DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The imam leading plans for an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York said the fight is over more than "a piece of real estate" and could shape the future of Muslim relations in America.
The dispute "has expanded beyond a piece of real estate and expanded to Islam in America and what it means for America," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told a group Tuesday that included professors and policy researchers in Dubai.
Rauf suggested that the fierce challenges to the planned mosque and community center in lower Manhattan could leave many Muslim questioning their place in American political and civic life.
But he avoided questions over whether an alternative site is possible. Instead, he repeatedly stressed the need to embrace the religious and political freedoms in the United States.
"I am happy to be American," Rauf told about 200 people at the Dubai School of Government think tank.
It was his last scheduled public appearance during a 15-day State Department-funded trip to the Gulf that was intended to promote religious tolerance.
The State Department said that Rauf was returning early to the United States on Wednesday.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the imam was departing the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, and will return to New York. Toner said Rauf's early return did not cause the cancellation of any programs on his State Department-funded trip.
He said he became closer to Islam after moving to America, where he had the choice to either follow the faith or drift away.
"Like many of our fellow Muslims, we found our faith in America," he said.
During his Middle East trip, Rauf generally sidestepped questions over the backlash to the Islamic center location about two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center towers.
But in an interview published Monday in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, he linked the protests to the U.S. elections in November. Many conservatives have joined the opposition to the center, which is being spearheaded by a newly formed nonprofit organization that includes real estate developers and has named Rauf as one of the directors.
"It is important to shift the discussion from a discussion of identity politics," he said. "We have to elevate the discourse because there is more that bonds us ... in terms of mutual responsibility."
A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed 71 percent of New Yorkers want the developers to voluntarily move the project. A similar percentage also said they wanted New York's state attorney general to investigate sources of funding for the project in lower Manhattan.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said an investigation would set "a terrible precedent."
"You don't want them investigating donations to religious organizations and there's no reason for the government to do so," he said.
He also played down the fact that the developers of the building where the center would be established owe over $200,000 in back taxes on the property. "They're going to be treated like everybody else," he said. "We enforce the law against everybody, or we protect everybody. And if they owe money, they should pay it. and if they don't, they don't."
The developers have said they are negotiating with the city to pay back the taxes.
Opponents of the center, which could include a swimming pool and a Sept. 11 memorial, have seized on the question of the project's funding, raising concerns that the money will come from overseas extremists or anti-American sources.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, a Republican who is the ranking minority leader of the Homeland Security Committee, said on Tuesday that he disagreed with the mayor. He said the question of financing is fundamental to assessing the Islamic center project's backers.
"A number of terror plots have emanated from mosques," he said, citing the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center as one example.
Arrests of conspirators in the attack that killed six people and injured more than a thousand led FBI to a Brooklyn mosque, where core members of those involved in the 1993 plot worshipped and where Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman sometimes led prayers. Abdel-Rahman was later convicted in the bombing.
King said he would call for churches or synagogues to undergo the same kind of scrutiny of their finances if there was evidence that terrorist plots were originating from them.
Developers of the planned Islamic center have pledged to hire "security consultants" to review potential contributors. A spokesman for the developers didn't immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment Tuesday.
It is common for the finances of religious groups to come under scrutiny either by the Internal Revenue Service, law enforcement or government agencies that protect consumers against fraud.
Religious nonprofits operate under a complex system of IRS rules on compensation, spending and governance. The IRS can revoke the nonprofit status of any group found to be violating the regulations.
Muslim charities have come under especially intense scrutiny under U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Federal prosecutors have brought cases against several American-based Muslim nonprofits, and in a separate case last year, seized U.S. mosques whose property is owned by a foundation federal officials say is secretly controlled by the Iranian government.
Associated Press Religion Writer Rachel Zoll and Associated Press Reporters Sara Kugler Frazier and Cristian Salazar contributed to this report from New York City.