The imam leading the controversial plan for an Islamic center near Ground Zero on Monday rejected arguments from 9/11 survivors that he was seeking to build on “hallowed” ground.
“It’s absolutely disingenuous… that that block is hallowed ground,” imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said, noting that the immediate area, a busy commercial district, contained a strip club.
Opponents to the planned Islamic center two blocks from the epicenter of the September 11, 2001 attacks say that a Muslim presence there would be offensive to the memory of the 2,752 people killed in the World Trade Center.
Abdul Rauf, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in New York, said that radicals had hijacked the debate and spread “deliberate misinformation and harmful stereotypes.”
“I regret that some have misunderstood our intentions. I am deeply distressed that in this heated political season some have exploited the issue for their own political agenda,” he said.
The imam refused to say whether he might move the center further from Ground Zero, as opponents demand, but indicated that he is considering this.
“We are exploring all options as we speak right now and we are working through what will be a solution, God willing, that will defuse this crisis,” Abdul Rauf said. “Everything’s on the table.”
Asked if suspending the project — which calls for a multi-faith community center with sporting and cultural facilities, as well as a mosque — was possible, he said: “Our advisors have been looking at every option, including that.”
The center, scheduled to be built on the site of a derelict clothing store, was proposed by Abdul Rauf as a way of giving Islam a new face in the United States and promoting inter-faith harmony.
He says he did not foresee the intensity of opposition.
Thousands marched through New York on Saturday’s ninth anniversary of 9/11, facing off in angry debate under a heavy police presence as they protested for and against the project.
The row was enflamed last week by threats from an evangelical pastor to burn hundreds of Korans unless the mosque was moved.
Abdul Rauf, long known for promoting ties between the Islamic and Western worlds, said the debate had exposed a wider question of xenophobia against Muslims in American society.
“Jews and Catholics, Irish and Italians, blacks and Hispanics — in time each group has overcome these challenges and our core values have been affirmed,” Abdul Rauf told the Council on Foreign Relations. “Now it is our turn as Muslims to drink from this cup.”
While acknowledging the “firestorm” of the growing debate, Abdul Rauf was categorical that the community center, dubbed Park51, or the Cordoba Project, would go ahead in some form.
“I need a space, I want a space where the voice of the moderates can be emphasized,” he said.
“The world will be watching what we do here.”