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Opalesque Islamic Finance Intelligence

Opinion Column: From a Mosque to a Museum Rushdi Siddiqui

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Rushdi Siddiqui is the Global Head of Islamic Finance and OIC Countries at Thomson Reuters (TR). He works closely with Islamic finance stakeholders, Halal industry, and the OIC countries. Rushdi recently received an award at the 2nd Sri Lanka Islamic Banking & Finance Conference for Contribution to Islamic Banking in Sri Lanka (2010). Mr. Siddiqui joined Thomson Reuters from Dow Jones, where he was global director for their Islamic Market Indices. Over his 10 years there, Mr. Siddiqui led the entry and expansion of the Dow Jones Indexes into Islamic finance, resulting in numerous awards from leading finance organizations and media outlets. Mr. Siddiqui has considerable experience in the financial markets, having worked at a Wall Street investment bank and commercial bank in the 1990s. Mr. Siddiqui has authored a number of white papers and articles on Islamic indexes for publications including WIEF, ABANA Review, CPI Financial, the Chicago Journal of International Law, Euromoney, writes fortnightly for Gulf News, and is a frequent speaker at industry events hosted by Harvard, Columbia Business School, London Business School, Oxford, the Economist, Islamic Development Bank, Bahrain's BIBF, Malaysia's MIFC, IIRME (Dubai), and more. Mr. Siddiqui holds a JD from Albany Law School of Union University, an MBA in international business from Baruch College, and a Bachelor of Science in Management and Marketing from New York University.

The continued pursuit of the proposed 'Ground Zero Mosque' by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (also known as Project51) has incited a major protest near ground zero, led to the announcement of 'Koran burning day' out of Florida, a NYC Muslim cab driver being stabbed, finger-pointing of bigotry, raised as an issue for some candidates in the November elections, and so on, hence, unnecessarily stress-testing the US Muslim community without achieving any high moral ground. We have an estimated 2000-3000 mosques in the US, from basements to grand architectures, and yet, there already exists several mosques within waking distance from Ground Zero. The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, in a recent column, 'Surprise, Surprise, Surprise,' raises an interesting point about the need of the hour in the Islamic world for intra-communal bridge-building, akin to Nelson Mandela. Now, what advice would Mr. Mandela give the Imam regarding the community center?

In Mr. Friedman's words, 'When the post-apartheid, black-led South African sports committee moved to change the team's name and colors, President Mandela stopped them. He explained that part of making whites feel at home in a black-led South Africa was not uprooting all their cherished symbols. "That is selfish thinking," Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, says in the movie Invictus. "It does not serve the nation." Then speaking of South Africa's whites, Mandela adds, "We have to surprise them with restraint and generosity." It may not be too late for the Imam to 'surprise' the protestors with 'restraint' and relocation. The issue on relocation should be reasonable, otherwise it becomes a religious issue and not a sensitivity concern.


Mosques are an important symbol of the Muslim community 'having arrived' in a new country, no different than building a Synagogue for Jews or a Church for Christians. It is an interesting indicator on the pulse of the local Muslim community for affluence, ethnicities, politics, and, at times, even interpretation of Islam. According to the protestors this is not a freedom of religion issue (to build the mosque), but insensitivity on the location of the mosque.

To some, the reality of the situation is most mosques are 'full' during Friday Jumma prayers and during the month of fasting (Ramadan). Nevertheless, during the remainder of the times, especially weekdays, a Mosque's Imam has had to encourage the worshippers to come to the mosque. At one level, its not about building a mosque, but constructing another mosque in 'visual' vicinity of other mosques.

During the ensuing media circus, two interesting points have been flushed by some in the US Muslim community as well as the vocal non-Muslim minority . Did the Imam reach out to US Muslims about the location of the mosque? One wonders if the Imam is able to get a permit for a 'Mosque March,' in, say, Washington, DC, which may be less heated than one in NYC, what kind of support he would gather, in terms of numbers, from both Muslims and non-Muslims?

The second point, it is easier to build a mosque in the US than a Church/Synagogue in a Muslim country. Maybe the Imam's Cordoba Initiative needs to expand the inter-faith dialogue to selected Muslim countries. It would indeed test the Imam's ability to be the voice of non-Muslims in a Muslim country for building a house of worship. Being on a recent State Department sponsored trip to the Gulf countries, he may want to test the waters of bridge building, instead of sticking to the script.

These houses of worship and their activities, be it a mosque, church or synagogue, facilitate intra-community and inter-community dialogue, and community leaders are mindful of location resulting in provocation. To a number of people, Ground Zero is seen as a sacred cemetery of nearly 3000 graves, hence, an obvious expected push back on building a mosque on a cemetery. To them, no different than building a Japanese shrine at Pearl Harbor, legally doable but morally questionable.

Inter-Faith Dialogue

Interfaith dialogue has been around before the tragedy of 9/11, but this mosque scenario has flushed out the need for more meaningful ways to lift ignorance about Islam and Muslims. One of the most often heard phrases is, 'not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims,' hence, something more pronounced needs to be introduced in the dialogue. The Bush Administration, now the Obama Administration, and the media seem to go to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf for issues related to Islam/Muslims, giving the impression there are no comparable qualified Imams in the US. Lets hear what the Imams in Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, and other places have to say about the location of the proposed mosque and on inter-faith dialogue.

The US had no Grand Mufti, and we do not need one today as it will inevitably result in talks of conspiracy theories, much like state controlled Friday (Jumma) sermons (Khutbahs) in selected Muslim countries. The last thing the Imam wants is to be seen as a 'contractor' (some would say 'puppet') of the State Department, as his credibility will take a beating in the Muslim world.

Today's ignorance-removal, for Muslims and non-Muslims, requires something deeper than inter-faith dialogue, as it sometimes becomes a photo opportunity with the usual sound bites. The history and contribution of Islam/Muslims is a visual story, rich with inventions and innovations, pioneering men and women, and compassion and convergence towards non-Muslims. This cannot be captured in a controlled two-hour town hall meeting with glowing speeches and repetitive type of questions, as the message does not reach the masses.

Islamic Museum

Lets take a cue from the enlightened country of Qatar, which has been involved in hosting a dialogue for several years in Doha about Islam and the West. Qatar, like Abu Dhabi, wants to the cultural hub for the Muslim world, and recently opened an Islamic Arts museum, i.e., utilizing culture to build bridges between civilizations.

It make sense to focus on the Museum part of Project51, as that would show the history of Islam and Muslim contributions to mankind, from mathematics to music to mechanical engineering. This is the opposite message of the extremists. Such a project would have an easier time in raising the funds domestically in a transparent manner, as many Muslims may not be informed or aware of our rich history. For example take the recent exhibition '1000 Inventions' at London's Science Museum, which profiled Muslim contributions to society.

Another example is the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) near Jeddah, which has a Museum of Science & Technology in Islam (MOSTI). According to their website, '[T]he Museum celebrates the contributions of Muslim scholars to science and technology during the first Golden Age of Islam from the 7th to 17th century. These Muslim scholars include amongst them the great scientists, inventors, engineers, mathematicians and teachers of that time, such as Jabir ibn Hayyan, Abbas bin Firnas, al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Jazari and Taqi al-Din.'

Museums and Exhibitions about Muslim contributions to mankind is the need of the hour, over another mosque, to build bridges between civilizations, whilst breaking walls of ignorance.


Cordoba, in the history of Islam, was an era of education, enlightenment and inclusiveness to the major faiths, meaning reasonable sensitivities were acknowledged and actions done accordingly.

To say the Imam and the developer behind this project did not expect this kind of divisive uproar on the mosque location implies their ignorance of their namesake organization: Cordoba Initiative. Put the ego to the side by offering a 'Cordobian' gesture, build Project51 with emphasis on the ultimate bridge builder of civilizations, understanding, and appreciation: an Islamic Museum, which could include Islamic finance, and let Islamic finance, via Sukuk, fund its building.

Several hypothetical queries can be raised here: What would be the reaction by the media and/or opposition if, instead of mosque, it was an Islamic bank near Ground Zero (which is in the proximity to Wall Street's financial district)? One wonders if it would make a difference if the backers of the proposed banks were from secular democracies, like Malaysia and Turkey, instead of Arabs?

The passage of time commences the healing process of the trauma and tragedy of 9/11 on the psyche of Muslims and non-Muslims leaving a soft scab, but such undertakings, location of Mosques near Ground Zero's 'sacred cemetery', just pulls it raw. Moving the mosque is not a defeat for Muslims/Islam or caving to extremist, but rather being good neighbors. The same neighbors that may understand and possibly join in the celebration of Eid-il-Fitr if it falls on September 11th!

The article is written in the author's personal capacity and does not represent the views of his employer.

Your feedback and comments are very important to us, please feel free to contact the author via email.

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