Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf says peace is goal of 'ground zero' mosque, but denies the site is sacred due to 9/11
Just three days before the ninth anniversary of the deadly 9/11 attacks, the controversial Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf behind the proposed mosque and community center near New York's "ground zero" said Wednesday night he had no intention of seeking an alternative site, despite overwhelming public opinion opposition to his plan.
He said his resistance to such a suggestion was a matter of national security because to move the site would inflame radical Muslims abroad and endanger Americans and American interests. At another point during the revealing CNN interview, however, the Imam said that "nothing is off the table."
Speaking exclusively with Soledad O'Brien on "Larry King Live," the imam said the proposed mosque site two blocks from "ground zero" could not be considered sacred ground because of the seamy nature of much of the surrounding neighborhood. "You can't say a place that has strip joints is sacred ground," the imam declared.
The cleric also made these points:
Had he known in advance the mosque would create such tensions, Rauf would have ...
O'BRIEN: There are so many people who say, so if you're saying it was a mistake, then why can't you get out of it and not do it?
RAUF: Because we have to now make sure that whatever we do actually results in greater peace, not in greater conflict. ... I am extremely concerned about sensitivity. But I also have a responsibility. If we move from that location, the story will be that the radicals have taken over the discourse. The headlines in the Muslim world will be that Islam is under attack.
He has been in touch with some 9/11 families and intends to include a memorial to that traumatic day and its victims within the proposed new building. "We have not finalized all our plans yet. We are willing to sit down and engage and do something that will help us heal. You cannot heal a trauma by walking away from it. We have to sit down. We have to talk about it. We have to dialogue about it and find a way to move through it and beyond it.
O'BRIEN: Is it how to build peace to put a cultural center, Islamic cultural center that will have a mosque that is angering so many people, that 71% of the country says is not the right thing to do? Is that the right step to peace?
RAUF: First, we always said there's going to be a dedicated prayer space for Muslim, which we do need. And we want to have prayer space for Christians and for Jews.
As I said, we have to build on our common platform. We need to build -- we need to make a space which creates and emphasizes a culture of worship.
(A new ABC News poll finds 66% of Americans oppose building the mosque, but 82% of opponents say it's the location they object to being so close to the deadly scene so seared into American minds, not a mosque itself.)
O'BRIEN: Have moderate Muslims been vocal enough against extremists?
RAUF: In the Muslim world, there are many people who have been vocal and we have been very vocal against extremists. But how to win this battle is an ongoing battle. And we must continue to wage the battle for peace.
O'BRIEN: Where will you get the money?
RAUF: We will raise from whatever source we can, domestically, especially. And we're very transparent on how we've raised the money. This has been something that we've committed ourselves to.
O'BRIEN: Meaning you will list whoever is giving you money.
O'BRIEN: Will you turn down money from people who, say, give money to Hamas?
RAUF: I condemn everyone and anyone who commits acts of terrorism. And Hamas has committed acts of terrorism.
O'BRIEN Engaging and dialogue and getting to know each other. Right now, it's kind of a screaming match in front of a storefront.
RAUF: Because the radicals on both sides have taken over the discourse.
O'BRIEN: But do you think -- again, when you look at -- when you ask your average American, 71% say they think it's a bad idea. The wisdom is not there in doing this. So are those people radicals?
O'BRIEN: Are they Islamophobic?
RAUF: No, it's because people are concerned. People want this problem to go away. I have been in this neighborhood for 25 years. I'll continue to be in this neighborhood after this thing dies down.
Mayor Bloomberg was quoted as saying that he believes that the day after election day, this story will go away.
O'BRIEN: Do you think that's true?
RAUF: That's what he said.
O'BRIEN: Do you think that's true?
RAUF: I hope it's true. I hope it dies down tomorrow, because we need this -- this dangerous discourse to die down. We need to build bridges, to build relationships, to build friendships, and to build a new chapter in Muslim/non-Muslim relations.
O'BRIEN: Is this the right way to do that?
RAUF: How do you propose we do it? How do you pose we really engage? You know, Soledad, we must -- look, this is a matter of engagement right now. How do we -- how do we continue engagement is the question.
O'BRIEN: But engagement where people are furious, people -- many people on both sides of the issue are furious. Is that the kind of engagement --
RAUF: I ask, what is the solution? What is the solution to create an advancement of peace? We have to advance a discourse on peace. Our politicians get it.
O'BRIEN: Isn't that the opposite of peace? Two sides yelling at each other with placards two blocks from "ground zero," which people I think here in New York and around the country would say that is sacred land. That is -- that's a special place for everyone in America. Is that -- is that a step toward peace there?
RAUF: ....many people have said, look at what exists in that neighborhood. Look at what exists around the corner.
O'BRIEN: Oh, I -- believe me, I live downtown so I know the neighborhood very well.
RAUF: So let's be clear. Calling this particular block sacred ground and what exists there. There's, you know --
O'BRIEN: Strip clubs and delis. I've been there a million times. But I think when people call it sacred ground, they're saying something terrible happened on this spot and we can't --
RAUF: We've got to be fair. You can't say a place that has strip joints is sacred ground. We've got to be just. We've got to speak the truth. We've got to have justice for everybody. We're a country of justice for all, not justice for non-Muslims only or some groups and not for others. This is what America's all about, Soledad.
We've got to really mean what we say and say what our values are truly about. This isn't -- the discourse has been hijacked by people who say no.
O'BRIEN: But in that 71% of people, those are not extremists.
RAUF: I recognize that. This is why I'm on the show with you today. I want to talk to these people, show them my face, show them what I'm about, show them my track record. I have been looked at every which way.
The full O'Brien interview transcript is available here.
-- Andrew Malcolm
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Photo: Larry King Live / CNN; Diane Bondareff / MCT (Site of the proposed mosque); Pete Souza / White House (President Obama announces his support of the mosque during an August White House Iftar dinner).