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CNN Cover Story

Aired September 12, 2010 - 19:30   ET





FEYERICK: Two blocks north of here is the site of the proposed Islamic center.


LEMON: The imam has spoken.

IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: How do you propose we do it?

O'BRIEN: This, as you know, has caused tremendous consternation among many people really at the highest levels.

LEMON: How did we get to this point? CNN documents the story of the imam.

RAUF: Nothing is off the table.

LEMON: The builder.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a need. It's supply and demand.

LEMON: And the backlash.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All you people here yelling at me don't even know. And maybe if a mosque were built, then you guys would know what Islam was about.


LEMON: Hello, everyone. I'm Don Lemon. Welcome to this week's COVER STORY. Because a controversy over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero took so many twists and turns this week, and because it shows no sign of letting up, our goal tonight is to take a fresh look at this story. So we're going to present a half hour of CNN original reporting. Not only on the imam behind the center, whose interview with CNN this week was so closely watched, but on other key players and voices as well.

And we turn to CNN's Deborah Feyerick who has been on the story for months. And we asked her to take us on a walk today from ground zero to the site of the proposed Islamic center at the heart of this controversy, to give us a better, richer feel for the place that we're talking about, and the developments that got us here.


FEYERICK (on camera): We're here at ground zero. You can see a lot of progress being made, buildings going up, the memorial and the museum well under way to being completed within the next year for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Two blocks north of here is the site of the proposed Islamic center. It is so close that landing gear from one of the hijacked planes landed on its rooftop.

Now, we're going to begin our walk. I'm going to set a stopwatch here. New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg was very behind the project, as was the community board. This is a commercial area. There are a lot of office buildings, a lot of industrial spaces.

What it is missing are some residential amenities like a community center. The proposed Islamic community center would provide a pool, a theater, meeting places. That's why many people within New York City were firmly behind the project.

However, at a Landmark's Preservation Commission hearing to decide whether to grant the building landmark status, well, it began as something political but ended up as something filled with raw emotion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My family died that day.

FEYERICK (voice-over): it was a meeting filled with pain, sorrow and outright anger. Many came to say no to building a mosque near Ground Zero. Others like (INAUDIBLE), who lost an aunt and two friends on 9/11 came to say it's the right thing to do.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And all you people here yelling at me don't even know. Maybe if a mosque were built then you guys would know what Islam was about.

FEYERICK: For three hours tempers flared on both sides.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is a very carefully planned effort on the part of radical Islamists.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's called Islam phobia, pure and simple.

FEYERICK: New York City's Landmark Preservation Commission took it all in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It would be a terrible mistake to destroy a 154- year-old building in order to build a monument to terrorism.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm ashamed to be an American today.

FEYERICK: (INAUDIBLE) a Muslim-American reminded the crowd that people from many countries and religions died on 9/11.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If anyone has a doubt, this is my American passport.

FEYERICK: Rosalen (INAUDIBLE) heckled for opposing the mosque, spoke on behalf of her brother, a firefighter who gave his life saving those in the towers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I am not racist, thank you.

FEYERICK (on camera): Half a block from Ground Zero, this steel cross from the original World Trade Center tower, was found standing two days after the original attacks. The Landmark Preservation Committee decided that in fact the building was north worth saving, so the former warehouse and Burlington Coat Factory can be torn down so that the proposed Islamic center mosque can be built from the ground up.

Now, I spoke to prominent well placed Muslims. They told me that in fact, they feel they were shut out of the process. That the imam and the developer never reached out to the larger nationwide Muslim community to get their feedback. And so now those people are dealing with the backlash from all of this.

One person said to me, when he found out, his response was, "you're building a what? Where?" The question, the imam, the developer, did they reach out enough? Did they perhaps miscalculate - I spoke to the developer a couple of days after that original meeting.

This is where you sort of conceived of the idea?


FEYERICK: Meet New York's real estate developer Sharif Al Gamal, the man at the center of the controversial plan, a stone's throw from the World Trade Center site.

AL GAMAL: This is a Muslim-led project. This is an Islamic community center that will cater to all of New York.

Fitness gym and basketball courts.

FEYERICK: Plans include a performing arts center, swimming pool, child care facilities and, yes, a Muslim prayer space two blocks from the worst terror attack in U.S. history.

(on camera): Why not have a prayer space for Buddhists or Jews or Christians? Or why must it be Muslims? (INAUDIBLE)

AL GAMAL: There are Jewish community centers all over the country.

FEYERICK: But the Jews didn't take down two towers.

AL GAMAL: There are YMCA's all over the country.

FEYERICK: But the Christians didn't take out the two towers.

AL GAMAL: This is a need that exists.

FEYERICK: For two who are still sensitive and so raw to this, their question, their overriding question is why here? Why so close. It's two blocks. But it was close enough that landing gear ended up on the roof. Why?

AL GAMAL: There is a need. It's supply and demand. The community wants it. The politicians are supporting it.

FEYERICK: Can you guarantee that this center will root out extremism or completely reject any extremists?

AL GAMAL: 100 percent. We will not tolerate extremism. We will not tolerate extremism.

FEYERICK: Will you reject any money that comes either directly or indirectly from any person, any country, any organization, any corporation that has any links to terrorism? Would you be doing due diligence?

AL GAMAL: We are going to be doing extreme due diligence. And we are going to hire the best security experts in the country to help us walk us through the process and we plan on being very transparent throughout the whole process.


LEMON: And the "CNN Cover Story" returns in a moment with Deborah Feyerick. Her walking tour near Ground Zero, insights into Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf from people who know him and the imam in his own words to CNN.


O'BRIEN:: Why is that an option of the table now?



LEMON: Welcome back, everyone, to the CNN "Cover Story." The imam, the builder and the backlash. Before we bring you some of the most fascinating parts of this week's conversation, between CNN's Soledad O'Brien and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, we return to CNN's Deborah Feyerick on her walk today from Ground Zero to the site of the imam's proposed Islamic center.


FEYERICK (on camera): So here we are two blocks away from Ground Zero. And you can see that police car. That is just in front of the proposed Islamic center. That building is expected to be torn down. It will be as high really, a little higher than the one next to it or even the one from across the street. So it will not be specifically be visible from Ground Zero unless you're in one of the higher floors of the office building in order to see it, and we'll come out here just a little bit into the street, you're really going to have to be standing right here to give a better visual. Again, this is two blocks. Walking it at a normal pace, it takes less than 60 seconds to get here. The imam at the center that you're going to hear from in just a little bit, he said, how do you know what this would have done, the backlash that it would have caused. He would have considered not building this proposed Islamic center where it was expected to go up. But who is this imam. He is known as a bridge builder. Here's a little of who he is?

(voice-over): People who know Imam Feisal say he's a voice of moderation. The State Department.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His work on tolerance of religious diversity is well known.

FEYERICK: Islam scholar and university professor John Esposito.

(on camera): How would you describe him? Is he a threat?

JOHN ESPOSITO, PROFESSOR, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Faisal is, from my point of view, he is Mr. Mellow.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Imam Feisal is a Sufi Muslim, at the other end of the Islamic spectrum from the radical theology that feeds groups like Al Qaeda.

ESPOSITO: He approaches Islam spiritually. He is a Sufi in background, which means one perceives, if you will, a more kind of spiritual mystical path. He's somebody who would find terrorism and religious extremism as abhorrent. He's run a mosque in this area for years and years and years.

FEYERICK: That mosque, the (INAUDIBLE), is 10 blocks from Ground Zero and has coexisted peacefully in the Tribeca neighborhood for 28 years.

ESPOSITO: He's integrated himself into the community.

FEYERICK: According to his biography, Feisal Abdul Rauf was born in Kuwait in 1948, into an Egyptian family steep in religious scholarship. In 1997, he founded the nonprofit, American Society for Muslim Advancement. Its mission described on its web site as strengthening an authentic expression of Islam based on cultural harmony through interfaith collaboration, youth and women's empowerment. Several years later Rauf founded the (INAUDIBLE) Institute to improve relations between the Muslim world and the west, writing how American Muslims can help bridge the divide.

The State Department noticed, sending him as a cultural ambassador on four trips to the Middle East, most recently this summer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They tried to get people who reflect the best aspect of American society.

FEYERICK: Rauf is often asked to speak at meetings like the World Economic Forum in Davos. He was criticized after 9/11 for saying U.S. support of repressive regimes was partly responsible for the attacks, but maintained his remarks on "60 Minutes" has been taken out of context.

Rauf supports Israel's right to exist but says as a bridge builder, he can't condemn radical Palestinian group, Hamas as terrorists. As for the proposed Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero, he says that, too, is about bridges.

(on camera): The planners still have to raise about $100 million for the proposed Islamic center and mosque. So how this gets resolved, when it gets resolved, well, it's still many months, if not years away.

Deborah Feyerick, CNN, two blocks north of Ground Zero.


LEMON: Our thanks to Deb Feyerick. And in a moment, the imam speaks and a master of conflict resolution sees a window of opportunity the rest of us may be missing.


LEMON: Now the imam. On the CNN "Cover Story" we're always aware that news often develops so quickly it's easy to forget how a particular story began, which is why we're showing an excerpt of CNN's Soledad O'Brien's interview with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf right here.


O'BRIEN: Let's walk back to the very beginning. When did you settle upon this location, which is just about two blocks north of Ground Zero, for you new Islamic cultural center? Why that particular spot?

RAUF: Well, first, I must remind everybody that I have been an imam of a mosque just 10 blocks from that spot. 12 blocks from Ground Zero. I've been serving the neighborhood for the last quarter of a century.

O'BRIEN: So why that particular spot?

RAUF: Well, what happened was Sharif Al-Gamal, the owner of Soho properties, a member of my congregation has noticed how the need for prayer space has expanded. He felt a commitment to do something for his community. He found this particular building.

He negotiated it, acquired it and offered it for us to use and to establish a center that would be the space for a vision that I've had for over a decade, of 15 almost 20 years, which is to establish a space which embodies the fundamental beliefs that we have as Jews, Christians and Muslims, which is to love our god and to love our neighbor, to build a space where we have a culture of worship and at the same time get to know each other, and to forge personal bonds.

Because that's how society, how community is built. And how we can create something, a snowball, to push back against the radical discourse that has just hijacked the discourse in our country and in much of the world.

O'BRIEN: Wouldn't it further the goal of peacemaking, and you've talked a lot about it, to move it? Why is that an option that's off the table now?

RAUF: Nothing is off the table, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: It's not off the table?

RAUF: We are consulting and talking to various people about how to do this so that we negotiate the best and the safest option. As I mentioned -

O'BRIEN: What are those conversations like? What's on the table?

RAUF: The biggest issue is a national security issue.

O'BRIEN: How do you pull out without looking like you've lost?

RAUF: Without making it look like - without making it look both in this country and in the Muslim world, you must remember, Soledad, and Americans must remember, that what we do is watched all over the world, all over the world. And we are very engaged with the Muslim world. Very engaged.

And our security is really number one. Our national security, our personal security, is extremely important. And this issue has become now a national security issue. And, therefore, in our conversations, in our decision making process, we have to weigh in, many, many factors. And that has been dominant among them.

O'BRIEN: There are plenty of Muslims as I've been doing research who've said this debate does not help us. This debate makes things more dangerous for us. This debate hurts us, what's happening at Ground Zero.

RAUF: There is no doubt that this has become such a situation. And I am deeply sensitive to that and very concerned about that. And, you know, had I known this would happen, we certainly would never have done this.

O'BRIEN: You would never have picked that spot?

RAUF: We would not have done something that would create more divisiveness.


LEMON: When we were planning this cover story, we wanted to get a fresh perspective on how this conflict over the Islamic center might be resolved. So we went to the man who wrote the book on conflict resolution. And we say the book, we mean, the book "Getting to Yes" has been standard reading in many law school and diplomacy classes for years.

William Ury is the co-author. He has been following our cover story closely.


WILLIAM URY, CO-AUTHOR "GETTING TO YES": Well, I think we have a real opportunity, actually, to step back from the brink here. The first rule in negotiation is to go to the balcony. In other words, take a breather. This doesn't have to be resolved today. It doesn't have to be resolved tomorrow. We've got time.

And you take some time to actually think about what's truly important here. Because as the old saying goes, when angry, you will make the best speech you will ever regret. So going to the balcony then allows you then to go into a conversation where the key rule in negotiation is listening.

It's all about listening. It's much more about listening than actually about talking. And both sides, not both sides. There are probably many sides here of the situation. They need to listen to each other. We need to hear from the imam, from the American-Muslim community, from the families of the 9/11 victims, from people like Pastor Jones.

There are a lot of people whose voices need to be heard to listen - to listen for what is it that they really want? What's behind their positions? What are their real aspirations? What are their real concerns here to see if you can find some common ground?

The single biggest opportunity you have in negotiation once you've gone to the balcony and you've listened is to reframe. In other words, to look at it from a different angle, to see if you can expand the pie somehow. So that, for example, right now the question is do we build the community center or don't we with a mosque right next to or near the site of 9/11?

You can change the question to, how do we best honor the victims of 9/11? How do we best as an American people come together, heal our wounds, work together so that we can prevent terrorism in the future?


LEMON: Go to the balcony and reframe the issue. Advice that can apply far beyond Ground Zero.

In a moment, Angelina Jolie speaks to our very own Dr. Sanjay Gupta on the subject of last week's cover story.


ANGELINA JOLIE, ACTRESS: I met this beautiful older couple who are in their 70s. And now they are both dealing with a lot of sickness, and, you know, as you see in the tape the woman was - is so embarrassed with her situation.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) LEMON: We're going to follow-up right now on last week's "Cover Story."

Sanjay Gupta, M.D.'s journey through the floods of Pakistan. Soon after that cover story aired, Sanjay interviewed Angelina Jolie who spoke to him from Pakistan in her role as the personal envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 7.5 million Pakistanis are homeless from those floods.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: We tend to think of these places as over there. Somewhere else. Not here. But when you go, and I was there as well. I mean, you meet people. There are real faces and stories behind these crazy high numbers. Raymond and Zainuel Goal (ph) are two people you met. Tell me about them. How did you meet them? What did they tell you.

JOLIE: You go to these places and you always say the same things to the viewer, which is they would be so moved if they were here, and it's so true. And if they met all these children who are so resilient and also children and so full of live and love and hope, and it's always so moving. This was very unique for me because I met this beautiful older couple who are in their 70s. And they'd worked their whole lives.

The man had been in the Pakistani military twice and he had then lived off a pension. With that small pension he'd built this home for his family and for his grandchildren. It was very modest to begin with, but he had something. And now they are both dealing with a lot of sickness, and, you know, as you see in the tape, the woman was - is so embarrassed with her situation. And the man spoke of the fact that he never felt in his lifetime he's ever going to be able to recuperate what he's lost.


LEMON: And that is the CNN "Cover Story" for Sunday, September 12th, 2010. You're updated now on all the news, at least for now. You know it changes moment by moment, so make sure you join me back here at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, and we'll get you ready for your week ahead.

I'm Don Lemon at CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta. "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley starts right now.