07/24/2010 09:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ground Zero Mosque: Extremist 'Pilgrimage' Destination? An Interview With Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

Last week, I attended the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing on plans to tear down a 152-year-old structure near Ground Zero to build "Cordoba House," a 13-story community center and mosque. The hearing was held to determine if landmark designation should be granted to the site, thereby expanding the commission's role in future development.

Public testimony raised a number of justifications for doing so, but perhaps the most substantive was that an engine of one of the hijacked planes used to bring down the World Trade Center on 9/11 smashed into its side. Proponents of this argument ask, "If that doesn't make it historically significant, what does?"

But as the board, media and public at large heard testimony after testimony, confrontation took over an already tense room. One of the few Muslims who spoke up against landmark status was told to "go home" and harassed by the crowd. After stating an unpopular opinion, he was provoked enough to whip out his American passport to prove his citizenship. A young Muslim woman paced back and forth, visually nervous about approaching the mic, which she never did. The overall crowd, after antagonizing Muslim after Muslim, claimed that they weren't "racists" and had "nothing against Muslims," and stated their tolerance. But what in the world is tolerant about this?

Over the past few weeks, similar reactions to the community center have seeped out of the hearing room into the broader public. Americans, including Tea Party activists, have taken to the streets of New York City with signs and mixed anger: "A mosque at this site would equal Islamic terrorist victory," "Show true tolerance, build churches in Saudi Arabia," "What would Jesus do? ... Have his throat slit by Mohammad." CBS and NBC also recently rejected this provocative anti-center television ad financed by the National Republican Trust PAC. What do we make of it all?

Yes, there are those less provocative in the hearings and crowds. Yes, there are valid and logical lines of criticism to lob against the proposal. But there is no room for bigotry and intolerance towards Muslims.

As a leader at the multi-faith, multi-cultural organization Intersections International, I have been attuned to the development of this story. Our interfaith organization was confronted with taking a position on the Cordoba House, and chose to support it. The pain of New Yorkers is real, but equally, the bigotry being thrown at Muslims must stop. This is an incredibly tense moment, and once we are able to move forward, I am hopeful that we will all see what type of bridge Cordoba House will be.

After hearing first-hand criticism from politicians, bloggers, and other New Yorkers about the Cordoba House, I decided to speak with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is spearheading this initiative and has served as Imam of Masjid al-Farah in NYC for the last 25 years:

Why Cordoba House?

"To address the important issues of the day and to enhance understanding across divides."

Why so close to Ground Zero?

"This is the neighborhood that I have been Imam in for the last quarter of a century."

Can this be seen as a "victory" for terrorists?

"We are a threat to the radicals ... [Moderate Muslims] are the most articulate advocates for combating radicalism."

Some say Cordoba House will provide "pilgrimage" for extremists.

"Such a statement flies in the face of reality ... [W]e make pilgrimage to Mecca ... [T]hat choice of language shows a misunderstanding of how Muslims think and who Muslims are."

Rick Lazio and others have attacked your associations.

"To be a bridge builder ... you have to have an ability to have a foot on each side of the divide ... I welcome the questions regarding my record, however ... [A] number of things have been twisted and spun in a way that does not ... honestly explain my work and what I stand for."

Imam Rauf spoke of using the model of the YMCA, which, decades ago, helped improve relationships between different Protestant Christians. Cordoba House will use the same community-building premise. It will address issues both within the Muslim community (such as Sunni and Shia tensions) and between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. "By developing the formulas for new ways of discourse and amplifying and creating this as a new wave of thinking," he said, "[we can] build a better future."

The location is a sensitive one for a number of reasons, but the community is shared by many people who are all working to take us forward from these horrible days plagued by extremist hate. It's the hope of many that with the construction of this center, understanding of Muslims will be cultivated to help differentiate Islam from the destructive role of extremists who can corrupt any faith community. As we have seen with the precedent of the YMCA model, Cordoba Houses have much potential for changing the stories we tell of ourselves and others. If we as a nation are truly at a point of understanding and tolerance and can agree (as many opponents have) that we are willing and wanting to "learn more" about the Islamic faith, why not give this pilot house a shot?