Beyond Ground Zero: shifting the public relations discourse

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Photo by Enid Bloch

Beyond Ground Zero: shifting the public relations discourse to an American Muslim identity and global alliance of moderates

Toni Muzi Falconi’s conversation with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf on the value of public relations

Recently I was granted the privilege of an extensive conversation with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in New York, following up on our first direct encounter in Kuala Lumpur at the inaugural Muslim PR Congress.

Just like my report on the Congress, I am happy to share this interview with readers of PR Conversations.

Religion as a divisive, political issue in the USA?

Deciding to open the conversation cautiously (due to a continuing lack of knowledge about of Muslim and Islamic issues) on a more general subject, one that has struck me of late: how far religion has gone to become a major and divisive political issue in the USA, constantly evoked, whatever the argument. By that I mean that an excess of using religion as a claw to pollute the democratic system rather than, for example, picking on the Citizen United Super Pacs, which have expanded unlimited and unaccounted political spending (reports indicate that compared to only four years ago, this spending has risen by 46 per cent!).

Very courteously, Feisal disagreed with the “spirit” of my question. In fact , according to Imam Feisal, the last century in the USA—but also in Europe, the Middle East and, of course, Russia and China—have been so permeated by atheism, that the three monotheistic faiths (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) simply and independently moved to a more combative and assertive expression of religiosity. Imam Feisal recalls having been very struck back in 1966 with the cover article in Time Magazine, Is God Dead?


Anticipated to be much acclaimed, on May 8, 2012, the Imam is launching (with Free Press) a new book, Moving the Mountain. In this book he affirms the importance of defining terms—he uses the term “unpacking”—in order to reduce the impressive amount of “loose talk” on Islam and Muslims. By Islam, for example, he means “a set of actions,” not a concept in which one believes. It is this same “loose talk” that creates so many wrong perceptions, both within the Muslim community and in society at large.

To give you another example, if I ask, “What does Islam say?” on any issue, the Imam responds, “You have transformed the verb into a noun, implying that there is only one answer…and this is certainly not the case.”

“Unpacking” is the Imam’s term to imply that there is much relativism in the many contradictory things and opinions the Prophet expressed, according to specific and situational circumstances. Therefore, any form of ideological fundamentalism goes against a true interpretation of the Muslim religion.

This is a concept that is very dear to our PR profession, which supposedly and stereotypically thrives on “loose talk,” one of the very causes of its dubious reputation. In other words, it is that very “loose talk” that stimulates confusion.

During our conversation (in which I discovered similarly strong feelings about defining terms), we decided to “unpack” or “deconstruct” what we would talk about. I was stunned by his approach towards the concepts of absolutism and relativism, atypical to my stereotypical position towards monotheistic religions.

Backed up by a Gallup poll (10 years of ongoing monitoring) on how the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims view Americans, the Imam firmly stands behind the finding that only seven per cent of global Muslims can be considered extremists. Yet it is that very seven per cent who through their extreme —i.e., militant intolerance for differing points of view—behaviours and actions have formed and shaped public opinion. This is to the point that these figures appear to most of us to be largely questionable. Admittedly, it’s also because so many Muslims profess absolutist views in the public realm, therefore influencing others.

Musing: I wonder if a similar argument applies to our PR profession. In some ways our reputation is largely determined by the actions of a few unethical and/or simply idiotic and unaware professionals. Yet what is probably a small minority, through their behavior and actions, also translates to the majority of media coverage and, thus, continues the clichés of labels, actions and reputation, such as spin doctors.

The media and the Ground Zero mega mosque”

Rare is the leader of any sort that does not sometime (more often than not) blame the media for distorting the facts. Imam Feisal is no exception.

With decades of professional experience, I’ve come to consider this an intellectual sin and mistake (even if media distortions are a fact of life), because one must ask the question of why that distortion takes place.

In the Imam’s case, as he puts it, “I have been rebranded by the media. What was actually the Cordoba Initiative—a multinational, multi-faith worship place including a dedicated Islamic prayer space—very quickly became, in the eyes of the public worldwide, the ‘Ground Zero mega mosque’.”

I later learned during a conversation with Seth Faison from the Sitrick and Company PR agency (which assisted the Cordoba Project with media relations and strategic counsel on a pro bono basis) that the public attack on the Cordoba Mosque project was initiated by a right-wing alliance formed by representatives of the Tea Party movement, Fox News and the well-known, conservative blogger Pamela Geller.

Imam Feisal was outside of the country when the controversy sparked and delayed any response until he returned to the USA and arranged to meet with Seth Faison. In the meantime, Faison was selected by the Cordoba team to help out as the point person. This, as any young PR student appreciates, created a fertile ground for the full success of that rebranding exercise about which Imam Feisal now complains.

Post controversy and rebranding

Today he is much more savvy and attentive to the value of public relations, which once again confirms that organizations discover that value mostly after unanticipated crises. In fact, this was one reason why he agreed be a keynote speaker at the first global Muslim PR Congress last December.

Today he is one of the undisputed public leaders of the moderate global Muslim community.

New projects and public relations

While the Cordoba mosque continues to face some hindrances (“It is a work in progress,” was his quiet response), Imam Feisal is passionately pursuing two other major projects. And this time, the Imam indicates, he’s conceiving and adopting a public relations policy from the start.

His soon-to-be-released book is one vivid example, and surely it will be a big media hit. But the public relations initiatives are not solely related to third-party media validation.

“One of my objectives,” states the Imam, “Is to ‘unpack’ and argue with the highly differentiated Islamic community the components of what constitutes an American Islamic identity. I have learned very well from the Ground Zero Mosque Project that success comes only by ‘shifting the discourse.’ We need to form a movement capable of convincing the many facets of American Muslims that they have more things in common to positively stand up for than the few loud and desperate extremists, fundamentalist and terrorists.”

I offered that the term convince derives from the Latin vincere cum, which is quite a different concept from that of persuasion. The Imam seemed to agree with this distinction. “By shifting the ‘discourse’ and counting on moderate Muslims to ‘spread the word,’ then it will be possible to constitute a specific and well-characterized Muslim identity in this country, very different from the one which unfortunately has become so stereotyped in this last decade, “ declares Imam Feisal.

The second project is of a more global nature and has to do with helping to develop and affirm an active global coalition of Muslim moderates from all countries.

It was very gratifying to receive confirmation from Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf that in these initiatives he taken to heart lessons learned from the Cordoba House and Ground Zero experience, meaning that public relations policies and programs certainly will be amongst the pillars in both projects.

Imam Feisal Abd Rauf can be found on Twitter.

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25 Replies to “Beyond Ground Zero: shifting the public relations discourse

  1. Toni,

    I don’t believe for one moment the poll results that show 7 per cent of 2.5 billion Muslims (if that’s the research’s assumption) support the terrorists. In 2010, 20 per cent of Americans told opinion polls that they believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim – they seem to have reacted entirely passively and without worrying much about it since. People tell opinion pollsters all kinds of nonsense… but if 7 per cent were behind the terrorists we wouldn’t be winning against such odds.

    There are serious moral flaws with playing the numbers game – the death toll is not what should determine our response to this outrage (would 9/11 have been half as bad if 1000 people died instead of 3000 or twice as many had been killed? In moral terms, I think not.

  2. Toni, I just watched the Fox video – Imam Feisal does not address the key point Don raised.

    The Imam comes across like a nice guy selling a book. But he kept talking about “we” lost 200 (I think that was the number he mentioned) or so Muslims on 9/11. I don’t think it helps to talk about “we” in that context; in fact it is entirely unhelpful. It is as if there really is a Muslim “we” and an “us” on such an issue…how many atheists?… and if no Muslims had been killed whatsoever, it would have changed nothing etc..

    No wonder the culture war rumbles in such a degraded entrenched fashion over a building’s location.

    The truth is the interviewer was spot on: Muslims are well respected in the US and have not been victimized (except by perhaps some idiots) since 9/11. Religion is hardly the issue that matters at all; no more than it is in Norway in relation to Breivik.

    To his credit, the Imam acknowledged the respect Muslims get in the US.

    I’ll check the other link out some other time.

  3. To clarify: I think religion’s historical contribution to society in all its varieties has done much more good than harm. That is why I don’t bash today’s Pope for holding on stubbornly to his immutable “truths” – despite the fact that I’m a life-long atheist. Yes, we all just need to be more tolerant of each other – not least because I maintain that being a Muslim or a Catholic does not really define who people are or what they really stand for (it’s just part of a very great mix…and most Catholics, for example, seem to deal with condoms and abortion as morally autonomous beings etc and as for the rest, let’s talk to them like adults with choices without ridiculing Catholicism and religion per se).

    Actually, I’m not very worried by so-called fundamentalist views among christians and Muslims – they have a right to believe whatever they like. But I am in favour of exterminating terrorists.

    And I will condemn anybody who says or implies that the American victims – one supposes not other nationalities, if I read Imam Feisal’s quote correctly – of 9/11 were somehow accessories to what happened to them and their relatives: let’s not overlook that American policies bear the stamp of democratic (that is collective) legitimacy. But that said, I’ll also defend with equal vigor the Imam’s right to make such claims if he wants too. But then he should not duck from what’s thrown at him in return whenever he sticks his head up in public (assuming the extensive wikipedia entry didn’t manufacture that particular statement, of course.)

    I would hope that I was not quite as black and white as Heather suggests; but if I was – I erred. Her balance is admirable.

    1. PRC’s guest (to use Judy’s designation) should either refute or own up to the 9/11 quote that Paul has referred to twice.

      Paul: Since “Breivik” is destined to be an addition to terrrorism lingua as “Quisling” is to treason and betrayal, you better get the correct spelling: Breivik.

  4. Judy, your response to both Don and to me is odd. I am not at all critical of PRC for giving a platform to Imam Feisal (Don was not critical of that either; he merely suggested that it could been a more challenging interrogation of somebody’s ideas). Indeed, my first opening comment was in praise of PRC “Toni, this is a useful discussion”. I merely engaged the debate critically and from a completely different perspective to the both Toni and Imam Feisal.

    But when it comes to closing down discussion, there was something in Toni’s criticism of me and in your comment, too, which appeared to be directed at restricting discussion based on how it impacts your emotions and how what I said might offend your guest (and once again I repeat, I never raised the holocaust to closedown discussion, and I was not making a moral point about it at all, but was trying to explain the dynamics of race, religion, identity and community etc.)

    If somebody makes a claim that somebody else is an “undisputed” leader of more than one and a half billion people (or even of world moderate Muslim opinion, whatever that is, because definitions of that are multiple), I think we should be free to interrogate such claims robustly etc. The same goes for the notion of there being in reality something called the global or even national Muslim community.

    Moreover, one can’t separate the public relations aspects from a deeper critique of the problem – as a few of the case-studies I provided hopefully illustrated.

    I don’t even criticize – because I defend freedom of speech – Imam Feisal for saying after 9/11 “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened. But the United States’ policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.” (I’ll accept correction if the sometimes unreliable Wikipedia was not justified in making that quote uncontested for its accuracy).

    It was Imam Feisal’s right to express an honestly held opinion – it was, however, a viewpoint that appalled me; not least because I don’t think US foreign motivated 9/11 no more than I believe one word of the crap Breviek spouted at his trial to justify his actions – their acts were nihilistic not political or motivated by religious beliefs.

    If we are to have serious discussions, people here have got to stop taking criticism of their ideas and positions personally – seeing them as mere insults.

  5. Paul (and to a lesser extent, Don),

    I’d like you to remember that Toni Muzi Falconi first met and was impressed with Imam Feisal at the inaugural Muslim PR Congress. Besides developing respect himself, I would assume that Toni also noted the response by the majority of conference attendees to his keynote address and/or more personal conversations (i.e., networking).

    I think it’s also important to note that the Imam did not approach Toni or PR Conversations for the “microphone” (or pedestal) opportunity. It was Toni’s suggestion that he be approached and Heather Yaxley, Markus Pirchner and I all agreed this would make for an interesting post on a collaborative, international blog that is targeted at public relations.

    Both the congress and Toni’s conversation were focused on the public relations aspect. Ergo, I think it is also unfair to claim that the areas discussed, as well as Toni’s “musings” are off base. If the conversation did not touch upon public relations, both specifically to the Muslim identity, as well as to the discipline…this would not have been the right platform for it.

    Coming from a country where accommodation, whether ethnic or religious, is part of the DNA, I don’t find any aspects of the conversation here either outrageous or self-serving. And I am happy to say that I have both worked and socialized with a large number of Muslims–yes, diverse in many ways–all of whom I would classify as moderates.

    I have to say I also dislike it when a “guest” on our blog is insulted by regular commenters. Not just because it’s rather rude, but because I think it fills other potential commenters with trepidation (whether Muslim or not) and silences them.

    This is a blog meant to inspire conversations and debates, not to shut them down.

    Addendum: Pointing you to this “The Society of Difference”
    (An excerpt from the eighth annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture, March 2, 2007, Vancouver), by former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson

    1. Judy,

      I hope you don’t mean to suggest that I insulted a PRC guest (you have me in there with Paul in your salutation) by suggesting that Toni be a little more critical with the esteemed guest.

      Incidentally, one does not have to ask for a “microphone” to get one. If anything, my comments were directed at Toni and not “PRC’s guest.”

      Guess Paul is more than able to speak for himself. Talking of insults, Toni was not very polite with Paul.

      1. I did lead off with “to a lesser extent” regarding your comment, Don. Perhaps I didn’t temper it enough. But your response did surprise me.

        PR Conversations is not about “hard-hitting, investigative” journalism. Our very name indicates that it’s about “conversations.”

        This was Toni’s interview with the Imam, and he was the only one in the room (not me). So, as editor I limited myself to helping to clarify any thoughts, not in passing judgement or suggesting that Toni be a little more critical. Toni is not impressed easily by individuals, especially those in positions of power. Ergo, if the Imam has earned his respect, that is how the conversation is depicted here on this blog.

  6. Toni, perhaps I should have added that I’m not accusing the British government of being motivated by a/ racism or b/ any hostility to Muslims. In the 1970s, firebombing – sometimes killing – asians in their home was commonplace. The police were slow to turn up. If they did respond, they more than likely arrested the victim, or just as likely people like me for having the audacity to defend them. After the race riots of 1981 that approach changed; anti-racism became an establishment crusade.

    The problem has been that the policy of defining people by their religion and the institutionalization of multiculturalism has led to the waning of people’s identification with the nation states in which they live. It has generated the self-hate and contempt for society that led some to nihilism (including Brevik, who speaks the same language and has the same worldview as any terrorist who just happens to be Muslim).

    So the essence of the problem is not one of religious doctrine between scholars – or even about the perceptions of Islam moderate or otherwise – but the erosion of the core values that hold our societies together. For example, recently in England the police tried to liaise sensitively with “leaders” of a community that does not exist while a riot spread across the breadth of the land fueled by the correct impression that the police’s institutional multi-culturalism rendered them impotent. It was typical of a society that lacked self-confidence and had lost an element of self-assuredness and self-respect. The mass rapine, arson and odd murder that followed was a wake up call.

    So I believe that I have set out clearly and fairly my viewpoints: and it in no way suggests that I was implying in any shape or fashion what you claimed.

    Though on reflection I didn’t need to get distracted by a clumsy point on a hot touchstone – including praising people like Henry Kissinger for resisting being defined as a Jew over an American – to set out my stall of PR insights.

  7. Toni, once again you are evasive and trite in reply.

    Of course we are not in a 1930/40s situation, thank God. But there are lessons to be learned from history. The lesson I highlighted, which was not the nonsense you accuse me of, was simply that positioning different religious and so-called racial groups as homogenous international communities with separate interests tends to breed distrust and division, besides being rooted in false premises.

    My core arguments are well backed by the evidence accumulated by the likes of Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen in his book “Identity and Violence” and by Kenan Malik in his widely acclaimed “From Fatwa to Jihad The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy”.

    Sen provides a modern case-study of British Bangladeshis; explaining how Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan was not based on their religion but on their language, their literature and their secular politics. At the time of their independence Bangladeshis who came to Britain had a very strong sense of Bengali identity. But all that, he says, disappeared, because the official government classification ignored language, culture and secular politics, and insisted on viewing all Bangladeshis as Muslims.

    This, Sen remarks, undermined British civil society and weakened the Bangladeshi sense of belonging to it. Sen also makes a good case – as does Malik – against self-appointed Muslim spokespeople acting as mediators.

    Tzvetan Todorov in The Fear of Barbarians, argues that during the Cold War the faultlines that divided our world were broadly ideological, today the world is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. There is today, he maintains, a deep-rooted fear of the ‘Other’ driven by a sense of ‘humiliation, real and imaginary’

    So, I fear it is you who are lowering the tone (pun intended) here, not me, by failing to engage.

  8. Toni,

    With all due respect your interview is nothing more than “a microphone stand” for this Imam. It is OK to be polite to your interview object, but to accept all that is said without a critical question, does a disservice to critical thinking and enquiry.

    1. I am very sorry about this Don.
      Maybe you could help me in adding other less ‘microphone stand’ questions here.
      I am sure Imam would be happy to reply.
      Of course, only if you have a specific interest.
      As you saw it was more a conversation than an interview and I thought it would help us public relators better understand how relevant the issue of religion and multiculturalism is relevant ot our profession.

      1. Toni,

        You don’t have to be sorry. I do understand a conversation is different from an interview.
        For starters, why is it so imperative for an American Muslim Identity? What would differentiate it from the other strands of Islam? How would one differentiate it from the strands that have chosen the path of jihad? Could this attempt to “rebrand” “moderate” Islam be viewed as I digression.

        A digression of my own: What does the Iman think about the use of democratic means by strands of Islam after the Arab spring, only to stifle democracy and oppress female members of society?

          1. Seen both of them. He is doing the talk show circuit for his book. No quarrel with that.
            Fox’s O’Riley was less in awe of his guest than CNN’s Soledad.

  9. Toni, America’s culture war expresses itself in divisive identity politics.

    The problem in the US is not religious intolerance or atheism, but the erosion of secularism and the values of the Founding Fathers.

    The Imam and you appear to want to project America’s culture war on to the world stage by creating a Muslim identity for Muslims. Whereas Muslims are actually made up of many different nationalities, cultural outlooks and possess diverse interpretations of their religion.

    Until recently Muslims didn’t (and largely in practice still don’t) define themselves as a community with separate interests that need representation.

    Let’s also not forget that the myths of the Jewish conspiracy that did so much damage in the first half of the 20th century were rooted in the paranoid fears of the existence of a so-called international Jewish community. Ironically, it took the diabolical murder of six million Jews to give Zionism its potency; and even then most Jews still defined themselves as citizens of wherever they were from rather than as Jews (Henry Kissinger is worth reading on that one).

    There’s something warped in your understanding of this issue. That becomes particularly transparent when you write:

    “Today he (Feisal) is one of the undisputed public leaders of the moderate global Muslim community.”

    Who elected this Imam to represent the diverse religious views of more than one and a half billion Muslims? I’ve no idea if Feisal is arrogant enough to make such a claim, so I’ll stick to suggesting that it is merely puff on your part.

    Amusingly, you link everything to PR. But surely it is a non-sequiter to link in any shape or form the reputations of Muslims and the issues surrounding 9/11 to the image of PR as a profession and the problem of “loose talk” among a small number of people.

    Moreover, it is counterproductive – and wrong – to see 9/11 and terrorism as expressions of global religious disputes. Or even to start to frame it in terms of “them” and “us” and how we perceive each other.

    We need to look beneath the nutty jihadist rhetoric of the terrorists to make any sense of what drives them to commit nihilistic outrages. Otherwise we’ll have to accept at face value a whole load of bollocks currently being spouted by Brevik in Norway to justify his despicable crimes.

    1. Paul, evoking the shoah as a scapegoar to discard even your worst enemy’s opinion is a miserable use of your intellect. sorry and embarassed for you.

      1. Toni – I think that if you read Paul’s considered response to your question that he is not ‘evoking the shoah’ in the way that you contend. It seems to me that the conversation is about how religions are framed (via media and other debate in the public and private spheres).

        My understanding in your conversation with the Iman was that religions are more complex than the simplistic media hero vs villain narrative presents. However, in suggesting a minority bad, majority good approach (which Feisal Abdul Rauf does in terms of Muslims, you do in terms of PR and Paul does more generally for all religions), we lose the nuances that exist in the complex and messy world in which we live.

        It is the stereotyping (whether as a whole or a minority segment) that enables the sweeping generalisations to be made which are so harmful. That seemed to me to be what Paul was saying in terms of how Jewish communities have been presented historically – both as individuals (e.g. Shakespeare’s Shylock) and as an entirety. Likewise, we see us and them ‘battles’ enacted in respect of Muslim and many other communities – sometimes with the good being shifted to bad and vice versa. Indeed, very often it is this division of presentation that stifles meaningful debate.

        This doesn’t just apply in matters of religion or race. We see it in debates about the environment, public safety, airport security, and pretty much any type of issue. The traditional media is partly to blame as it simplifies debate – as does much of PR work.

        Complex issues – and communities – deserve better understanding than simplifications or labelling as good/bad. Otherwise the dangers are demonisation, discrimination, censorship of debate (particularly minority views) and a dumbing down that enables stereotyping rather than encouraging depth of understanding.

        1. I honestly have not had the patience to read Paul’s many attempts to say other things… but I do agree with what YOU say.

          As you know, to get the conversation back to the focus of this blog, my real opinion is that it is much more than a small minority of public relators that are ‘bad’ or ‘inconsiderate’ or ‘irresponsible’ or ‘oblivious’ of the profession they exercise.

          So the ‘reframing’ issue for us is not so much similar to the moderate muslim one (if it is true as Gallup figures indicate, that only 7% are extremists and terrorists (that are not the same thing of course).
          I was hoping that someone would have made this comment, but we got strayed away by a wreckless hammer indicating all other directions.

          The reframing issue for us lies in two interdependent paths:

          a) reduce the enourmous numbers of flacks that claim to do public relations by con-vincing public policy makers in protectionof the…. public interest…. that pr does impact them much more than before and therefore they should be very wary… ‘caveat emptor’;

          b) advocate that our professional associations turn responsible and negotiate reasonable regulatory agreements with policy makers that ensure that the public is protected from the many wrongoings of public relators and the organizations they for and with.

          1. Toni – I’ve been reading a book on the proceedings of the 8th Public Relations World Congress which took place in London in 1979. My interest is on the role of women (for my paper at the International History conference) and although there were no papers at all on the feminist issue (and few women presenting), it is interesting to see that most of the topics of discussion echo those we are having today (notably a lot of papers on ethics, education and, of course, definitions).

            Relating to this post also, are papers that look at the communications of ethnic minorities – including a comment that: “A difference in race, colour, culture, or religious affiliation is not sufficient to generate conflict. It is rather the circumstances in which the minority is placed by the majority.” Elsewhere, it is interesting to see relationships discussed in terms of shifting from a colonial to a contract perspective. The idea being that minorities were generally communicated with on the basis of disproportionate power. Today of course, we often emphasise a need for communal relationships rather than exchange ones, but the same ideas around power in PR/communications.

  10. Toni, this is a useful discussion. But I think that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf heads off in the wrong direction in the US by focusing on the difference between extremist and moderate Muslims as a way of promoting a positive reputation for his religion (however justified he is to reiterate that most Muslims like most Christians and most Jews etc. are perfectly good citizens worthy of our respect).

    The real problem is that religious disputes in the US form part of a wider culture war. It is on the ensuing battles that this creates that our attention should be concentrated. In short, the religious discussion in the US is an expression of other disputes by other means… It was within that framework that a moderate – and well reasoned – proposal was redefined in the US as being about founding a “Ground Zero mosque” – regardless that it was neither a ground zero site nor a mosque that was being advocated.

    1. tell me more Paul. what do you mean when you cite ‘other disputes, other means’ ?

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