NEW YORK -- The imam behind the controversial project for a mosque and Islamic center near the site of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York says the public has greatly misunderstood his plans.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on September 13, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf tried to lower the tensions surrounding the project and said that had he known that the proposal would become so politicized, he would have planned to establish the center somewhere else.
Rauf, who is an American citizen and has been preaching in New York since 1983, pledged that the Islamic center would be a meeting point for all faiths, not just followers of Islam.
"This center will be a place for all faiths to come together as partners, as stakeholders in mutual respect. It will bring honor to the city of New York, to American Muslims across the country, and to Americans all over the world," he said.
Casinos And Topless Bars
In his remarks, Rauf also addressed critics of the center, pointing out that, contrary to how Ground Zero has been portrayed by opponents, it has not been treated as sacred ground.
Families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks passionately oppose the project because they believe a mosque near Ground Zero would insult the memories of the victims.
But the imam noted that the proposed location for the Islamic center and the mosque -- two blocks from where members of Al-Qaeda crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center, killing more than 2,600 people in 2001 -- sits near casinos and a striptease bar.
Rauf said the purpose of the center has been misunderstood, and he accused radical political forces in the United States of using the controversy to advance their own agenda.
"I regret that some have misunderstood our intentions. I am deeply distressed that in this heated political season, some have exploited this issue for their own agendas," he said. "And I am deeply disappointed that so many of the arguments have been based on deliberated misinformation and harmful stereotypes."
Moderates Versus Extremists
Despite winning support from U.S. President Barack Obama -- who recently declared that "the U.S. is not at war with Islam" -- and senior elected officials in New York, recent polls indicate that 60 percent of New Yorkers oppose the plan.
But most New Yorkers also say that they would approve of the Islamic center being built 10 blocks away from Ground Zero.
Rauf portrayed the real disagreement as one between religious extremists and religious moderates. The voices of moderate Muslims in the United States, he said, should not be confused with those of extremists.
"Radical extremists would have us believe in a theory of worldwide battle between Muslims and non-Muslims," he said. "And some intellectuals and thinkers have furthered that idea."
He said that idea "is false" and added: "The real battle that we must wage together today is not between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is between moderates of all the faith traditions against the extremists of all the faith traditions."
In an attempt to defuse the controversy, Donald Trump, the famous real estate developer, offered $6 million to buy the proposed location for the center, but the deal fell apart when the owner of the property said he wanted $20 million.