Imam criticized for New York mosque on U.S. speaking tour
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The New York imam whose proposed Muslim cultural centre and mosque near "Ground Zero" has stirred opposition is embarking on a U.S. speaking tour where he intends to correct misperceptions about his aims.
"The sentiment around Muslims and Islam, about who we are and what we are about, is something that cannot wait and must be dealt with," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said.
"We want to make it clear who we are and where we stand," he said. "We are part of this narrative for the worse, and we need to be part of it for the better."
But opponents say Rauf's debut in Detroit on Saturday before the Islamic Society of North America is indicative of his extremism, and his tour of universities and religious institutions amounts to blatant fund-raising for a widely condemned project.
The planned centre a few blocks from the toppled World Trade Centre towers will include a Muslim prayer room but will be modelled on New York's 92nd Street Y as a cultural magnet "open to all," Rauf said.
Muslim prayers are held in the building on the site now, and the proposed 13-story, $100 million (63 million pound) centre could be years away from completion.
Last year's outcry over the proposed centre's proximity to the site of the September 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people generated its own backlash from such figures as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who objected to any government interference with religious worship.
For Rauf, Bloomberg's reaction and the fierce objections to the project as a symbol of "Muslim triumphalism" and an insult to September 11 survivors and their families created a platform for him to speak out.
"And when we announced the idea of the tour I received even more invitations from people to meet with them as well," Rauf said in a telephone interview, adding the tour's schedule is evolving.
"It's not a bus tour for a political campaign with a sign next to it," he said, noting audiences would be by invitation.
He said his aim is to dispel misinterpretations of the intentions of his New York mosque, and of Muslims in general.
"I've made very clear that I'm a man of peace, that our centre was part of the local community. That it is our way of repairing and rebuilding our community. The position of those who are opposed to us is based on a radical misunderstanding and in some cases a deliberate misinterpretation of our intent.
"My interpretation of Islam as a faith that is really about peace, that is really about moderation, is a position I know the vast majority of Muslims hold," he said.
But centre opponents like Ryan Mauro, a blogger and analyst for the Christian Action Network, a conservative political group, view Ralf with suspicion.
"While I'm not opposed to interfaith dialogue, we have to be careful about whose stature we want to raise. Based on some of this man's associations and things he has said, I don't believe that this is a moderate Muslim," Mauro said in an interview.
"A moderate doesn't conceive of this idea (for the Islamic centre), see the outrage it's causing and then continue to move forward," he said.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)
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