FILE- In this Aug. 22, 2010 file photo, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf addresses guests at an iftar dinner hosted by the U.S. Embassy's deputy chief of mission Stephanie Williams, at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Saar, Bahrain, west of the capital Manama. Rauf is now in the midst of a polarizing political, religious and cultural debate over his plans for a multi-story Islamic center that will feature a mosque, health club and theater about two blocks north of ground zero in New York. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)
The imam leading an effort to build an Islamic center near the World Trade Center site says he hopes a solution will come soon, adding "an extraordinary dialogue has emerged from this crisis."
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations today, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said the world is watching how New York -- and Americans -- handle the controversy over building the Islamic Center and mosque just blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
When asked if he and the developer are considering moving the location, Rauf would only say that "everything is on the table."
But he said he believes the controversy has prompted a much needed discussion.
"Is it worth the firestorm? The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is a categorical yes," he said.
While opponents of the project see it as insulting the memories of the thousands killed by Muslim extremists in the 2001 terrorist attacks, Rauf disagreed.
"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.''
"The world will be watching what we do here. Will we live up to our ideals?" "The way we seek to reconcile our differences is being watched everywhere," he said.
Rauf said the incredible swell of feeling on both sides of the issue have opened a dialogue about Islam, extremism and religious tolerance in the United States.
"Genuine understanding can only happen with honesty and sincerity," he said. He also conceded that "there is a lot of unawareness about Islam in this country."
Polls have shown that a majority of New Yorkers oppose building the mosque and its current planned location. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday found that only 38 percent of registered voters surveyed said they have a favorable opinion of Islam, while 40 percent have an unfavorable opinion.
Rauf said today he was surprised at the response to the mosque plans. When asked if he had foreseen the anger that erupted , he conceded, "we might not have done it at all."
Rauf said the media's ongoing coverage of terrorists has only fueled more extremism. “The threat of radical extremists is not only a threat to western government is not just a threat to Western governments but also to Muslim governments. Radical extremists have hijacked our discourse."
"Terrorists corrupt our faith...they in no way represent our religion and we must not let them define us," he said.
Rauf said the center will cater to all faiths and be entirely respectful to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. "This center will be a place for all faiths to come together in a spirit of mutual respect," Rauf said.
In a television news program Sunday, the Rauf said controversy over the mosque site has heightened concerns among Muslims of rising Islamophobia, and fear of Islam is possibly greater than it was immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."
Today he said much of the issue has been politicized and "exploited" by some seeking to forward "their own agendas."
One of the most vocal critics of the plan, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, appeared on ‘Meet the Press’ over the weekend, where he accused the imam of not being clear about the project.
"He will not be transparent about where he's getting the money, how he's getting the money. ...And now we have the imam who tells us if [he] doesn't get his way there could be significant and very dangerous violence."