Imam Feisal Rauf: New York Islamic centre 'dream alive'

By Laura Trevelyan
BBC News, New York

Image caption,
Mr Rauf said the "real battle" is between moderates and radicals in all faiths

Imam Feisal Rauf, spiritual leader of a Islamic community centre with a prayer space planned for lower Manhattan, has had a turbulent 2010.

A year ago, the New York Times wrote about the now notorious proposal just around the corner from Ground Zero, the site of the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

"The story broke last December and nobody raised even a blip," says Mr Rauf, sitting in his office in the Interchurch Centre on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "It wasn't until the election cycle began that this became used as a wedge issue, and our story was hijacked and misrepresented and the fears of the people were whipped up."

During a febrile summer, the centre was cast as a victory mosque by its critics, and prominent Republicans including Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin demanded it be moved.

I ask Mr Rauf whether he understands why some family members who lost their loved ones on 9/11 didn't want a representation of Islam nearby.

"The feelings of the 9/11 families is something I am very sensitive to," the imam replies. "I have been a member of this community for 27 years, and Muslims died on 9/11, Muslims were responders, we are as much part of the story of 9/11, and we have to be part of the healing and part of the solution."

'No misunderstanding'

Michael Burke, whose brother Bill, a firefighter, was killed on 9/11, is one of a group of relatives who strongly object to Mr Rauf's planned Islamic centre.

Mr Burke says it's offensive to have a reminder of the religion used to justify his brother's murder so close to the place where he died. But he also objects to the imam's belief that the community centre will help bridge the divide between Muslims and the West.

"This implies that 9/11 was a misunderstanding," he says. "9/11 was not a misunderstanding, it was an attack."

Three months after emotional protests both for and against the Islamic centre on the anniversary of 9/11, a lone policeman stands guard outside 51 Park Place. It's the only indication that this isn't just another dilapidated building in lower Manhattan awaiting development. So when will the $120m (£77m) community centre be built?

"The dream is still alive, the intention is still there," Mr Rauf affirms. "Even if we had all the money today it would be at least two to three years until groundbreaking, then once you finalize your plans, another two or three years to build it."

The decision by the developers behind the project to apply for a $5m federal grant reserved for the redevelopment of lower Manhattan has infuriated opponents.

"Using federal dollars to build this adds insult to injury," Mr Burke tells me, pointing out that the developer Sharif El-Gamal has defaulted on loans. Mr El-Gamal told the New York Daily News default was a standard way to negotiate better credit rates, and the matter would be resolved.

Ready to react

Mr Rauf painstakingly explains that the developer has applied "only for programmes around helping veterans, and providing the kind of social services that our centre aspires to provide".

Image caption,
Michael Burke, whose brother was killed on 9/11, still objects to the planned Islamic centre

Careful to draw a distinction between the role of Mr El-Gamal, the developer, and his own spiritual leadership, Mr Rauf is more expansive when talking about the latter. He now wants to see centres around the world where different faiths and traditions can come together and talk, a project he sees as crucial.

"We have learnt a number of things from the crisis of this summer, the most important of which is that the real battle is not between the West and the Muslim world, it is between moderates of all faiths and traditions and radicals and extremists of all faiths and traditions," he explains.

As this eventful year draws to a close, Mr Rauf reflects on what he has learned.

"The reason why this story has gripped the nation and the world is that it's relevant," he says. "It's about the relationships between Muslims and the wider world, and that's relevant from Tennessee to London to India."

Next year is the 10th anniversary of 9/11, which will inevitably mean a renewed focus on the Islamic community centre at Park Place. Mr Rauf is ready.

"We're committed to the path we're on right now, so the argument about location is a specious one," he says.

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