by Paul Vitello
The controversy over plans to build an Islamic center in downtown Manhattan subsided in November, almost abruptly, with the end of an election season that amplified its most emotional underlying issues.
But the imam behind the project has decided to risk reigniting that opposition by setting out on a nationwide speaking tour next month to promote the planned center and to foster dialogue about Muslim life in America.
“Controversy has never been a problem for me,” said the imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose proposal to build the high-rise community center and mosque two blocks north of ground zero made him the prime target last summer of opponents who viewed the plan, known as Park51 for its address on Park Place, as a Trojan horse for Muslim triumphalism. “I think the controversy of last summer helped initiate a discourse that has been very good for the country. I’m an American, and I believe that Americans are problem solvers. So I believe further discussion can only be good.”
The tour, which he described in an interview on Wednesday, is scheduled to begin in Detroit, the city with the largest Muslim population in the United States. It will include stops in Chicago, Washington, San Antonio and several college campuses, starting with Harvard, Yale, Georgetown and the University of North Carolina.
Because of death threats that the imam has received, none of his addresses will be open to the general public, though the local news media in each place will be invited to attend, and to ask questions afterward, he said.
Some of the project’s most outspoken opponents welcomed the imam’s plan for a speaking tour, though for reasons of their own.
“I think this will help to revive the opposition, not only from Americans in general but from Muslims in this country, who don’t want this thing built,” said Ryan Mauro, a conservative blogger and the producer of a documentary about the planned community center.
The film, “Sacrificed Survivors: The Untold Story of the Ground Zero Mega-Mosque,” focuses on opposition by some families of 9/11 victims.
Pamela Geller, another conservative blogger who organized many of the public demonstrations against the center last summer, said she planned to marshal protests when the City Council meets next month to review Wal-Mart’s proposal to open a store in Manhattan. “Christine Quinn is against Wal-Mart, but she’s in favor of the megamosque. Typical liberal elitist thinking,” she said, referring to the City Council speaker.
Ms. Geller also predicted that the imam’s speaking tour would serve the opposition. “The opposition has never gone away, and will never go away,” she said.
At the height of the controversy over the summer and fall, Mr. Adbul Rauf was on a scheduled speaking tour in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The tour was sponsored by the State Department’s cultural exchange bureau, known as the Department of Public Diplomacy.
He considered canceling that trip in order to confront the opposition and rally support at home to his cause — a job that fell for the most part to his wife and partner in interfaith work, Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.
“But in that environment, I realized that no matter what I did or said, I would be accused of something,” he said. And as it turned out, he added, the reaction of Middle Eastern Muslims to the controversy over Park51 was encouraging to him.
The idea that in the United States there could be a discussion, even an angry one, about building a mosque that some considered to be too close to ground zero — “that was an amazingly positive thing to people I met in the Middle East,” he said.
“The idea that the Jewish mayor of New York would be our most outspoken defender,” he continued, referring to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, “well, I think that really touched people. It was very positive ‘optics’ for the international Muslim audience, as they say in the State Department.”
If Mr. Abdul Rauf ever entertained thoughts of moving the planned center to a less contentious site — as he has admitted in interviews — Mr. Bloomberg’s support for Park51 has since made that unthinkable.
And to do so now would be “a betrayal of this great opportunity,” he added, referring to the discourse about relations between Muslims in the United States and their fellow Americans, which he plans to take on the road from mid-January until the early spring.