Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf compares religious extremism to grasping the steering wheel too tightly: It does not make you drive any better. It does not perfect your faith.
Rauf, once criticized for his plans to establish a Muslim community center and prayer space derisively dubbed the “ground zero mosque” near the World Trade Center site in New York, lectures and writes about the relationship between Muslims and the West.
He spoke to the Globe ahead of a talk planned for Thursday at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham. Rauf is scheduled to appear at 7:15 p.m. in the conference center as part of the abbey’s 15th annual “Listening to Other Voices” lecture series.
What is often framed as a conflict between Muslims and the West, he said, is better understood as a conflict between extremism and moderates of all faiths.
“It is the extremists who are our common enemy,” he said.
Although most people are moderates, moderation has a branding problem, he said. Some people think the term implies a lack of conviction or faith. He instead sees moderation as a necessary balance.
“The perfection of faith lies in the optimum balance,” he said.
The theme of this season’s lecture series is “profiles in spiritual courage.” Loretta McCabe, a member of the lecture committee, said Rauf has persevered through public criticism as he seeks to promote interfaith understanding.
“He fits our profile in spiritual courage,” she said. “He’s a major figure in our times, at a time when extremism is what we hear and feel and are in the middle of, all the time.”
Rauf founded the Cordoba Initiative, an organization that aims to improve Muslim-West relations, in 2004. He is no longer affiliated with the project that stirred such controversy in lower Manhattan, due to what he called “a difference of vision” with Sharif El-Gamal, the developer who controls the real estate, but he still hopes to establish community centers, modeled after YMCAs and Jewish Community Centers, that would be open to people of all faiths.
Similar to how the YMCA has shaped American Christian identity beyond the parochial and forged a sense of community with people who are not Christian, he said, the Muslim-led centers would be a place for people to take classes and get to know one another. Rauf calls the idea Cordoba House, the name originally used for the Manhattan center, which has since been renamed Park51.
Hayes Shea, a spokeswoman for Glastonbury Abbey, said the lecture committee invited Rauf with full knowledge of past controversies surrounding him, including a 2010 lawsuit filed by the city of Union City, N.J., alleging he failed to address city orders and tenant complaints related to two apartment buildings he owned. New Jersey newspapers reported that a judge placed one building into temporary custodial receivership to ensure repairs were completed.
Asked about the issue, Rauf said that the accusations were politically motivated, that there was no attempt to do anything illegal, and that he has sold the buildings to focus on his work.
Rauf was born in Kuwait to parents of Egyptian descent. He said his father was an imam and religious scholar who traveled during Rauf’s youth and became the first rector of the International Islamic University Malaysia. The younger Rauf was educated in Egypt, England, and Malaysia before coming to the United States. Following Islamic study and mentoring from his father, he was appointed imam, or leader of prayer, of the Masjid al-Farah mosque in Manhattan.
According to a biography on the Cordoba Initiative website, he holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Columbia University in New York and a master’s degree in plasma physics from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
Rauf’s latest book, “Moving the Mountain: A New Vision of Islam in America,” recalls how his parents were taken hostage at the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., in 1977, when armed Hanafi Muslims held more than 130 people hostage in three locations. He was 28, working at a filtration equipment company in New Jersey.
The most shocking part, he said in the book, was that the hostage-takers were Muslims. The experience brought the dangers of extremism into very personal focus.
According to the Cordoba Initiative, Rauf cofounded the American Society for Muslim Advancement and has won numerous awards for his interfaith work, including from the Interfaith Center of New York. He was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2011 and one of Foreign Policy magazine’s top 100 global thinkers in 2010.
The final speaker in this season’s series, set for April 10, is Richard Lopez, a retired Texas prison chaplain known for his ministry to prisoners on death row.
The talks are free and open to the public, and all are welcome, Shea said. Rauf’s lecture will be followed by a question-and-answer period.