NEW YORK (CBS 2/WCBS 880/1010 WINS) — The imam behind the proposed mosque and Islamic center near ground zero said Wednesday night that he is simply stunned over the firestorm that has erupted over the project, adding that he never would have picked the location, two blocks from the World Trade Center site, had he known the controversy it would spark.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said he’s not changing locations.
The imam told CNN that the discourse surrounding the center has become so politicized that moving it could strengthen the ability of extremists abroad to recruit and wage attacks against Americans, including troops fighting in the Middle East.
“The headlines in the Muslim world will be that Islam is under attack,” he said, but he added that he was open to the idea of moving the planned location of the center, currently two blocks north of the World Trade Center site.
“But if you don’t do this right, anger will explode in the Muslim world,” he later said, predicting that the reaction could be more furious than the eruption of violence following the 2005 publication of Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Opponents say the center, which would include a Sept. 11 memorial and a Muslim prayer space, should be moved farther away from where Islamic extremists destroyed the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 people. Supporters say religious freedom should be protected.
Rauf, 61, has largely been absent since the debate over the center erupted earlier this year. He has been traveling abroad, including taking a State Department-funded 15-day trip to the Middle East to promote religious tolerance.
In the interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, his first since returning to the U.S. on Sunday, Rauf responded to a number of questions that have been raised about the project.
He said money to develop the center would be raised domestically for the most part.
“And we’ll be very transparent on how we raise money,” he said, adding that no funds would be accepted from sources linked to extremists.
Rauf said that, in retrospect, he might have chosen a different location for what he described as a multifaith community center.
“If I knew this would happen, if it would cause this kind of pain, I wouldn’t have done it,” he said.
Watching the imam were two 9/11 loved ones touched by the same tragedy, but who have very different takes on the appropriateness of the mosque.
When asked if he supported what the imam had said up to that point, Charles Wolf said, “this genie is out of the bottle.”
Wolf lost his wife and was never able to bury any parts of her body. Still, he said he supports the mosque location and what the imam spoke about Wednesday night.
“I believe they have overstepped our bounds because there was already a mosque there for a year, over a year and they didn’t have any problem with it. Someone decided to create a problem with this,” Wolf said.
On Long Island, Rosemary Cain watched with frustration. She lost her firefighting son, George, and never heard an answer to the question she needed.
“Why can’t the site be moved? If he really wanted to build bridges he would start right there,” Cain said.
During the interview, the imam admitted that there was a slight chance the site might be moved.
“Nothing is off the table,” Rauf said.
Watching intently was Cain.
“Everyone knows how wide an area ground zero is and I would not be surprised if human remains are on top of one of those buildings,” she said.
For his part, the imam returned to his principle of not backing down in the face of the anger that has enveloped this site for months.
“The more that the radicals are able to shape the discourse, the more it strengthens the other side,” Rauf said.
“I don’t know what the outcome will be but he sounds like he’s pretty dug in,” Cain said.
In the meantime, a widower said the imam is doing the right thing.
“I think this is one that feel this way are going to have to set aside, and understand and that there is a big difference between the different ends of Islam,” Wolf said.
The imam said he wants to continue the conversation with families of 9/11 victims, saying if the mosque moves, the chance for healing moves with it.
Gov. David Paterson said Thursday he saw Rauf’s comments as a move “in the right direction.”
Paterson declined to comment on Rauf’s remarks that the mosque issue has become so politicized that moving it could endanger national security.
Paterson spoke on WOR radio.