NEW YORK — It is two blocks from ground zero, but the site of a proposed mosque and Islamic center shouldn't be seen as "hallowed ground" in a neighborhood that also contains a strip club and a betting parlor, the cleric leading the effort said Monday.
Making an ardent case for the compatibility of Islam and American values, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf reiterated that he is searching for a solution to the furor the project has created. But he left unanswered exactly what he had in mind.
If anything, Rauf only deepened the questions around the project's future, telling an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank that he was "exploring all options" — but declining to specify them — while also arguing that a high-profile site is necessary to get across his message of moderate Islam.
While opponents of the project see it as insulting the memories of the thousands killed by Muslim extremists in the 2001 terrorist attacks, Rauf said he doesn't see the spot as sacred memorial space.
"It's absolutely disingenuous, as many have said, that that block is hallowed ground," Rauf said, noting the nearby exotic dance and betting businesses. "So let's clarify that misperception."
Some Sept. 11 victims' families and others view the proposed mosque site — in a building damaged by debris from the attacks — as very much part of the terrain of death and sorrow surrounding the trade center.
"I just think he's being very insensitive to say it's not hallowed ground because of who's occupying the buildings," said Jim Riches, a former New York City deputy fire chief whose son, Jimmy, was killed at the trade center. "The strip club didn't murder my son."
Rauf said the Islamic center's organizers were surprised and saddened by the uproar and might not have pursued it had they known what was coming. He declined to detail any strategy for quieting the clamor — or say whether that might include moving the project.
"We are exploring all options as we speak right now, and we are working through what will be a solution, God willing, that will resolve this crisis," Rauf said during a question-and-answer session following his speech. "Everything is on the table."