NEW YORK – It may be two blocks from ground zero, but the site of a proposed mosque and Islamic center shouldn't been seen as sacrosanct in a neighborhood that also harbors a strip club and a betting parlor, the cleric leading the effort said Monday.
Making an ardent case for the compatibility of Islam and American values, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf reiterated that he was searching for a solution to the furor the project has created. But he left unanswered exactly what he had in mind.
If anything, Rauf only deepened the questions around the project's future, telling an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank that he was "exploring all options" — but declining to specify them — and underscoring what he saw as the importance of a location that would draw attention to his message of promulgating moderate Islam. And while opponents of the project see it as insulting the memories of the thousands killed by Muslim extremists in the 2001 terrorist attacks, Rauf said he didn't see it as sacred memorial space.
"It's absolutely disingenuous, as many have said, that that block is hallowed ground," Rauf said, noting the nearby exotic dance and betting businesses. "So let's clarify that misperception."
The proposed Islamic center has become a flashpoint for worldwide debate about Islam's place in America nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks. Controversy has colored the fall campaign season and cast a a shadow on this past weekend's commemoration of the attacks, with supporters and opponents of the mosque project both holding rallies nearby.
Rauf says a project meant to foster understanding has become unduly mired in conflict and what he describes as misconceptions of a fundamental clash between Islamic and American values. The Kuwait-born imam used his own life story as an example, saying that his own faith had been shaped by the sense of choosing one's identity that American society provided, compared with the predominantly Muslim society from which he emigrated in 1965.
"I'm a devout Muslim ... and I'm also a proud American citizen," said Rauf, noting that he was naturalized in 1979 and has a niece serving in the U.S. Army. "I vote in elections. I pay taxes. I pledge allegiance to the flag. And I'm a Giants fan."
He said Monday that the Islamic center's organizers were surprised by the uproar and might not have pursued it had they known what was coming.
"The events of these past few weeks have really saddened me to my very core," he said, lamenting that the project had been misunderstood, clouded by stereotypes, and "exploited" by some to push personal or political agendas.
But he declined to detail any strategy for quieting the clamor — or say whether that might include moving the project.
"We are exploring all options as we speak right now, and we are working through what will be a solution, God willing, that will resolve this crisis, defuse it and not create any unforeseen or untoward circumstances that we do not want to see happen," Rauf said during a question-and-answer session following his speech. "Everything is on the table. ... We really are focused on solving it, and solving it in the way that will create the best possible outcome for all."
He suggested the locale's high profile served an important purpose for the proposed $100 million Islamic center, which organizers describe as featuring prayer space, but also a swimming pool, culinary school, art studios and other features.
"We need to create a platform where the voice of moderate Muslims would be amplified," Rauf said. "This is an opportunity that we must capitalize on so that those who teach moderation will have a mega-horn."
But to at least some who listened to his talk Monday, that's not what Rauf is doing.
Fouad Ajami, a Middle East studies professor at Johns Hopkins University, said Rauf's appearance didn't change his misgivings about the mosque project.
"I just think it's provocative," Ajami said. While organizers may have the right to build it, "the prudence of it, the wisdom of it" is the question, he said.