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In the debate over the mosque in New York, one voice has recently been silent, that of Feisal Abdul Rauf. He is the imam behind the mosque. Rauf has been traveling outside the country and not speaking to the media.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports that in his absence, opponents are using past statements to criticize his plans.

JAMIE TARABAY: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf already has a mosque in Lower Manhattan. Masjid al-Farah is about 12 blocks from Ground Zero, and for 15 years, the mosque has struggled to accommodate people in its small prayer space.

When NPR interviewed Imam Rauf earlier this year about his plans for the new building, he said having a Muslim presence so close to the site lets him reach out to non-Muslims and counter the terrorists' ideology.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. FEISAL ABDUL RAUF (Imam, Masjid al-Farah Mosque): By participating in lectures, by having sports together, this is how people bond across the religious divide. And that has been a very important factor in bridging relationships between the Christian and other Abrahamic faith traditions.

TARABAY: Rauf practices Sufism, the mystical form of Islam. Since coming to America more than 20 years ago, he's worked in Muslim outreach, founded interfaith organizations and written books on Islam in contemporary Western society. People who support him, like Dalia Mahmoud from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, say he's also a New Yorker, and strongly invested in the city.

Ms. DALIA MAHMOUD (Muslim Public Affairs Council): I would say he's dedicated 95 percent of his life to trying to foster peace and understanding between different groups.

TARABAY: But those who doubt Rauf's intentions point to his own words during a "60 Minutes" interview shortly after the September 11 attacks. He told the late Ed Bradley that American foreign policies are strongly criticized in the Muslim world.

(Soundbite of television program, "60 Minutes")

Mr. RAUF: I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.

Mr. ED BRADLEY (Journalist): You say that we're an accessory?

Mr. RAUF: Yes.

Mr. BRADLEY: How?

Mr. RAUF: Because we have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the U.S.A.

TARABAY: It's that quote that has repeatedly come up in this debate. Cliff May is a conservative commentator who heads the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Mr. CLIFF MAY (Foundation for the Defense of Democracies): You either do or do not believe that whatever grievances one has, it is wrong to express them by murdering other people's children. If you agree that's wrong, you're against terrorism. If you say, well, not in all cases, then whatever else you can say about yourself, you're not clearly, unequivocally opposed to terrorism.

TARABAY: May criticizes Rauf for refusing to say whether he believes the Palestinian group Hamas is a terrorist organization. And like many others, he wants assurances that money for the $100 million project isn't coming from groups with ties to terrorism.

People like Reza Aslan, a Muslim author and scholar, says Rauf's attempts to explain terrorist actions are not the same as supporting them. Aslan says government officials do the same thing.

Mr. REZA ASLAN (Author): I know this not only because of my own personal interaction with counterterrorism officials, with military officials and with officials in the CIA and in the White House and in the State Department, I know this because I read the 9/11 report. And the "9/11 Commission Report" says the exact same thing.

TARABAY: Right now, Rauf is traveling in Malaysia, but he'll soon embark on a speaking tour to the Middle East on behalf of the U.S. government, something he also did during the Bush administration. The State Department says Rauf will speak about religious tolerance and what life is like as a practicing Muslim in America.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.

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