CHAPEL HILL — In imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's view, the United States and the Muslim world are intertwined, whether they like it or not, and could use some marriage counseling.
Abdul Rauf, the high-profile leader of the controversial proposal to build an Islamic center near the ground zero site in New York City, sees himself as the mediator as discourse grows more heated and hyperbolic.
"A lot of what's happening between Americans and the Muslim world is like a bad marriage," Abdul Rauf said Wednesday night during a lecture at UNC-Chapel Hill. "We don't really hear each other with the same voice."
A prominent figure in the nation's public head-scratching over the role of Islam in America, Abdul Rauf spoke to more than 500 people jammed into the music department's campus auditorium, while 100 more watched a live video stream in a nearby building.
His appearance was hotly anticipated. It prompted a protest by a Christian group that believes his project, derided as the "Ground Zero Mosque," is an attempt by radical Muslims to place a trophy on the Sept. 11, 2001, site.
The small group of about three dozen protesters met at the Carolina Inn to view a documentary on Sept. 11 victims and their families. The gathering also featured Timothy Brown, a retired New York City firefighter who has emerged as a key critic and opponent of the proposed Islamic cultural center. A day before he came to Chapel Hill, he argued at the New York Supreme Court that the site where the Islamic center would be build should be designated a historic landmark.
In Chapel Hill, Brown spoke at length of what he sees as a sinister plot by Abdul Rauf and his followers to build a "victory tower" so close to the ground zero attack.
"We have to remember 1,100 families never got any body parts back," he said. "So we consider this sacred ground."
The group later marched quietly to where Abdul Rauf was to speak on campus; there, they encountered about 10 student activists holding signs declaring slogans such as: "Islam is not the enemy."
UNC Greensboro graduate student Trish Kahle, who organized the counterprotest on behalf of the International Socialist Organization, said the victims' families are being manipulated.
"It's the exact same rhetoric that was used against communists in the McCarthy era," she said. "It's about constantly scapegoating this one group of people."
The two groups confronted each other briefly, but without incident, and then anti-Abdul Rauf marchers returned to the Carolina Inn.
Abdul Rauf, however, touched only briefly on the Manhattan Islamic project until questioned near the end of the 90-minute talk.
Once prompted, Abdul Rauf defended the project and his role in it and condemned those who, he said, politicized the issue for their own gain.
"The fact that our community center became not only a national topic of discussion but an international topic of conversation, it has been fascinating to see how something potentially so small ... had a profound impact on how people overseas were reacting," he said.
He blistered the repeated branding of the center as the "Ground Zero Mosque," calling that label misleading. His vision is for a faith-based YMCA of sorts, he said, a place where young people can play sports, learn, engage the arts, and learn about religion.
The plans include a mosque but would also feature a fitness center, auditorium, restaurant, culinary school, library, art studio and Sept. 11 memorial. It would be located in a former Burlington Coat Factory two blocks from the ground zero site.
The project's critics see it as a thumb in the eye by Muslim zealots to a still-grieving nation.
Mary Triola, who recently moved to Chapel Hill from New Jersey, fears Muslim extremism and is frustrated by what she sees as a nation coddling it. She believes Abdul Rauf is a leader of that movement.
"I don't want this man preaching his hateful speech everywhere," Triola said. "I don't think this man should be allowed to say how wonderful these people are when they're not. I'm talking about the extremists, the Islamic extremists. And I find this man to be an extremist."
While his critics view Abdul Rauf as extreme, his many supporters say he's a moderate voice of reason who rose to public prominence after the Sept. 11 attacks and works to bridge cultural and religious divides.
In 2003, Abdul Rauf led cultural awareness training for FBI employees in the bureau's New York field office. In 2007 and twice in 2010, he traveled to the Middle East to talk about religious tolerance and Islam in America as part of a speaker program organized by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs.
His speech Wednesday at UNC-CH was part of an endowed lecture series created in 1915. He was paid $20,000 plus travel expenses, all from private funds. Born in Kuwait, Abdul Rauf moved to the United States in the 1960s and is a naturalized citizen.
Staff writer Jesse James DeConto contributed to this report.
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