The proposed site for the Islamic center and mosque near the former World Trade Center is not sacred, says the Muslim cleric who envisioned the project.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, said Monday it is an "absolutely disingenuous" argument to call the planned site for the Park51 project "hallowed ground."
"[W]ith a strip joint around the corner, with betting parlors, to claim it is hallowed ground is … it doesn't make sense – it doesn't add," said Rauf at the office of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. "So let's clarify that misperception."
Rauf, in his remarks at the CFR, sought to portray himself as an average American who fights against a common enemy – Muslim extremists. While extremists try to spread the idea that there is a war between Muslims and non-Muslims, Rauf said the "real battle" is between moderates of all faiths and the extremists of all faiths.
"We must not let the extremists – whatever their faith, whatever their political persuasion – hijack the discourse and hijack the media," said the imam.
The soft spoken and not easily riled cleric is at the center of an international controversy involving a proposed Islamic center two blocks away from Ground Zero. The project has received support from President Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but was criticized by former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, among others.
Proponents of the center argue that Muslims have the right to build their houses of worship wherever they want, just like adherents of other faith traditions. Rauf also argues the center will be a symbol of America's religious tolerance and will help fight al Qaeda and other extremists' claim that America is at war with Islam.
But opponents of Park51 contend that while developers have the right to build the center near Ground Zero, doing so would work against its mission to promote understanding between the West and Muslim world. They point out that the proposed center has not brought healing but rather division and vitriolic debate.
According to a New York Times poll released earlier this month, two-thirds of New Yorkers – including many who support the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero – say leaders of the project should find a location further from the 9/11 crash site.
And nationally, 57 percent of Americans oppose allowing Park51 to be built two blocks from the former WTC site, according to a Public Religion Research Institute/Religion News Service poll released Monday. Notably, the poll also found 76 percent of Americans support the building of a mosque in their own local community, suggesting that Americans are not anti-Islamic but sensitive about building the mosque near the 9/11 crash site.
During his appearance at the CFR, Rauf said he was "exploring all options" and "everything is on the table" as he and the projects' leaders try to "resolve this crisis, defuse it." But the imam resisted offering details of what options he was considering, including whether he is willing to move the center.
"The world will be watching what we do here," he said. "Let us therefore reject those who would use this crisis … for political gain or even for fame."