Asking the tough questions

REFILE - CORRECTING STAGE OF TOUR Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, speaks to worshippers inside the Fanar-Qatar Islamic Cultural Center's mosque in Doha 27 August, 2010. Abdul Rauf is currently on the second leg of his funded tour to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as part of an outreach effort by the U.S. State Department to promote religious tolerance, according to a State Department spokesman. Abdul Rauf's Cordoba Initiative is building a Muslim cultural centre in lower Manhattan, which currently faces an emotional campaign to block it by conservative politicians and families of the Sept. 11 2001 attacks, claiming that locating it only two blocks north of the site was a provocation. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad (QATAR - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION PROFILE)

The other night I caught just a portion of Soledad O'Brien's interview of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. I rarely watch television news shows but I enjoyed the interview. O'Brien had a good "get," as they say, and made sure to make the most of it. Ever since the mosque controversy first came to light last December, in a front-page story in the New York Times, the media have been somewhat hostile to general opposition to the project. That doesn't seem to have affected the 70% of Americans who think the Islamic center should be moved further away from ground zero. The media approach has seemed to be "If we write just one more story accusing Americans of Islamophobia, they're sure to come around." Shockingly, this hasn't convinced many people. But this story took a completely different approach -- asking tough but fair questions of Imam Rauf.

It seems reporters could do a better job of asking some basic questions of the people behind the mosque project. There are some leadership struggles there but many people look to Imam Rauf as the spokesperson for the project. He's been traveling the world and just got back in-country. Like many public figures, he had the answers he wanted to give and the frame he wanted to give the story. This is perfectly understandable. But O'Brien pushed him a bit -- and I think that helped make the interview worth watching. Take this section on financing the project:

O'BRIEN: Will you turn down money from people who, say, give money to Hamas?

RAUF: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: No question about it? Anyone who supports Hamas cannot give money to you?

RAUF: We will do whatever is absolutely correct and legal and the safe thing to do.

O'BRIEN: Which means what exactly? I mean, because that's -- that's an extra condition.

RAUF: You see, I'm the visionary behind it. I'm not the actual builder. I'm not the financial expert. I'm not the legal expert on these things. But I have a vision here of establishing something which I know in my heart of hearts will be a powerful instrument of peace.

O'BRIEN: Who would you not take money from? Who would you say no, take it back? Who would you turn it away from me?

RAUF: We would turn away from anybody who is deemed to be a danger to this process.

O'BRIEN: There have been a lot of questions, and I think a fair amount of controversy and criticism about questions that people have had about your take on Hamas. You were asked in an interview in the radio; the interviewer said, is the State Department correct in designating Hamas as a terror group? And you dodged the question. You went on a long time. But there was really sort of no answer to it.

So -- and I guess people sense that whatever that answer is, if you -- if you don't condemn Hamas, then in a way maybe you're supporting Hamas as a terror organization. So I guess I'd ask that question again. Do you -- you know, is the State Department right in saying that Hamas is a terrorist organization?

RAUF: I condemn everyone and anyone who commits acts of terrorism. And Hamas has committed acts of terrorism.

Fascinating! She also got him to say "had I known this would happen, we certainly would never have done this," and "If I knew this would happen, this would cause this kind of pain, I wouldn't have done it," regarding the project. That got a lot of media attention, and rightly so.

But one of the most interesting parts of the interview, I though, got the least amount of notice. Repeatedly during the hour, Imam Rauf says that if the Islamic center isn't built at the current spot, that Muslim extremists will explode in a manner even worse than they did following the Danish cartoon crisis, when over 100 people were killed and embassies throughout the Middle East were set ablaze.

Whether or not that's true, this seems like the unreported angle of many of this past month's stories. At what point will we see good stories explaining why it's more dangerous to burn a Koran or move an Islamic center than it is to burn a Bible or desecrate the sacrament or lampoon Mormons?

As important as discussions of the First Amendment are, shouldn't we see some more stories about this issue of threats of violence among Muslim extremists?

I'd like to know more about why the high-profile burning of a Koran becomes a national security threat when a similar burning of the Torah wouldn't. This just seems to be a huge part of the story that is begging for additional coverage.

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