NEW YORK — It may be two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 attacks, but the location of a proposed mosque and Islamic centre shouldn’t been seen as sacrosanct in a neighbourhood that also harbours a strip club and a betting parlour, 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 centre 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 (NFL football) fan.”
He said Monday that the Islamic centre’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 clamour — or say whether that might include moving the project.