Corbett. Rosemary. Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the “Ground Zero Mosque”. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017. 204p. $24.95 | Reviewed by Katie Merriman
To better understand the challenges and limitations of asserting Muslim life in the United States, we have a valuable new resource in Rosemary Corbett’s Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy. Corbett organizes her analysis like a photographic negative to Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Whereas Marable brought the icon into sharp relief by better situating him in contemporary movements, Corbett organizes a history of the socio-political status of Muslims in America by maintaining the focus on one powerful actor: Feisal Abdul Rauf.
“Rauf took on the mantle of what Corbett calls “Muslim moderation” in the late 1990s and became its main spokesperson for nearly two decades among interfaith and policy elites.”
Rauf took on the mantle of what Corbett calls “Muslim moderation” in the late 1990s and became its main spokesperson for nearly two decades among interfaith and policy elites. A teenage immigrant to the United States in the 1960s and son to a prominent Egyptian Azhari scholar, Rauf began his climb to influence in the 1980s when he became the imam of Masjid al-Farah, a small Jerrahi Sufi mosque in New York City. After the September 11 attacks, he took on broader goals beyond Sufi psychology and the arts in order to improve American understanding of Islam and build bridges with other “Abrahamic” religious communities. Because of these efforts, he was tapped as an expert by the US government and business elites and became the go-to model for what they desired in American Muslim leadership. He seemed to collected unlimited accolades for his work until the arresting conflict brought against his mosque and community center project in Lower Manhattan, also known as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy.
Although Corbett’s intellectual history of Rauf is the backbone to the book’s narrative, Making Moderate Islam is a much larger exploration of “the pressures on Muslims to present themselves in particular ways in America” as a racialized religious minority (9). Rauf is but one illuminating example of this interplay of external demands and self-fashioning. In amalgamation, Corbett argues that these expectations around acceptable Islamic practice and thought form a “moderate Muslim” archetype – a continuation of the earlier “Good Muslim” category born from the Cold War era as described by Mahmoud Mamdani in his influential book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.
Corbett uses comparative religious history to place the making of moderate Islam in a longer timeline of religious minorities – mostly focused on Jews, Muslims, and marginalized Christians – shaping their public presentation of faith to be palatable to dominant white, Protestant norms in exchange for acceptance. Acquiescence to American exceptionalism, and by default anti-Communism, has been and continues to serve as a litmus test of belonging. Service, both military and community focused, is also a central practice of “moderation.” Corbett argues that this practice is meant to express not only a willingness to sacrifice for country but a subtle way to show support for American free market capitalism and its placement of public welfare onto the shoulders of private citizens.
“Corbett is able to establish Muslims as part of a larger pattern of American religious inclusion that does not typically reflect the professed ideal of multi-faith equity in a democratic society.”
By bringing in this longer historical record, Corbett is able to establish Muslims as part of a larger pattern of American religious inclusion that does not typically reflect the professed ideal of multi-faith equity in a democratic society. Instead, it is repeatedly a process of incorporation into a hierarchical racial and religious order, where acceptance is provisional and often achieved at the expense of a further marginalized other (15). It is a searing critique, but Corbett’s measured tone and ample evidence allows the reader to consider her historical revision before she reveals her political position in the Conclusion.
Released from Stanford University Press, Making Moderate Islam precedes over seven chapters with an introduction and conclusion at 209 pages. The author employs a mixed methods approach, using close readings of key texts by Rauf and those in his intellectual genealogy; a historical study of racial and religious inclusion in the United States centered on Muslims; and six years of participant observation with the Masjid al-Farah community.
When the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy erupted in 2010 after Corbett had intended to conclude fieldwork, she reframed her project to incorporate the event. This addition –where well-funded anti-Muslim organizations effectively halted Rauf’s mosque construction in lower Manhattan— serves to only strengthen her argument that liberal assimilation processes are insufficient to ensure full rights for racial and religious minorities in the United States.
“When the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy erupted in 2010 after Corbett had intended to conclude fieldwork, she reframed her project to incorporate the event.”
The American Creed
In the first chapter, Corbett explores Feisal Abdul Rauf’s political theology. Most clearly articulated in his 2004 manifesto, What’s Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims in the West, Rauf claims Muslim values coincide with core American principles of meritocracy, pluralism, and “democratic capitalism.” Through service to local communities and Sufi exercises to regulate the ego, Muslims could show themselves as the newest iteration of a common immigrant assimilation experience – indirectly erasing African American Muslims. Without hyperbole, America is proclaimed the greatest embodiment of Islamic principles after the Prophet’s own community (21).
Corbett avoids the dead-end Orientalism in some scholarship that isolates Muslim American writers to a singular plane of inquiry – Islam versus the West – and instead analyses Rauf’s writing as part of a larger field of American theologians and political thinkers invested in a particular national myth based on Enlightenment thought. Most directly, Rauf relies on Reverend Forest Church, who defines the “American Creed” as a combination of natural rights and a “pluralistic faith-based civic ethic that transcends religious difference” that together can overcome social inequality through a progressive, historical expansion of liberties to all citizens (24).
“Corbett is able to show the strong parallels in Gingrich and Rauf’s writing, including shared inspiration from Michael Novak, a conservative Catholic…”The sad irony is that this romanticized discourse about America’s universal values and natural rights is also used to exclude immigrants and religious minorities. For evidence, Corbett brings in one of Rauf’s strongest critics during the 2010 controversy, Republican representative Newt Gingrich. Like Rauf, Gingrich seeks inclusion for Catholics by claiming that his religious tradition reflects the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. But he also considers Islam ideologically incompatible with the United States. Despite Gingrich’s Islamophobia, Corbett is able to show the strong parallels in Gingrich and Rauf’s writing, including shared inspiration from Michael Novak, a conservative Catholic who coins “democratic capitalism” to describe the success of the United States that it owes to free people, free trade, and free markets (27).
When Corbett plumbs deeper into these intellectual links, we learn that Rauf’s father, Muhammad Abdul-Rauf (d. 2004) wrote alongside Novak at the American Enterprise Institute, an anti-socialist, neoliberal think-tank. Rauf does not identify himself as a student of his father but they share similar “religio-economic models” for attaining membership into normative white Protestant middle class America. Whereas Abdul-Rauf ties together Islam with market liberalism, Rauf used his readings of Sufism to encourage a neoliberal tinged personal striving for spiritual and economic success – what Corbett is calling his construal of “moderate Islam.”
“Corbett demonstrates that overtime Muslims in the US did not secure a place through service but were ostracized or tolerated depending on the political moment…”Chapter 2 continues back in time to observe how earlier Muslim leaders faired in their efforts to gain respect and inclusion through the coupling of service with explicit commitments to democracy and capitalism. Counter to Rauf’s harmonious narrative, Corbett demonstrates that overtime Muslims in the US did not secure a place through service but were ostracized or tolerated depending on the political moment. She tracks the Nation of Islam and Muhammad Abdul-Rauf from the early Cold War era to the 1990s and shows a far messier picture than the diametric Black versus Immigrant Muslim paradigm. Even with the slow shift in the media to favor non-Black Muslims as the “face” of Islam, across race and class, male Muslim leaders have both genuflected to and criticized systemic inequality and US geopolitics. No one captures this better than Warith Deen Mohammed (d. 2008), who after taking the helm of Nation of Islam in 1975, directed his followers toward black-centered Sunni practice. At the same time, he also encouraged strong patriotism by adding the American flag to their national newspaper and producing meals for the US military, which garnered him Republican support.
From Sufism to the State Department
Chapters 3 and 4 document Rauf’s evolving project and organizations over roughly thirty years, changing frequently to meet new circumstances and capitalize on emerging opportunities (92). When Rauf enters the scene in the 1980s, he adopts the rosy vision of “inevitable immigrant upward mobility” for Muslims through service and individual responsibility, ignoring critiques of unchecked exploitation, racial inequality and material excess sounded by earlier Muslim leaders after their decades of attempts at moderate inclusion (89). This includes Rauf’s own father who eventually spoke out against America’s legacy of military violence when anti-Muslim sentiments arose in response to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 (61).
Through painstaking tracking of websites, sound bites, and events, Corbett is able to create a detailed chronology of Rauf’s development in two distinct phases. The first phase, covered in chapter 3, are Rauf’s first two decades of activity in the 1980s and 1990s promoting Sufism and the arts as a cultural solution to cross-cultural and interfaith understanding. Corbett reminds readers that this is not a new approach by including a section on the long history of Sufism in America. Part of this history includes mostly white American cooptation of Sufi traditions in the name of New Age movements or cosmopolitan ideals, including Rauf’s Jerrahi Order that split into two factions.
Rauf connects back to this history in his use of Iranian philosopher Seyyed Hussein Nasr’s perennialism. In Rauf’s interpretation, Nasr emphasized the ultimate unity of all religious traditions. Coming from a marginalized religious minority leader, this appeal to universalism had the effect of encouraging powerful Jewish and Christian leaders in New York City to embrace him and his representation of Islam. In the context of the Gulf War, Americans held up Sufism as the “good” Islam that could solve Samuel Huntington’s imagined Clash of Civilizations. Rauf capitalized on the moment and in 1997 he and his business partner and wife Daisy Khan founded the American Sufi Muslim Association or ASMA. Although other New York Muslim leaders like Imam Talib Abdul Rashid focused on local issues that affected everyday folk, ASMA aimed for high-profile audiences at platforms such as the Aspen Institute or the Chautauqua Institution.
A few years before the attacks of September 11, 2001 Rauf had caught the attention of the State Department as a potential resource and ally, but it was the national tragedy that moved Rauf to make a decided shift away from Sufism towards international affairs and civilizational dialogue. In chapter 4, Corbett shows Rauf working to counter anti-Muslim stereotypes that transformed him from a “local –albeit well-off and well-connected—imam and Sufi shaykh into a recognized international figure” (95). As Rauf’s global profile grew, it was also helpful to distance himself from Sufism because of dominant international Salafi critiques of Sufism as blasphemous or non-Islamic.
“To Western political and business elites, Rauf offered a welcomed prescription to the crisis of Muslim “extremism” by identifying pathological causes and offering cultural solutions.”
To Western political and business elites, Rauf offered a welcomed prescription to the crisis of Muslim “extremism” by identifying pathological causes and offering cultural solutions. He and Khan were duly rewarded with major grants, advisory roles, and regular national-level media appearances. By 2007, Rauf had mostly left his post at Masjid al-Farah and focused on his two organizations: the strategically renamed American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and the Cordoba Institute, an interfaith and later Muslim-centered think tank. Corbett argues that before the shock of the 2010 “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, Rauf and Khan saw themselves as role models to fellow American Muslims and beacons of reform to Muslims abroad (112).
Corbett paints a striking scene in this chapter of Rauf proclaiming the United States a post-racial, level playing field, free and open to all religious communities who commit to American values – while members of his own congregation were carted away by the FBI during the Muslim witch hunts after 9/11. This contradiction is not born from naivety, she argues, but because he actively resists counter-establishment critiques and movements. For example, Rauf equates the Black Panthers with suicide bombers, both militants with an “aggressive tendency” who can be cured only with the panacea of moderation (119). This disconnect is exacerbated when Rauf moves nearly full time to Malaysia in the late 2000s.
“Corbett paints a striking scene in this chapter of Rauf proclaiming the United States a post-racial, level playing field, free and open to all religious communities who commit to American values – while members of his own congregation were carted away by the FBI during the Muslim witch hunts after 9/11.”
While Rauf sold moderation abroad, New York Muslim leaders were actively challenging surveillance and criminalization of Muslims and racial minorities. Yet Corbett is quick to point out that Rauf’s explanations and solutions were socially and politically normative among political elites – Democrats and Republicans alike. Rauf then strategically shaped and reshaped his organizations in the 2000s to fit these ultimately inaccurate images of American socio-political reality. Yet again, by making this investment, Rauf isolates himself with an archetype of the model American Muslim that it seemed only he could fit. The climax of the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy reveals the problems inherent to this project, a reality best contained in the exasperated response of Daisy Khan: “[If] we can’t build an interfaith community center, who can?” (202).
On the Ground: Intersectional “Micro-Politics” of Moderation
Chapters 5 and 6 take a sharp turn from the previous chapters’ genealogical exploration to Corbett’s six years of research at Masjid al-Farah. It is a refreshing shift to hear her ethnographic voice and the conversations among the mosque’s dervishes, who seek to live by their sheikh’s instruction. Worshipers at the mosque during her research period (2004-2010) show great class and racial diversity, and include large numbers of women, who bring different positions and experiences to interpret Rauf’s marriage of Islamic tradition and American liberalism as truly “authentic” American Islam.
We find through Corbett’s research that the mantra of individual responsibility and “culture-free” Islam created rifts between community members because it pathologizes cultural traditions outside of normative American culture as signs of extremism. The same approach is also used, alongside culture of poverty arguments, to discredit survival strategies and communal traditions of Muslims that hail from economically and racially marginalized backgrounds, especially African Americans (139). This policing of behavior and insisting on a correct self-presentation as “Muslim” reflects not just Rauf’s theology, Corbett cautions, but the larger scrutiny of Muslims in the War on Terror period.
“This policing of behavior and insisting on a correct self-presentation as “Muslim” reflects not just Rauf’s theology, Corbett cautions, but the larger scrutiny of Muslims in the War on Terror period.”Not surprisingly, it is most often those with the most privileges within the congregation that preach loudly the benefits of moderation – and cry foul when they see open discussions of issues in the Muslim community as “creating tensions that had not previously existed” (143). Even so, Corbett shows that marginalized members of Masjid Al-Farah community who do stay offer a counter interpretation of Rauf’s prescriptions that presents their communal loyalties, such as buying from black businesses, as a means to the ultimate goal of unity and harmony.
“Gender is the second major theme explored in these ethnographic chapters at both the mosque and in Rauf’s organizations.”Gender is the second major theme explored in these ethnographic chapters at both the mosque and in Rauf’s organizations. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was known to make Masjid al-Farah a welcoming and supportive space for women, but Corbett shows that men and women dervishes show a range of positions regarding gender roles, including many women who were “agnostic about the promises of liberal feminism” (156). For this reason, when Daisy Khan launched the ASMA initiative Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality (WISE) in 2006 to challenge global gender inequality and women’s representation in religious leadership, many dervishes found it too bold and irrelevant to their lives. The greater challenge for women practitioners, from their perspective, was the struggle to fulfill the Sufi ideal of “service” to their sheikh, through volunteering at the mosque, while still meeting gendered expectations of maternity through childcare and domestic labor. Despite this taxing schedule, Corbett shows how female leaders felt a great sense of accomplishment in their double duty.
Over the two chapters, Corbett makes it clear that negotiating expectations and tensions as a community across race, class, and gender were difficult but always assuaged by Rauf’s presence. That is, of course, until he started to fade away. By 2007 Rauf had effectively removed himself from any regular activity at the mosque, had mostly moved to Malaysia, and focused his energy towards interfaith work and global policy on Islamic law. In something of a farewell speech in 2007, he called the dervishes to maintain a small, committed following in service to each other and the tariqa (178).
Members did step up in the following years to maintain the communal space and practices, and put significant funds towards Rauf’s new project, a mosque in Lower Manhattan. Corbett argues that their deep belief in Rauf’s promise of American belonging to “moderate” Muslims ironically created an impasse in 2010 when Rauf changed the clearly Islamic space to an interfaith center titled Cordoba House.
The Summer of Islamophobia
The final core chapter, “Islam in the Age of Obama” covers the eruption of the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. Khan and Rauf’s proposal for the lower Manhattan mosque and community center, later renamed “Park 51” is situated in the euphoria of the election of Barak Obama, which had reinvigorated Muslim energy towards faith-based service. Corbett replays the main plotline, with key moments and events, including Rauf’s difficulty gathering support from the larger New York Muslim community from which he isolated himself. However, Corbett argues definitively that the project failed ultimately as a result of the denial of rights suffered by Muslims and people of color in twenty-first century America.
Corbett is divided in her assessment of the aftereffects of these dramatic events on the status of Muslim Americans. While liberal non-Muslim elite’s support of Rauf and Khan throughout the controversy showed the great gains they and their organizations had made in building real interfaith and political connections for Muslim Americans, their efforts still placed Muslims in the position to prove their belonging by espousing and performing a particular moderate mode of Islam. That being said, Rauf was not unchanged: the shock of the experience awakened a new awareness of historical injustices that could not be conquered by individual striving. In his 2012 book, Moving the Mountain, he acknowledges structural inequalities of race and class in the United States and the failures of free market deregulation and foreign interventions for Muslims elsewhere.
Corbett makes a strategic choice to use Rauf’s writing, organizations, and Sufi community as a case study to explore the pressure of moderation on Muslims in the United States. It is a dramatic story of structural inequality maintained, in part, by the false promise of American exceptionalism and liberal inclusion that Rauf aligned himself with and built his career upon. In her unflinching conclusion, Corbett concludes that service to country in the name of colorblind unity without critique of discriminatory conditions, “will replicate power dynamics at work decades earlier” and fail to break the cycle of Islamophobic exclusion (208).
Repeatedly, Corbett shows Rauf and Khan accepting representative roles to speak on behalf of American Muslims without accountability to these conditions, mirroring their liberal elite supporters. To contrast Rauf, who jet-sets to Davos, Switzerland to promote his proposals at the annual World Economic Forum meetings, Corbet cites examples of black leaders like Imam Siraj Wahhaj or the racially diverse Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) doing on-the-ground work to improve the conditions of Muslims left behind by neoliberalism. While other scholars have explored these dynamics of race, class, and power within Muslim communities – most recently in Su’ad Abdul Khabeer’s Muslim Cool – she is interested in Rauf and Khan’s engagement in these intersectional discourses as conditional participants in high level American politics.
“But in the end, the book is not an exposé. Instead, it is a powerful account of the failures of early twenty-first century American liberalism that fail to challenge systemic inequality…”
But in the end, the book is not an exposé. Instead, it is a powerful account of the failures of early twenty-first century American liberalism that fail to challenge systemic inequality, thereby acting in service to an American myth of pluralism that never was. Rauf and Khan, from a paternalistic and oftentimes self-serving position, used what they believed to be the best resources available to them to protect, empower, and assert the value of Muslims’ life. Strategies of service, as well as increased visibility and representation in positions of power have helped improve acceptance of Muslims – but, Corbett argues, only within dehumanizing constraints. The main culprits in her examination are those who benefit from and perpetuate these constraints of white supremacy, xenophobia, and empire that all tie into neoliberal practices of profit over people.
“Making Moderate Islam is a useful book for scholars at the intersection of Race and American History, Religious Studies, and Islamic Studies. Its greatest strength is bringing together seemingly disparate worlds of elite geopolitics and local religious communities.”
Making Moderate Islam is a useful book for scholars at the intersection of Race and American History, Religious Studies, and Islamic Studies. Its greatest strength is bringing together seemingly disparate worlds of elite geopolitics and local religious communities. Under the current Trump presidency, liberal inclusivity has been replaced thus far by a white, Christian nativism openly hostile to Muslims. In response, new critical solidarities have grown among Muslims and with allies, most visibly on display in the early 2017 airport protests during the short enactment of the original “Muslim ban.” And unlike the past, where Muslim Americans debated whether to attend the annual White House Ramadan iftar as a question of cooperation or cooptation, it seems no one is interested in taking a seat at this administration’s table – one that was not presented to any Muslim community during Ramadan 2017.