Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf Has a Chance to Build a Bridge

But will the religious leader build a mosque near Ground Zero instead?

Over the past week I have spent a fair amount of time at the site of the controversial proposed mosque near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan taping video commentaries for the Tribune television stations.

There is already activity inside the building that once housed a Burlington Coat Factory. In fact, one day when I was shooting, a large security guard asked me to move from the steps because “people are coming here to pray.”

There is even more activity outside the site. As I shot my commentaries, there was a steady stream of curiosity. It starts with a simple “Is this the site?” But that is just the icebreaker to seemingly endless opinions.

The most recent poll shows that more than 70 percent of New Yorkers are against the mosque and community center going up near Ground Zero. But 100 percent of the people who bent my ear in front of the site are against it.[SIGNUP]

No one disputes the Constitutional right of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to put the mosque at the site. The people I spoke with are just exercising their Constitutional right to express their displeasure, and they are as loud and passionate as you might expect New Yorkers to be.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Rauf has been the American leader of moderate Muslims. The New Yorkers I spoke with are suspicious of the Imam and his intentions.

The questions are legitimate. If Rauf wants to “build a bridge between Muslims and the West,” then why can’t he see that, so far, his actions have done the exact opposite, causing a greater divide? Many want to know the sources of the $110 million for new construction. They are suspicious of the imam’s trip to the Middle East to raise the money. And the timing of the mosque raises as much suspicion as the location. Why announce that the dedication will happen on September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history?

No one would have a grand opening for a deli in Lower Manhattan on that date, let alone a mosque.

Why take attention away from the memorial to the 3,000 who died a block and a half away? Why cause any added pain to the families of the victims traveling from across America to mourn?

Much of the controversy is based on a fear that may not be grounded in reality. That doesn’t make it any less real.

President Obama attempted to comment on the mosque without taking a real position. He tried to vote “present” once again, as he famously did 129 times while serving in the Illinois State Senate. But as President of the United States, he doesn’t have that luxury.

His mere comment that Muslims have the right to build the mosque elevated what was a local and Fox News issue to a national mainstream issue. Although the comment enraged opponents of the mosque, it was probably the best thing that happened for their cause, as it had unintended consequences. The nation, it seems, agrees with the New Yorkers who talked with me in front of the site. Now that the President focused their attention on the modest building, 68 percent think the imam should take his mosque somewhere else.

Most observers believe that is exactly what will happen. The political pressure on the White House and the real-world pressure on the imam have grown too great.

Still, some good may come of this. If the imam very publicly and compassionately announced that he will move to another location, he will show Americans how sensitive and peaceful he and his religion can be.

By moving the mosque, the imam can still build a bridge to the people on the other side of the divide — the ones right outside his front door.

LARRY MENDTE writes for The Philly Post every Monday and Thursday. See his previous columns here. To watch his video commentaries, go to