Many years ago, when I taught composition and literature to first- and second-year college students, I’d spend some time talking about what writers of prose could learn from poets: thrifty use of language, nuanced phrasing, the sound of the words and how they look on the page. I’d like to think those lessons served my students well, not only as writers but also as readers.
Looking for poetry in prose is my habitual way of reading, and, as is true in so many avenues of life, I often find what I seek. Such was certainly true when I settled down to read the remarks Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf addressed on September 13 to the Council on Foreign Relations. His words are exquisitely chosen, eloquent and evocative. His words, precise and economical, bespeak the gift of education America bestowed upon this naturalized son. No wonder, I thought, this man is a teacher; no wonder his influence spans the globe. Read his text along with me, and see for yourself.
Imam Rauf begins his address with his autobiography, the oft-told tale of upper-class-kid-comes-to-America-and-makes-good-following-in-his-highly-educated-father’s-footsteps.
From there, to establish further context, he compares American Muslims with “other groups and faiths [that] have found themselves targets of such prejudice — Jews and Catholics, Irish and Italians, blacks and Hispanics.” He continues the comparison, enriching his point by quoting the civil rights anthem/gospel song “We Shall Overcome”: “in time each group has overcome these challenges, and [America’s] core values have been affirmed. We must overcome. We shall overcome. Now it is our turn, as Muslims, to drink from this cup.”
The imam’s metaphor helps us to see that Americans who subscribe to the Muslim faith are no different in their suffering today than black Americans in Mississippi who nearly fifty years ago won their voting rights facing down a brace of attack dogs, or young black students in South Carolina who suffered mightily for the simple right to buy lunch at a five-and-ten counter. Reaching farther back into history, and using folks from another hue in the rainbow community of victimhood, the imam’s reference to Irish-Americans turned away from jobs because they “need not apply” recalls the torment of contemporary Muslim Americans who everyday must endure the humiliation of “no dogs, no Muslims” signs in every Manhattan shop window.
Proving that we all are in the struggle together, through his use of metaphor and allusion, the imam then makes his argument in favor of locating the Cordoba Institute in a building damaged on 9.11.2001 by flying debris from one of the two airplanes that was that day driven into the World Trade Center. Admittedly, the insult to the structure that had once housed a Burlington Coat Factory was nothing in comparison the fires caused by exploding jet fuel and eventual collapse of the twin towers, but Park 51 nevertheless bears the scars of that terrible day.
All of that is in the past, though, and we need to move on so as not to become mired in the gooey, overwrought fanaticism of the friends and families of those who died on 9.11. Says the imam of those who oppose his urban renewal plans, “We must not let the extremists, whatever their faith, whatever their political persuasion, hijack the discourse and hijack the media. That only fuels greater extremism.” By rhetorically linking the 9.11 survivors with the 9.11 pilots through careful, deliberate word-choice (emphasis added), the imam gives us an enlightening glimpse into his heart and mind. A glimpse that is augmented when he continues, “genuine understanding can only happen when there is honesty, sincerity of motive, and an open heart. For when issues are politicized or used as fodder for commentators on the right or on the left, we just pour fuels on the flames of misunderstanding.”
As a man of letters, Imam Rauf is aware of the significance of how he says what he says; in fact he comments on the importance of words during his remarks, stating “From experience, I can tell you, talking can be powerful. As Churchill said, better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.” He makes this point even more forcefully when he exhorts “You, the media, can fuel the radicals or you can limit their airtime.” The use of the word “airtime” is particularly poetic, in that it means “broadcast time” but is highly suggestive of in-flight time, or time spent in the air.
As his remarks draw to a close, the imam says,
In recent days, some people have asked is there really a need for an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan? Is it worth all this firestorm?
The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is a categorical yes. Why? Because this center will be a place for all faiths to come together as partners, as stakeholders in mutual respect. It will bring honor to the city of New York, to American Muslims across the country and to Americans all over the world.
Again, the imam’s choice of the poetic “firestorm” is worthy of a moment’s reflection on its dual meaning of protest and the intentional consequence of lobbing a bomb or other explosive device.
Readers tend to cut poets a lot of slack; we’re fascinated by the words they choose, and can spend many hours pondering why one word is chosen over another. When we see patterns in a text—“hijack” at least five times and “fuel” at least four appearing in the imam’s talk, for example—we wonder what point such repetition is meant to convey.
In the spirit of the imam’s call for spiritual partnership, I too will borrow some words from Winston Churchill, the same Churchill Imam Rauf quotes. History, Churchill said, is written by the victors.