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How the Florida pastor and the New York imam can live their faiths

By Akbar Ahmed, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Akbar Ahmed says Terry Jones and Feisal Abdul Rauf broke their silence on Tuesday
  • Jones told CNN he will burn Qurans; Rauf wrote he's going forward with Islamic center
  • He says both are inflaming emotions about Islam, refusing to bend to sensitivies of others
  • Ahmed: Jones, Imam should live their faiths instead; travel to Pakistan to help flood victims

Editor's note: Akbar Ahmed is professor and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington and the former high commissioner from Pakistan to the United Kingdom. He is author of "Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam" (Brookings Press). He appears tonight at 9 ET on "Larry King Live."

(CNN) -- Both Pastor Terry Jones and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf broke their strange silence, and we got a glimpse into the state of their minds Tuesday -- Jones on CNN's "AC360°" with Anderson Cooper and Feisal in a New York Times op-ed piece.

In both venues, I was struck by how the two men appeared to be disconnected from the storms they have created, unaware of the sociological laws of cause and effect.

Jones, who plans a Quran burning in Florida on the ninth anniversary of the 9-11 terror attacks, told Cooper that the Bible offers instructions about all this.

"If you add to this book [the Bible], let him be accursed," he said. "That's what the Bible says about the Quran."

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Cooper did not ask him for the exact reference in the Bible. Jones also said Gen. David Petraeus' warning that Quran burning could jeopardize American troops abroad would not change his mind.

As for Rauf, he appeared almost cavalier in his op-ed piece in the short shrift it gave to the emotions he'd unleashed: 70 percent of Americans object to the location of the planned Islamic center.

He has just arrived back from a partly taxpayer-funded outreach tour of the affluent Arab capitals. In his absence, Muslims and mosques have been attacked, and Islamophobia has boiled up. Yet he intends to go forward with construction.

Watch CNN's Soledad O'Brien interview Feisal on "Larry King Live" at 9 p.m. ET

Two men of God, both believing that they are motivated by their faith, are adding fuel to the fire flaring around the religion of Islam in the United States today.

They have approached their task from the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Jones' Quran burning means to expose what he calls the "evil" religion of Islam. Rauf wishes to create an Islamic center that would attract interfaith activities and promote understanding. The pastor's purpose is to provoke; the imam's to build bridges.

Jones may have underestimated the deep wellspring of religious pluralism in American society, just as Rauf may be guilty of overestimating it. Both men are protected in their actions by the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution allows the pastor's freedom of expression to burn books just as much as it protects the imam's right to build a center of worship.

Yet both have transgressed on civility in American society, a concept very important to the Founding Fathers.

George Washington's only book, based on a collection of his papers, was "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." It was intended as a guide to living outside one's self-interest in a civil society.

Jones has upset those Americans who believe that burning books is disrespectful, abhorrent in American culture and recalls the excesses of the Nazis in 1930s Germany.

And Rauf has refused to bend to the sensitivities of those who believe that ground zero in New York is hallowed ground.

In one of his rare comments after mysteriously dropping off the radar in the thick of the controversy about his center, Rauf reiterated his faith in the Constitution and the "wisdom" of the American people. He dismissed the Americans who have expressed their objection to his Islamic center as a "tiny, vociferous minority."

The actions of the pastor and the imam have generated a bitter controversy around Islam that has divided homes and communities across America.

How then do we move out of a situation that threatens to lead to further confrontation?

This is my suggestion, a request for both men that comports with the deepest impulses of their respective faiths:

I urge them to travel together to minister to the suffering people of Pakistan.

A flood of epic proportions has devastated a nation of 180 million people. some 20 million have lost their homes. Three to four million children face the scourge of waterborne diseases. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has declared this an unprecedented catastrophe akin to the combination of 2010's Haitian earthquake, 2005's Hurricane Katrina and 2004's East Asian tsunami.

Rauf should take his $100 million check and hand it to those affected by the floods. He will appear as an angel of mercy to them.

He will be representing America and the Muslims of America in the best manner possible. Given a choice between a building and human beings, there is little doubt which of these God prefers. The first is built of mortar, concrete and bricks, the latter the finest of God's creation.

As for the pastor, I am confident that a long flight with Rauf as his traveling companion will be an excellent introduction to Islam and the Quran, a book Jones has admitted he has not read.

The pastor can help feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and nurture the sick -- acts of charity and compassion that lie at the heart of Christianity. Helping the very people who would be so hurt by his burning of their holy book would confirm the power of true Christian charity.

If actress Angelina Jolie can be touring the flood-affected areas of Pakistan as an angel of mercy, surely these two men can show the compassion of their faiths.

With this trip to Pakistan, they would not only reaffirm the finest virtues of their respective faiths by acknowledging and helping those in distress, but also perhaps defuse a confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslims in America that is threatening to spiral out of control.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Akbar Ahmed.