CHAPEL HILL — Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, the leader of a controversial effort to build an interfaith cultural center in lower Manhattan, will speak in March at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Abdul-Rauf will deliver the 2011 Weil Lecture on American Citizenship at 7:30 p.m. March 16 in Hill Hall on the campus. It's free and open to the public, but tickets are required.
The lecture is the featured event in a series of conversations on American citizenship. It is sponsored by UNC's Institute for the Arts & Humanities.
Abdul-Rauf, a naturalized U.S. citizen and Kuwaiti-born imam, founded and heads the Cordoba Movement, which seeks to improve understanding among people of all cultures and faiths.
Abdul-Rauf promotes the Cordoba House, a center to encourage multifaith understanding at Park51, the cultural center proposed near the site of the World Trade Center tragedy.
He will not be stumping for the project or raising money for it during his talk at UNC, said Bill Balthrop, interim director of the UNC institute.
"It is our hope that he will address broader issues and won't just focus on Park51," Balthrop said. "We hope to spark conversation, if not necessarily agreement."
Abdul-Rauf also has speaking engagements lined up at Harvard, Yale, Columbia and other universities. He will receive a $20,000 honorarium plus travel expenses from UNC, paid from private funds, Balthrop said.
Abdul-Rauf's interfaith center project, which some call the "Ground Zero Mosque," has been controversial because it is near the site of the twin towers that fell in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Although it has been dubbed a "mosque," the $100 million center would also include a fitness center, 500-seat auditorium, restaurant and culinary school, library, art studio and Sept. 11 memorial.
Many of Abdul-Rauf's critics point to comments he made in 2001, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. In particular, he told "60 Minutes": "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened."
(Abdul-Rauf's supporters later said his comment mirrored a belief held broadly by American policy advisers at the time).
GOP students cool
At UNC-CH, the College Republicans student organization declined to co-sponsor Abdul-Rauf's visit to campus in part because of that statement, said Anthony Dent, the group's chairman.
"I find that kind of statement offensive," Dent said. "But given the nature of the university, and the need for dialogue, we can't condemn bringing that kind of speaker to campus."
Abdul-Rauf is expected to draw a crowd. Hill Hall seats 552, and an overflow room is in the works.
A warmer reception?
University officials say they hope for a better event than they had in April 2009 when Tom Tancredo, a former congressman known for his controversial views on illegal immigration, spoke on campus. His talk ended early when student protesters repeatedly disrupted it, leading Chancellor Holden Thorp to apologize to Tancredo.
"I disagree with the imam on a lot of what he says, but I'm glad he's going to be here," said Robert Winston, chairman of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees. "We had [Tom] Tancredo, and our studentsweren't very nice to him. I expect our students to act in a civil way."
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