths Islam shares with other faiths and to exemplify the “moderate Islam” he had spent nearly a decade promoting, most notably in his 2004 book, What’s Right with Islam.2 There, in Friday messages he had delivered at his mosque since 2001 and in public appearances sponsored by the US State Department, among others, Rauf defined Muslim moderation by translating Islamic traditions into American idioms. His primary message: Islam is part of an ethical tradition originating with Abraham (the biblical patriarch common to Judaism and Christianity) and, of all the governments in the world, American liberal democracy best embodies this ethic in social form. Because US multiculturalism, pluralism, and “democratic capitalism” are expressions of the “Abrahamic” ethic—an ethic, he argues, that also characterized Cordoba, the multi-religious city of twelfth-century Spain—Rauf understands US laws and institutions to comply with Islamic law (shari‘ah).3 Consequently, non-Muslim Americans can accept Muslims as Abrahamic siblings, while Muslim Americans can promote American liberal values and social systems worldwide.

Both local leaders and international elites, ranging from Rauf’s World Economic Forum colleagues to the Archbishop of Canterbury, widely praised Rauf’s message of Abrahamic commonality after 9/11. Consequently, the imam did not expect significant opposition to Cordoba House. Indeed, many religious, political, and financial leaders responded positively to the project, and a Manhattan community board gave its approval. Others, however—especially politicians practiced in using fear of Islam for electoral gain—denounced the center as a “Ground Zero Mosque,” turning it and Rauf’s claims of moderation into subjects of international debate.

The controversy intensified in the summer of 2010. While Rauf was on a cultural outreach tour sponsored by the State Department, Republican Congressman Peter King claimed Rauf only posed as a moderate and should be investigated for ties to radical Islam.4 King was not the first public official to castigate the imam this way; he followed both Tea Party leader Mark Williams and Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives who was then an aspiring presidential candidate. Casting aspersion on the center, Gingrich argued that the medieval city of Cordoba signified not interreligious coexistence but Islamic conquest over a Christian kingdom—something, he claimed, Muslims sought to repeat in the United States.5 Such accusations prompted Sharif El-Gamal, the project’s developer and one of Rauf’s Sufi dervishes, to rename the proposed community center after its street address: “Park51.” Still, Gingrich likened building Cordoba House to placing Nazi signs near Holocaust memorials or to erecting a Japanese cultural center near Pearl Harbor.6

Rauf, Daisy Khan (his wife and Cordoba House codirector, who cofounded and led other organizations with Rauf), and several commentators, including The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, responded to such hyperbole by comparing the situation of contemporary Muslim Americans to that of Catholic and Jewish Americans during the early twentieth century.7 Reiterating one of his constant themes, Rauf described overcoming nativist discrimination in the United States as part of the general “immigrant religious experience”—a sociological process Catholics and Jews had completed, providing Muslims with a template for how to successfully Americanize while retaining core tenets of faith.8 Indeed, Catholics, Jews, and other religious minorities did face tremendous discrimination and opposition a century ago, some of which has abated over time. As I discuss in the following chapters, however, Rauf’s optimistic appeals to history and attempts to render Islamic traditions familiar to non-Muslims replicated and obscured some of the ways earlier marginalized religious groups learned to claim belonging in the United States—ways that invariably involved contrasting their own marginalized traditions with those of even less accepted populations, such as black Americans.9 Failing to recognize this dynamic, Rauf also failed to fully appreciate the political, economic, and racial positioning involved in his claims of moderation.

The story of assimilation, upward mobility, and moderation Rauf told before the Cordoba House controversy repeated a narrative created by earlier immigrants who emphasized the same ethics (including work ethics) as dominant white Protestants, as well as the moral obligation to engage in community service in order to assist those who fail to succeed in America’s free-market system. As we shall see, this narrative has deeply racist roots and ramifications. It helped earlier generations of immigrants and marginalized religious and racial groups to prove their loyalties when they were suspected of having uncivilized mores or Communist sympathies, but it also perpetuated the fiction that “white” Americans (whoever is included in that category at any particular period of time) have experienced upward mobility because of their own efforts in a meritocracy, rather than because of the social capital connected to whiteness in the United States and because of the twentieth-century government-funded social welfare programs that aided whites and white ethnics but largely excluded nonwhites.10 In short, this argument has served, among other things, as a way for marginalized groups to distinguish their communities from dispossessed black Americans and other so-called undeserving poor—or, in the case of black Americans like W. D. Mohammed (leader of the former Nation of Islam), to distinguish themselves from the ostensibly underserving poor in their midst. Not surprisingly, although many saw Rauf’s message of American Abrahamic exceptionalism as quintessentially moderate, others—including some Muslim Americans—could not agree with it.

Rauf did not personally hold to the racist beliefs this older narrative perpetuates, nor did he even recognize that it perpetuates them. Still, he began to tell a somewhat different story after the Cordoba House controversy, in part because the controversy coincided with a recession so severe it made painfully apparent many of the economic and racial inequalities built into neoliberal free-market capitalism in the United States. Other aspects of Rauf’s work also changed after that, including his public emphasis on combatting Muslim-led terrorism with Sufism, a body of tradition that involves not just the five daily prayers and other required Islamic practices but additional formal reflection and observance (dhikr). The idea that Sufism is the opposite of dogmatic (some would say “fundamentalist”11) Islam is as old as the idea that the United States is a true meritocracy—that is to say, it is relatively recent. Both popular and newly politicized for domestic and international purposes, this discourse of Sufi moderation is also one with racist roots and ramifications that were unapparent to Rauf when he echoed it.

For over a century, Americans—following the work of British and German idealists and orientalists, among others—saw the mystical habits of some “Aryan” (Indian and Persian) Sufi orders (or tariqas, which can be Sunni, Shi‘a, or a mix of both) as a welcome contrast to what they believed were the rigid attitudes of “Semites” (Jews and, more to the point here, Arabs—especially Arab Muslims). After the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis in the late 1970s, Persians/Iranians were no longer regarded in the United States as moderate counterweights to ostensibly rigid Arabs.12 Nevertheless, in the eyes of many, Sufism retained its claim to being the practice of less doctrinaire—or less “fundamentalist”—Muslims.

While this history continues to inform contemporary notions of Sufism as moderate Islam, it is reliant on such superficial and racializing generalities that few people would make the argument that Sufis are relatively moderate Muslims in the same terms today. Rauf has always been happy to receive any goodwill directed toward Sufis, but he does not engage this history in his writings. Instead, he presents religious moderation as a cultural issue (one with political and economic aspects), not a racial one. It is quickly apparent in Rauf’s work, however—particularly in the 2004 book that helped make him famous—that the moderate Islam he promotes is and will be the province of more affluent Muslims. Generally, in the United States, this means Arab and South Asian immigrants rather than black Americans. Thus, while Rauf does not replicate the explicitly orientalist racial framework tied up with assumptions about Sufi moderation, his particular promotion of Sufism and community service—merged, as it is, with an economic philosophy that ignores ongoing issues of racially differential treatment in this country—give this older orientalist narrative new racial ramifications.

As I discuss in the chapters that follow, Sufism and community service within a neoliberal market society are essential elements in Rauf’s definition of moderation. This is despite the fact that Rauf and Khan deemphasized Sufism in 2006, when Rauf began building a reputation as an international expert on Islamic law and participating in State Department outreach programs in Muslim majority regions where Sufism is often viewed with suspicion. Only after the Cordoba House controversy—during which it became apparent that many Americans still see “Sufism” as synonymous with “moderate Islam”—did they began to emphasize Sufism again.

While Rauf and Khan made these changes strategically, they also made them quite sincerely. Sufism and service (which Rauf often connects to Sufism) are what bring Islam to life for them. They are also practices that bring people together despite a multitude of differences. When Rauf and Khan deemphasized Sufism, it was not simply because they no longer saw it as politically expedient, but because they no longer saw it as essential to achieving some of the other goals they had formed after 9/11, including that of gaining for Muslims worldwide the kind of acceptance, freedom, and prosperity they enjoyed in the United States. The following account of their work and institutions is not intended as an exposé. Rather, it is a look at the history and present of ideas that inform the concept of “moderation” and an examination of some of the political, economic, racial, and gendered ramifications of living Islam in the ways now demanded of Muslim Americans.

Defining and Defending American Muslim Moderation: A Method to the Madness

Although Rauf was new to the role of spokesperson for moderate Muslims after 9/11, his institutional and public leadership began long before he founded the Cordoba Initiative. When, six months after the attacks, a PBS reporter asked Rauf to explain “the key things” Islam, Christianity, and Judaism share, Rauf was serving in his nineteenth year as the imam of Masjid al-Farah in Lower Manhattan. He was also in his fifth year as the shaykh of a related Sufi group and as CEO of the American Sufi Muslim Association (or ASMA Society), which he cofounded with Khan in 1997 to promote tasawwuf (Arabic for “Sufism”) as authentic Islam. Although formally educated in physics rather than Islamic theology and as likely to draw income from his work in real estate as his work in religion, the fifty-four-year-old Egyptian American was also a trustee of the city’s Islamic Cultural Center, an advisor to the Interfaith Center of New York, and the author of two books on Islamic practice in America.

For some time, Rauf had planned to write a third book on Sufi dhikr. In response to events following the 9/11 attacks, however, he changed course.13 Rather than discuss Sufism in the PBS interview, Rauf described the ASMA Society as a specifically “non-political, educational and cultural” organization designed to improve relations “between the American public and American Muslims.”14 He responded to the reporter’s question about commonality by outlining the main aspects of Abrahamic cohesion: a common ancestor, common monotheistic beliefs, and common ethics.15 This subject, instead of his intended treatise on Sufism, comprised the substance of his next book, in which he also described the immigrant process of gaining acceptance as one that involved acculturating by embracing free-market capitalism and creating organizations to contribute to society through various kinds of service.

The following year, Rauf and Khan (then ASMA’s executive director), hosted an event to advance their vision of Abrahamic unity at St. Bartholomew’s Church, an influential religious and cultural institution on Park Avenue where Rauf taught classes on Sufism. On a Sunday evening that June, well-heeled New Yorkers assembled to break bread together and watch a dramatic rendering of interreligious cooperation and progress. The Cordoba Bread Fest focused on the harmonious history and spirit of twelfth-century al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) that Rauf and Khan hoped to inculcate in the United States through the ASMA Society and also to disseminate worldwide.16 Enjoying broad institutional and financial support (a host of religious, cultural, political, and financial luminaries gathered for the event), the Cordoba Bread Fest also served as a public platform for promoting their newest venture, the Cordoba Initiative.17 In contrast to ASMA’s domestic educational and cultural work, the Cordoba Initiative was designed to be an international policy-oriented organization that would, among other things, show how American Muslims could encourage Muslims elsewhere to overcome fundamentalism by adopting the “shariah-compliant” American frameworks that (according to Rauf) foster social progress: democratic capitalism and a religiously informed, yet officially secular, state law.18

As we shall see, both ASMA and Cordoba evolved significantly during the first decade after 9/11. Yet throughout that time, Rauf and Khan reiterated the Abrahamic narrative that Rauf had outlined at the 2003 Cordoba Bread Fest, elaborated on in his 2004 book, and repeated during hundreds of international speaking engagements. Closely examining the rendition of history in Rauf’s 2004 book, as I do in the following chapters, reveals what many accounts of the 2010 mosque controversy missed: the precarious political stance—neither fully “liberal,” as the term is commonly understood, nor politically conservative—Rauf took as he sought to define the middle way of moderation. Foregrounding the shared intellectual history of the many positions Rauf shares with Newt Gingrich also illuminates a deeper history that the imam’s promotion of liberal inclusion omits: how many religious minorities—often immigrants caught between the American racial categories of “black” and “white”—lobbied for acceptance by echoing and adapting dominant white Protestant narratives of American meritocracy and exceptionalism, further marginalizing black Americans in the process.

The intertwined political, economic, racial, and gendered contours of moderate Islam—at least, as Rauf and Khan presented them during the first decade after 9/11—are primary subjects of this book, but they are not its only focus. In addition to examining the ideas of Rauf and Khan and the ways their institutions grew and changed, I reveal how Muslims at Rauf’s mosque responded to the work he and Khan were doing while they simultaneously attempted to live authentic Muslim lives—“balanced” ones, they often said; rarely did any use the term “moderate”—after 9/11. Many of these Muslims wanted to believe Rauf’s arguments about Islam’s compatibility with American meritocracy and exceptionalism. At times, however, when their lived experiences failed to measure up to such ideals, these Muslims interpreted Rauf’s emphases on Sufism and service differently than he did. As the years passed, the economy faltered, racist backlash belied initial optimism about the ostensibly postracial era inaugurated by the first black president, and Rauf and Khan spent less time with their Sufi community than on ASMA and Cordoba projects, some also began to question their definition of moderation and the inevitability of acceptance. After the Cordoba House controversy, as I discuss in the final chapter of this book, even Rauf came to question some aspects of the American exceptionalism he had previously promoted.

I first learned of the ASMA Society two years after Rauf’s PBS interview, at Riverside Church in 2004. Financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Riverside has hosted visitors as diverse as Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Kofi Annan, Dick Cheney, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.19 Because I had long been curious about the ways Americans combine ideas about national and religious belonging—particularly as they do so in narratives of “Judeo-Christian” heritage (itself a twentieth-century invention20)—I visited the neo-Gothic building in 2003 for New York City’s second 9/11 interreligious memorial service. I noticed immediately that the service did not include Muslims. I also noticed, however, that James Forbes (the senior pastor) carefully interrupted the “Judeo-Christian” language with which many speakers distanced Muslims from Americanness. Therefore, I was not entirely surprised the following March to learn that a local imam would be speaking from Forbes’ pulpit.

Rauf’s message on that late winter morning in 2004 was that America’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage is actually a tri-fold Abrahamic one. Fascinated, curious as to whether he said the same thing at his mosque, and more intrigued by the question of how Muslims there responded to it, I accepted the invitation he extended to the audience to visit Masjid al-Farah in Tribeca. “Imam Feisal,” as the community called Rauf, was not present during my initial visit two weeks later. When I arrived, however, I found Faiz Khan (an emergency room doctor in his early thirties who was then serving as the assistant imam) delivering a similar message about religious commonality in the tiny storefront mosque. After the Friday prayer service ended, I told “Dr. Faiz” (his name at the mosque) of my interest in Rauf’s message, and he and Dean (a sixty-five-year-old Sufi convert and self-described “Catholic boy from Brooklyn”) spent the afternoon informing me over a cramped diner counter about the ways Sufi practices of Islam promote interreligious unity.21 They also invited me to that evening’s dhikr session in Daisy Khan’s Upper West Side apartment, where I met other members of Rauf’s Sufi group, including a Jewish American man.

It was during the communal meal following dhikr—which had involved prayers, reciting portions of the Qur’an, and rhythmically chanting the attributes of God while swaying meditatively or spinning prayer beads through the fingers—that someone first handed me a promotional mock-up of Rauf’s soon-to-be-published book.22 A blurb on the back, later replaced by a quote from author Karen Armstrong, asserted that this American imam shows how Islam is compatible with American democracy and capitalism. Although I had no doubts about the sincerity or intentions of either Rauf or Khan, I did immediately wonder about that promise and the politics that went with it. I decided I wanted to learn more.

It was not long before I realized this project would consume my attention for the next several years. Not only did I begin to research the history of Rauf’s ideas and the political and economic philosophies to which they were connected, I simultaneously began ethnographic work to explore how Muslims at the mosque grappled with his teachings in their daily lives. During my first evening at Khan’s apartment, before I knew Daisy had come of age in a rich Long Island community and once hopped a ride to Manhattan on the seaplane of Bernie Madoff’s brother, it seemed clear that most of the Sufi dervishes there came from an affluent socio-economic bracket and might not object to Rauf’s economic philosophy.23 What I also did not know then, however, was that Dean—the convert with whom I had spent the afternoon—lived in the same rent-controlled apartment in the West Village he had occupied for twenty years, and that Brother Malik—a black American high school teacher who would soon retire and become an assistant imam—lived just blocks from me in Harlem. Such things became evident only with time.

During my six years of research, I learned that dynamics among the mosque attendees and Sufi practitioners were also more complicated than I first imagined. These Muslims came from backgrounds cutting across the social, economic, cultural, and racial spectra of New York. Their reasons for choosing Masjid al-Farah as their place of worship and Rauf as their imam (and also, sometimes, their Sufi shaykh) varied greatly. Moreover, I soon discovered, the mosque was not simply led by one devoted group of Sufis. Rather, its operations and purpose were negotiated by two overlapping communities—one led by Rauf and one led by Shaykha Fariha, the woman who owned the building housing the mosque. Although Rauf had founded his own Sufi order, Fariha, following instructions from the shaykh she and Rauf once shared, allowed him to conduct services there until he could establish the independent mosque and community center he and Daisy Khan dreamed of—one that would reflect American culture as they described it and help integrate Muslims. Not only did it take me several years to understand the complicated relationships between these overlapping (and constantly changing) communities, it took me that long to appreciate the many facets of Rauf’s philosophy and the work of his and Khan’s constantly evolving organizations.

To be clear, I was not seeking definitive accounts of “true” Islam, Americanness, or moderation in my research, as there is no single definition of any of these things. Rather, I was seeking to understand the pressures on Muslims to present themselves in particular ways in America and the creativeness Muslim Americans exercised, as well as the difficulties they encountered, in such circumstances. Because of this, while my analysis has often been informed by work in Islamic studies—particularly by works focusing on the lives and practices of Muslims in the United States—I have been equally influenced by the work of historians of American religion who have charted the political and economic dynamics involved in asserting Judeo-Christian heritage, and by those who have examined the Protestant underpinnings of American society—ones that still exert pressure on non-Protestant religious groups to mold their traditions into forms resembling certain Protestant ones by, to note just one example, encouraging theologies of work and wealth similar to those derived from strands of American Calvinism.24 Additionally, I have looked to historical and anthropological analyses that point out the power dynamics involved in creating both academic and popular narratives about history and culture, commonality and difference. The theorists who draw attention to this kind of knowledge creation do not do so simply in order to prove that different groups (defined in terms of religion, culture, nation, race, gender, sexuality, or socioeconomic status, among other things) have been written out of such narratives. Rather, they often focus on the racial, gendered, economic, and political power dynamics of writing various groups in in different ways.25

As I began to undertake ethnographic work with the communities affiliated with Rauf’s mosque, I also looked for inspiration to the work of scholars of “lived religion” who draw attention to the ways religious practitioners embody and inevitably, but often unintentionally, alter the norms of their traditions as they literally live them—not just in the confined spaces of houses of worship or devotional prayer groups, but in the warp and woof of their everyday circumstances.26 Additionally, because the lived circumstances of the Muslims I met were shaped by such things as airport screenings, subway bag searches, warrantless wiretapping, home invasions, detentions, and deportations (which mosque attendees told me about long before such things made headlines), as well as by a domestic environment of increasing economic inequality, political polarization, government surveillance, and race-based policing, I relied heavily on the works of American studies scholars to make sense of them. These include scholars who show how ideas about Islam have played a role in domestic policy debates over issues ranging from slavery to consumer capitalism ever since the colonial period, as well as those who investigate the philosophical, political, economic, and strategic connections between the Cold War and the so-called War on Terror.27

Last, but certainly not least, my analysis was influenced by direct criticism of attempts, such as Rauf’s, to represent “moderate Islam.” Such criticism is not the goal of my account. To the contrary, I have found that Muslim Americans who fight for acceptance in this country, including Rauf, are sometimes put into horrendously difficult situations and faced with seemingly impossible choices. Still, I recognize that criticism is something to which my account may contribute. I address that possibility here and in other chapters by discussing the other kinds of analysis that could be useful for understanding the effects on contemporary Muslim American communities of having to prove their moderation.28

The Stakes of Moderate Islam

In the years since 9/11, both scholars and activists have questioned the pressure on Muslim Americans to prove their moderation, particularly the demand that Muslim Americans act as liaisons between the US government and Muslim communities in other locations. Rauf is not unaware of such critiques. In 2007, in fact, he published an essay in a collection titled Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West. That collection—the result of a formal conversation among religious leaders, scholars, and policy analysts about the usefulness of the “moderate” label and the politics behind it—focused mainly on foreign policy issues rather than on the domestic ones discussed here. Secondarily, though, it questioned the effects of pressure on Muslim Americans to participate in State Department programs or to serve in some other way as liaisons between the United States and Muslims elsewhere. While the contributors did not discuss other pressures on Muslims in the United States—ones that have since become public, such as the government’s mass arrests, detention, and abuse of Muslim immigrants in the days after 9/11; the placement by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of innocent Muslim American citizens on the government’s No-Fly List of suspected terrorists and subsequent refusal to remove their names unless these citizens agreed to spy on friends and families; and the New York Police Department’s decade-long secret surveillance program that involved placing undercover (pseudo-Muslim) officers in mosques, student groups, and recreation centers, among other things29—these government actions placed much more psychic and physical stress on Muslim Americans than did more genteel attempts by State Department officials to enlist “moderate” spokespersons in promoting US interests. And although aware of at least some of the possible pitfalls of enacting the role of “moderate” sought by the US government, Rauf also knew of some of these law enforcement and surveillance tactics and sought to relieve the pressure exerted by them.

After 9/11, several worshippers from Masjid al-Farah were summoned to police headquarters for interrogations about their lives, histories, religious practices, and relations. Others, I am told, simply disappeared. Although the extent of invasive surveillance campaigns carried out by the National Security Administration and the New York Police Department would not become clear until nearly a decade later, Rauf had begun working with the FBI as early as 2003 to try to dissuade intelligence officials from categorizing all Muslims as possible terrorists.30 These were not things he generally discussed in public, however, and he also tended to discourage anyone else, such as Faiz Khan—his assistant imam until 2006 and someone who had cofounded the ASMA Society along with Rauf and Daisy Khan in 1997—from doing so.

Caught between desires to defend his community from immediate threats and to be accepted by non-Muslim elites who could improve that community’s situation in the long term, Rauf acknowledged in his contribution to the debate over “moderate Islam” that “the term ‘moderate Muslim’ is problematic.”31 Nevertheless, he acceded to the latter desire when he contended, “we need to define . . . Muslims who can be worked with” (presumably, in this case, for foreign policy ends) “and those who cannot.” He then proceeded to enact his moderation by reiterating his primary message of Abrahamic commonality and arguing that the United States has had a “profound impact” on Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish societies around the world. “It is time for an American Islam,” he continued, “that will translate into the Islamic and Western vernacular . . . the best of the United States: its pursuit of the second religious commandment [loving one’s neighbor as oneself] through the benefits of an Islamic democratic capitalism.”32 Additionally, Rauf promoted his Shariah Index Project—a Cordoba Initiative program he started in order to evaluate the Islamic authenticity (or shari‘ah compliance) of various countries’ legal systems, and one that would consume most of his energy after the failure of Cordoba House.33

Commenting on the debate about moderation to which Rauf contributed, Columbia University anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani, quoting political philosopher Leo Strauss, noted that repressed groups often feel compelled to “coordinate speech with such views as the government believes to be expedient.”34 Less intentionally, Mamdani cautioned, repressed groups may internalize “repression as common sense” and even promote it themselves to some extent. The appropriate action for scholars in such circumstances, he continued, is to resist the expedient views—in this case, the idea that there are only two kinds of Muslims, “moderates” and “extremists”—and to “broaden the parameters of discussion” by examining the histories of such ideas and the politics connected to them. Following Mamdani’s lead but focusing on domestic issues rather than international ones, I do just that in the pages that follow, keeping in mind as I do so that defending Muslims by promoting certain kinds of moderation was something always done—by Rauf, Khan, and many who worked with them—with an eye on the very real consequences of being deemed “immoderate.”


1. Quoted in “Abraham’s Children and the Imperative of Peacemaking,” PeaceWatch 9, no. 3 (April 2003): 7.

2. Feisal Abdul Rauf, What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004).

3. Ibid., 5–6, 178. For the sake of clarity, I transliterate “shari‘ah” in the same manner as Rauf (though he does not always include the apostrophe); a more common transliteration is “shari‘a.”

4. Peter King made these comments on Fox News on August 3, 2010. See Howard LaFranchi, “Is Ground Zero Mosque Imam Best Choice for Diplomatic Mission to Mideast?,” Christian Science Monitor online, August 11, 2010,

5. In July 2010, Gingrich posted said statement on his website, accessed July 21, 2010, (statement since removed).

6. Newt Gingrich on Fox and Friends, August 16, 2010.

7. Stewart discussed the issue on several 2010 episodes of The Daily Show, including on August 10, 2010 (“Municipal Land-Use Hearing Update”), August 16, 2010 (“Mosque-Erade”), August 19, 2010 (“Extreme Makeover Homeland Edition”), August 23, 2010 (“The Parent Company Trap”), and September 8, 2010 (“Weekend at Burnies”).

8. A brief statement on the “immigrant religious experience” can be found in Feisal Abdul Rauf, “Forceful Voice of Reason,” in Voices of American Muslims: 23 Profiles, edited by Linda Cateura (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2005), 101.

9. On how some of these ethnic (later, “white”) immigrants distanced themselves from racialized (“black”) populations, see David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991); Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Nathaniel Deutsch, Inventing America’s Worst Family: Eugenics, Islam, and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); and Sarah M. A. Gualtieri, Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

10. See Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013); Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008); and Joe Feagin, The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing (New York: Routledge, 2013) and How Blacks Built America: Labor, Culture, Freedom, and Democracy (New York: Routledge, 2015).

11. For American ideas about the opposition between Sufism and fundamentalism, see Rosemary R. Corbett, “Islamic ‘Fundamentalism’: the Mission Creep of an American Religious Metaphor,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 83, no. 4 (December 2015): 977–1004.

12. I discuss these dynamics in detail in Rosemary R. Hicks, “Comparative Religion and the Cold War Transformation of Indo-Persian Mysticism into Liberal Islamic Modernity,” in The Politics of Secularism and Religion-Making, edited by Markus Dressler and Arvind Mandair (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 141–69.

13. Feisal Abdul Rauf, Islam: A Sacred Law: What Every Muslim Should Know About the Shari‘ah (Brattleboro, VT: Qibla Books, 2000), 4.

14. “Interview: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf,” Frontline online, March 2002 (accessed March 8, 2004), (emphasis added).

15. Ibid.

16. “Cordoba Bread Fest: Children of Abraham Break Bread Together” ASMA Society, (accessed December 17, 2004), The website misidentifies the event as having occurred in 2002.

17. Ibid.

18. In a 2004 application for tax-exempt status, Cordoba’s lawyer described the Shariah Project as designed to “demonstrate to the world that Islamic holy law is compatible with a pluralistic and free democratic society and that peace and tolerance are authentic expressions of Islamic principles”; see Timothy McFlynn, Public Counsel of the Rockies, “Application for Recognition of Exemption,” filed with Internal Revenue Service under the Department of the Treasury, Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 14, 2004. Rauf later renamed the program, calling it the “Shariah Index Project” after 2008, and in 2012 elaborated on what it had become: a project that “would help determine the proper balance in the Muslim world (and elsewhere) between institutions of political power and authority, on the one hand, and institutions of religious power and authority, on the other—the Muslim equivalent of the religion-state relationship”; see Faisal Abdul Rauf, Moving the Mountain: A New Vision of Islam in America (New York: Free Press, 2012), 17.

The Cordoba Initiative’s 2004 application also included a series of “Dialogues . . . between American and Middle Eastern religious as well as secular leaders” as part of their primary activities. When pressed by the IRS for more specific information on these programs, Cordoba’s lawyer responded with a letter that listed “economic development” and “the challenge of adapting principles of democracy and democratic capitalism to specific cultures” among the issues to be discussed; see Timothy McFlynn, Public Counsel of the Rockies, “Re: The Cordoba Initiative (EIN 41–2140798),” filed with Internal Revenue Service under the Department of the Treasury, Cincinnati, Ohio, September 14, 2004, 2–3.

19. On Riverside Church, see Peter J. Paris, ed., The History of the Riverside Church in the City of New York (New York: New York University Press, 2004).

20. For the production of “Judeo-Christian” identity, see J. T. Todd, “The Temple of Religion and the Politics of Religious Pluralism: Judeo-Christian America at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair,” in After Pluralism: Reimagining Religious Engagement, edited by Courtney Bender and Pamela E. Klassen, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 201–22; Deborah Dash Moore, “Jewish GIs and the Creation of the Judeo-Christian Tradition,” Religion and American Culture 8, no. 1 (December 1998): 31–53; Mark Silk, “Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition in America,” American Quarterly 36, no. 1 (December 1984), 65–85; and William Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 196–218.

21. I have changed the names of some interlocutors in order to protect their privacy; such individuals are identified only by first name pseudonyms.

During the first decade after 9/11, a common question was whether Muslims who live in the United States are more “Muslim” than “American.” Because I found my interlocutors to be like other US residents and citizens in having multiple affiliations and changing ways of expressing their relations to the people and places around them—as Dean illustrated by defining himself as Muslim and Catholic—and because I never asked about citizenship status, I do not define Muslim Americanness according to any one particular standard. Rather, I focus on how my interlocutors talked about being Muslim and being American, and I use the terms “Muslim American” and “American Muslim” interchangeably. For more on the overlapping attachments of Muslim Americans, see Zareena Grewal, Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (New York: New York University Press, 2013).

22. For more on the Jerrahi practice of dhikr and on the differences between Rauf’s group and other Sufis at the Masjid al-Farah, see Rosemary R. Corbett, “Dhikr,” in Islamic Religious Practice in the United States, edited by Edward E. Curtis, IV (New York: New York University Press, forthcoming).

23. Michael M. Grynbaum, “Daisy Khan, An Eloquent Face of Islam,” New York Times, November 12, 2010.

24. These scholars have demonstrated that areas of American social life commonly seen in the twenty-first century as being free of religion often accommodate the Protestant practices around which American laws and institutions developed more than—or to the exclusion of—other practices and traditions. As Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini have described, American laws, institutions, and culture exert pressures on other traditions to resemble a specific kind of “market-Reformed Protestantism” in which freedom from religion is frequently freedom for the market; see “World Secularisms at the Millennium: Introduction,” Social Text 18, no. 3 64 (2000): 1–27. Like Jakobsen and Pellegrini, my analysis of religion and secularism is informed greatly by Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) and Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

For more on how American legislation developed in tension with changing notions about the appropriate public role of Protestantism, see Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America; John F. Wilson and Donald L. Drakeman, eds., Church and State in American History: Key Documents, Decisions, and Commentary from the Past Three Centuries (Boulder: Westview Press, 2003); Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, “Religion Naturalized: The New Establishment,” in After Pluralism, edited by Courtney Bender and Pamela Klassen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 82–97 and The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); John Lardas Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); and Rosemary R. Hicks, “Between Lived and the Law: Power, Empire, and Expansion in Studies of North American Religions,” Religion 42, no. 3 (2012): 409–24.

25. Most of those important to my analysis argue within the genealogical tradition fostered by Michel Foucault, as it provides a robust means of accounting for how knowledge is related to power; see, especially, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1972) and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon, 1977). With regards to creating knowledge about Islam, specifically, I rely also on attention paid by Talal Asad, Richard Bulliet, and Edward Said to literary and dramatic devices in the disciplines of history and anthropology. In Orientalism (New York: Vintage, [1979] 2003), Edward Said utilizes the work of Foucault and critical historians to draw out the ubiquitous use of literary and dramatic devices in philological, historical, and political narratives and in the “Oriental Studies” and “Area Studies” programs that depended on them. Asad also demonstrates anthropologists’ tendencies to use such dramatic staging and literary devices in their writings about Islamic cultures and societies in The Idea of An Anthropology of Islam (Washington, DC: Georgetown Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 1986). Significantly, as Bulliet and Melani McAlister have demonstrated, Said missed important differences between European and American approaches to Islam, especially in the ways American Cold War projects involved cultivating Arab allies and constructing post-Orientalist images. See Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 96–98 and Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 10–11.

26. These ways of living and experiencing tradition are not necessarily conscious or intentional. Rather, they are part of the ongoing process of human interaction through which people learn stock ways of talking about and understanding life, and employ and enact such narratives in changing circumstances, thus altering them while making sense of their varying experiences. Works from this perspective that influenced my approach include Courtney Bender, Heaven’s Kitchen: Living Religion at God’s Love We Deliver (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Henry Goldschmidt, Race and Religion: the Chosen People of Crown Heights (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006); Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Voudou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Robert A. Orsi, Thank You, St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); and Dorothy C. Holland, Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

27. McAlister, Epic Encounters; Timothy Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); and Moustafa Bayoumi, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror (New York: New York University Press, 2015). My research has also been shaped by Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (New York: Pantheon, 2004).

28. Two important analyses are Saba Mahmood, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation,” Public Culture 18, no. 2 (2006): 323–47 and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom: the New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015). I respond to Mahmood’s criticism in Chapter 1.

29. On the NYPD surveillance program, which—like the NSA surveillance—failed to uncover or prosecute any would-be terrorists, see Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and Bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013). On the US government’s other actions, which have since become the subject of lawsuits, see Larry Neumeister, “Lawsuit Seeks to Memorialize a Less Heroic Side of 9/11,” Associated Press, June 21, 2015,; and Jenifer Fenton, “Does FBI Use No-Fly List to Pressure Muslims to Become Informants?,” Al-Jazeera America online, June 11, 2015,

30. Sam Stein, “‘Ground Zero Mosque’ Imam Helped FBI With Counterterrorism Efforts,” Huffington Post, August 17, 2010, For a broader overview of issues facing Muslim Americans and Arab Americans, see Louise A. Cainkar, Homeland Insecurity: the Arab American and Muslim American Experience after 9/11 (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2009).

31. Feisal Abdul Rauf, “In God We Trust: The Prospects for the Future of Islam and the West are Positive,” in Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West, edited by M. A. Muqtedar Khan (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2007), 95.

32. Ibid., 98–99.

33. Ibid., 97.

34. Mahmood Mamdani, “Culture Talk: Six Debates that Shape the Discourse on ‘Good’ Muslims,” in Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West, edited by M. A. Muqtedar Khan (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2007), 114–23.