A Westchester County couple has accused Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of using more than $3 million in donations to the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement for personal purposes. Credit: Creative Commons/World Economic Forum.

What’s the difference between a Catholic priest and an Imam? Although it may sound like the opening line of a joke, both these individuals actually do have a lot in common. For both Catholics and Muslims, priests and imams are prayer leaders, spiritual guides, mentors, teachers and so much more. Even outside of their congregations, they command respect from all who meet them because they wear the badge of religious leadership.

So when someone like that does something unethical or even criminal, we are left with a bad taste in our mouth and a collective cringe. Catholicism has, unfortunately, been dogged with child abuse scandals for a long time; scandals that have plagued and wounded everyday Catholics who aren’t able to see the priesthood in the same light ever again. As a Muslim I often sympathized but hardly ever empathized. Yesterday’s report from the New York Daily News of former Ground Zero Mosque advocate Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf allegedly stealing funds has changed that perception forever, leaving me – and countless other Muslims – reeling with shock. A person viewed by many as the moderate face of Islam in America, so different from the radical Muslim clergy of the Middle East and South East Asia, the Imam was the last person I would have expected to be… like everyone else.

For in reality although we are all human, clergy sometimes has to be more than that. Whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or anything else, those who lead us in prayer must be the first to uphold in their own lives the values they teach from the pulpit. Those who guide us in spiritual and religious matters must be an embodiment of those matters before they can expect us to follow them. Despite being a Sufi, Imam Feisal seemed to represent moderate Muslims from all denominations in that he promoted values of tolerance, love and brotherhood. To be smeared with an allegation such as this, regardless of its truth – could deal a huge blow to the rest of us who are trying to show Islam in a positive light. It was one thing to protest terrorism by saying, those madmen aren’t really Muslims, but how can we say the same about an Imam? Surely he does represent us, doesn’t he?

Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith liaison for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and editor of the Interfaith Houston blog. She is actively involved in interfaith coalition building in the Greater Houston community. Most recently she has led a cultural sensitivity training for the Houston Police Department and continues to offer Islam in America presentations at local academic and religious institutions. In addition to her own blog, she writes for the Houston Community Newspapers and Religious Freedom USA.

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