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.