Cleric 'Open' To Other Locations For NY Muslim Center

In a special Tell Me More broadcast from New York, host Michel Martin revisits one of the most intense debates the city has seen in years. The proposed building of an Islamic cultural center near the site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan sparked a national firestorm, last summer. Critics of center said it was planned too close to the site of the September eleventh attacks. Martin speaks with the cleric behind the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, about the controversy and the latest on the center.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We are in New York today. We are broadcasting from our NPR bureau in the heart of this city and we have a full plate of newsmakers and cultural figures who have an impact, not just in New York, but around the country; and, in fact, around the world. Later in the program we'll talk with the new leader of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, that's known in the world over.

And we'll speak with Congressman Charles Rangel. He's the third most senior Democrat in the House. Now, he was sharply criticized by his colleagues last year for ethics violations. But he says he's still working for what his constituents need and what he believes in. That's all coming up.

But we begin with one of the most intense debates in this city in recent years. It was and is a high volume debate even by the standards of this famously high volume city. We're talking about plans to build an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan.

Mr. ANDY SULLIVAN (Construction Worker): If they put a mosque up right here in the shadow of the World Trade Center before we finish building it back up, what's next?

MARTIN: Critics like the one you just heard, construction worker Andy Sullivan, said that the planned site of the cultural center and mosque is just too close to the site of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was a man at the center of that controversy. And Imam, of course, is a Muslim spiritual leader, a term of respect. While he's no longer the public face of that center, he still sits on the board of directors. He also says he's focusing his time on bridging divides between Islam and the West as chairman of a project called the Cordoba Initiative. And he's with us, now, in our studios in New York. Welcome, Imam, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF (Chairman, Cordoba Initiative): Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, we want to talk about a number of things with you in the time that we have. But we do want to catch people up on the latest developments and it's been some months since this has been in the public eye. So I wanted to ask, where do things stand now? You were quoted by the Buffalo News, last month, saying you would be open to moving the center, if another site - another suitable site is offered up. Is that accurate?

Mr. RAUF: Yes. If someone is to offer a site that is equal or better and, you know, with a vision of such a center, which would be open to all faiths, a multi-faith center where all faiths can come and participate in cultural activities, athletics, et cetera and also emphasize a cultural of worship - not only for Muslims, but for Christians and Jews and members of other faith traditions. This is the vision for the Cordoba house, which I had planned to establish here. I'd be very receptive to that.

But the larger issue, Michel, the bigger question is the host of questions around which the controversy really swirled. And that is, how will America engage with Islam and Muslims, both domestically and internationally? And what is the role of religion (unintelligible), Muslims in particular, in this debate and in terms of bridging this divide.

And this is a very important question important question to all of us, as Americans, as Christians, as Jews, as members of all faith traditions; as well as to Muslims, both domestically and internationally. This is why this particular question has become such an international issue of concern to everyone, from heads of governments to the man in the street.

MARTIN: Well, we should talk more about that in a minute, but I do want to ask, just on the particulars, has anyone stepped forward to offer another site? Potentially there had been, you know, at the heat of the controversy some high profile developers had suggested that they would be willing to make alternate sites available. Has that happened?

Mr. RAUF: No one has actually contacted me and said, here is a site, Imam Feisal, which I would like to offer you for your use.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is?

Mr. RAUF: Well, the real thing that happened last year was that this was used as a wedge issue for the midterm political elections. And a lot of people are drawn to a controversy for particular agendas, whether it's fame or whether whatever it might be, but those who really have an intention to it, I mean, you know, we welcome it.

MARTIN: To that point, though, I do take your point that there's the issue and then there's what can be made of an issue. But before we move on, I did want to play a short clip from a woman who lost her mother in the 9/11 attacks. I know you've heard this before, but Neda Bolourchi, she - and this what she said. For those who don't recall all the details, I'll just play this short clip. Here it is.

Ms. NEDA BOLOURCHI: To us, it is the gravesite of our loved ones. Please, not here. Nowhere, as a part of your religious freedom does it guarantee you a location.

MARTIN: Neda, of course, is of Muslim heritage. Her mother was an observant Muslim. But what about that?

Mr. RAUF: I'm very sensitive to the 9/11 family sensitivities and - which is why I said what I said. We are very sensitive. We've had, actually, several outreaches to them and meetings with the members of the 9/11 community, and we - this is why they have urged me to emphasize my outreach, because it's very clear we need a discourse that heals the country around 9/11 and makes it clear to everyone, that Islam is not at the root of this.

This is about political issues or other issues in which some people who call themselves Muslims have conducted this heinous act. Muslims across the world have condemned the actions of 9/11, we've made very clear and had made very clear. This is not something which should be attributed to any authentic expression of what the faith of Islam and its ethics and principles stand for.

But how do we heal? We heal by engaging. By having more discourse, by reaching out to each other, by understanding what it is. And we have many members of the 9/11 community who are very sympathetic to this issue and very supportive of a desire to heal the city and to heal the nation and to heal the world.

Because 9/11 has impacted, not only America and New York City, it has impacted the whole world and the whole global Muslim community. And therefore there needs to be an engagement between members of all faith (technical difficulties), especially about, you know, the issue of how to bridge American Muslim relations.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. He's been at the center of the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque in Lower Manhattan. Critics have said that the site is just too close to the site of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. And we're here in New York.

I wanted to talk more, in the time that we have left - we have about five minutes left. I wanted to talk more about some of the broader issues surrounding relations between Islam and the West, which is something that is very important to you. I wanted to talk about events in Egypt and, of course, there have been other, you know, demonstrations in other Muslim countries around the Middle East and also in Iran.

As we speak, now, Egypt is in the throes of what many people are calling a democratic revolution revival. The concern, of course, there are many people who feel that, you know, democracy - that's the center of our lives in the United States. But there are others who are very worried that then democracy can take a course that will be hostile to the West because that political movement will be captured by those with a hostile interpretation of Islam, which is hostile toward the West. And I wanted to ask if you think that's a possibility.

Mr. RAUF: In the realm of possibilities, I think it's a very small and dim possibility. I'm an Egyptian myself, Egyptian American. My parents are Egyptian and I spent some of my early years in Egypt. I'm very familiar with what's happening in Egypt and how Egyptians look at it. This was a revolution of moderates. The real battlefront, Michel, is not between Muslims and Americans or Muslims and Jews and Muslims and Christians - although there is a reason why that kind of division has occurred. The real battlefront is between the moderates of all faith traditions against the extremists of all faith traditions. And when you look at, you know, the Soviet communists were radical extremists, atheists, who didn't have any, you know, couldn't (unintelligible) any other religious tradition other than atheism.

And we need to look at the substance of extremism and the kind of radical ideologies and name them for what they are. And these radical ideologists can exist in any form. They can exist, you know, as atheism. It can exist like, during the time of the Inquisition, in the (unintelligible) of Christianity. And it does exist under the name of Islam, unfortunately, in this day and age.

But we have to recognize this is that all the extremists really are in one boat together. They fuel each other, they feed each other and they help each other sustain each other, because the more radical extreme acts are made, and the more they are known in the media and advertised in the media, the more it radicalizes each side.

This revolution in Egypt is the revolution of moderation. If you remember, there were scenes of the gentleman holding the Koran, another one holding the Coptic cross, the cross of the Coptic Church of Egypt. It is this coalition of moderates which caused this revolution and what we must do is support and grow this coalition - coalition of moderate Egyptians, the coalition of moderate Israelis - to push for a permanent peace settlement across the board.

MARTIN: And, finally, we only have about two minutes left. I wanted to ask, what useful role can non-Muslims play in this? Or is this something that Muslims have - that has to be done by Muslims, among Muslims and for Muslims. And the reason I ask is this is a predominantly Christian nation and it's religiously diverse, but it is a predominantly Christian nation. Is there any useful role for others in advancing the cause of moderates who would challenge extremism in the Muslim world, which has proven itself to be hostile to other Muslims as well as to, you know, people around the world.

Mr. RAUF: Yes, absolutely. If you look at what happened, let's say, both in Egypt, as well as our controversy last year around our center, it was the coalition of moderates. It was the local political leaders who supported our rights - the ACLU, the faith leaders of the Jewish community, rabbis, reverends, pastors who rallied and said this is a discussion about who we are as America.

The coalition of moderates really has to coalesce to push back against the radicals like the pastor who wanted to burn the Koran last year. We cannot let that happen. And if you look at what's happening in Egypt, our support and our country's support for what's happening in Egypt, and our engagement with them, both at the political level, at the Pentagon military level, at the aid level, all these are factors in what we call the coalition of those who want to seek a moderate outcome.

MARTIN: And, finally, forgive me, I should've asked you this at the outset, what is the status of the center? Is it going forward in that location at this time? Is it, in fact, going - are the plans proceeding?

Mr. RAUF: The vision is still alive and whether it'll happen here or another location, we should hope to hopefully have some news for you in the upcoming few months.

MARTIN: All right. Well, do keep us posted. We do hope we'll speak again. Thank you.

Mr. RAUF: I look forward to it, Michel.

MARTIN: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was here with us in our studios in New York. Thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. RAUF: Thank you for having me.

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