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CNN LARRY KING LIVE

Interview With Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

Aired September 8, 2010 - 21:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, exclusive, the debate that's torn the city and maybe even the country apart. The imam who wants to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero is here. His first U.S. interview on why he wants a mosque just blocks from the site of the 9/11 terror attack, what he thinks of the raging controversy, and why he's remained silent so long until now. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, next on LARRY KING LIVE.

Good evening. Feisal Abdul Rauf is the founder and chairman of Cordoba Initiative. He has been imam of the Farah mosque in lower Manhattan for 27 years. He plans to build an Islamic community center called Cordoba House a few blocks from Ground Zero. And these plans, as you know, have generated a national debate over tolerance, and sensitivity, and religion, and sparked emotional protests against the project.

The imam joins us from New York. And he is with CNN's Soledad O'Brien. He agreed to sit down for an interview, in part, because Soledad is working on a documentary about what it's like to be Muslim in America. Here's Soledad O'Brien with the imam.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Larry, thank you very much. And imam, thank you very much for talking with us.

IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: You're just back from the Middle East. You've been gone for about two months. And you've been pretty quiet about the controversy that has been raging about the proposed structure right near Ground Zero. The debate, while you've been gone, has gotten louder. And it's gotten angrier. Why are you talking now?

RAUF: Well, I didn't think it was appropriate for me to speak about this while I was overseas on the trip. I felt I wanted to come home and speak to this issue from my home country, from my homeland, from my home base.

O'BRIEN: You've had questions while you've been in the Middle East about the controversy that's swirling in Lower Manhattan. What kind of things are people there asking you about what's happening here?

RAUF: Well, they're very concerned about many things. They're concerned about the status of Muslims in America. And in the Gulf, where I was, which is a very important part for our own national security. Bahrain is the home of the 5th fleet. We have a very important naval base there. Qatar is the place of an important air base that we have there. And the concerns of people there are both about what this means, not only within the United States, but also what this means for them--

O'BRIEN: What the debate means, you mean?

RAUF: Yes, indeed. Because the United States, we are the only global superpower today. What happens here has enormous impact over the rest of the world. People all over the Muslim world admire America, love America, take America as an example in many, many respects. And the status of Muslims in America and how American Muslims speak to these issues and how America engages with its Muslim community has global ramifications.

O'BRIEN: And the big debate really is over how Muslims have engaged with the American community. You're living that right now.

So 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 your new Islamic cultural center? Why that particular spot?

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

When 9/11 happened, we couldn't reach our mosque in the Tribeca area. You know, and finally we came back. There was flower, letters. We're part of this community. I've served this community. And this is a community that I have worked for so long. And is important for us as Muslims, as Muslims who are in Lower Manhattan, to want to give back to the city and the country that's given us so much.

O'BRIEN: So why that particular spot?

RAUF: Well, what happened was Sharif Gamal, the owner of Soho Properties, a member of my congregation, has noticed how our -- the need for prayer space has expanded. He felt a commitment to do something for his community. And he found this particular building. And 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, or 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'll 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 that will 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: What's been created has snowballed a little bit. There's a lot of anger and hostility at that site. And there are many people who have said, why not just go somewhere else? RAUF: I understand the sensitivity of the people. I really do. And I'm very, very concerned about it. We've reached out and are still reaching out to 9/11 families.

O'BRIEN: Did you reach out to them before?

RAUF: Yes.

O'BRIEN: To all the families?

RAUF: Not to all the families, but to as many as we could reach, especially those who are very concerned about this issue.

O'BRIEN: Before you started the proposal?

RAUF: No, not before we started, but once this thing happened. I need to remind the audience that this story first broke last December in "The New York Times." It was a front page article in "The New York Times." And no one objected. This controversy only began in May. And it began as a result of some politicians, who decided to use this for certain political purposes. And this is when it began to snowball, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: So you think it's been politicized?

RAUF: Absolutely. This is very dangerous and tragic for two reasons.

Reason number one is that it goes against the fundamental American principle of separation of church and state. This concept of separation of religion and politics or church and state has a wisdom behind it. And the purpose behind it is not to politicize religion. Because when you politicize religion, it is dangerous.

O'BRIEN: But ultimately, when you look at the polls, something like 71 percent of Americans think that even though there's a right to build there, a center that will include a mosque and other things, which we'll talk about in a minute, the wisdom of it may not be there.

RAUF: Well, here's the--

O'BRIEN: Is that political?

RAUF: Well, here--

O'BRIEN: Or is that just people saying it's sensitivity wise, it's the wrong thing to do?

RAUF: I am extremely concerned about sensitivity. But I also have a responsibility. If we move from that location, the story will be that the radicals have taken over the discourse. The headlines in the Muslim world will be that Islam is under attack. And I'm less concerned about the radicals in America than I'm concerned about the radicals in the Muslim world.

O'BRIEN: But isn't that also saying you're less concerned about the voices of opposition here?

RAUF: And if we do -- no, no, no, no. I'm sorry, I don't mean it that way. I meant it, the danger from the radicals in the Muslim world to our national security, to the national security of our troops.

I have a niece who works in the Army and served in Iraq. The concern for American citizens who live and work and travel overseas will increasingly be compromised if the radicals are strengthened. And if we do move, it will strengthen the argument of the radicals to recruit, their ability to recruit, and their increasing aggression and violence against our country.

O'BRIEN: There are Ground Zero families that I've spoken to who are on all sides of the debate. I mean, they're not of one voice, as you well know. They've said, but what about me? I can't find my son's body. And they want to build a mosque on a spot where he might be.

RAUF: Well, first of all, this is not the -- this is not that spot. This is not Ground Zero proper. This is--

O'BRIEN: It's two blocks.

RAUF: Yes. No one's body is in that location. I'm very sensitive to those feelings. As an imam, as any religious person does, we have to minister to the pain and hurt of our congregations and our ministry and our communities. And it is part of our intention.

This is why we're reaching out more to 9/11 families. We would like to have a memorial in this center for 9/11 families. Congregations and our ministry and our communities. And it is part of our intention. This is why we're reaching out to 9/11 families. We would like to have a memorial in this center for 9/11 families. We have not finalized all our plans yet. We are willing to sit down and engage and do something that will help us heal. You cannot heal a trauma by walking away from it. We have to sit down. We have to talk about it. We have to dialogue about it and find a way to move through it and beyond it.

O'BRIEN: We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about some of those plans and talk about if there is any room for changing your mind. Or is it the plan's going to move forward? Back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. We're talking to Imam Feisal. And we'll continue our conversation. Did you think this was going to be controversy? Are you surprised?

RAUF: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Really?

RAUF: Yes. As I said, the story first came out in -- last December in "The New York Times." no one objected.

O'BRIEN: Is it an indication that the bridges you've been building maybe aren't such strong bridges, and I know you talked about being a bridge builder a lot if you weren't aware of the controversy that would follow?

RAUF: Well, as I mentioned, the story first broke out in last December. It was front page news in "The New York Times." No one objected to our establishing such a center. Rabbi Schneider (ph) was quoted. Rabbi Joy Levitt of the Jewish Community Center, with whom we had spoken and who welcomed the idea, and has given us enormous cooperation and support in telling us what works, what doesn't work, how to do this.

Because the idea, Soledad is to establish something like a Muslim "Y." you have the YMCA was created 130 years ago to improve relationships between what was then called the American Protestant religions, by having young men and young women -- of course, it was separate at the time, YMCA, YWCA, come and, you know, bond by doing sports together and other programs together. It's become a worldwide phenomenon.

The 92nd street "Y" was the first attempt by the Jewish community to create also a center where you would create this kind of bonding. We are now, today, where the Jewish community and the Catholic community was maybe 70 years ago, a century ago. And this is our time and our turn to do that.

A Christian friend of mine once said, you know, I have no reason to go to a synagogue. But by going to the 92nd street "Y" and by doing its programs, I've learned far more about Jewish culture. Gotten to make many Jewish friends. And it has opened my eyes to many things.

O'BRIEN: There have been--

RAUF: So we need to do something like this because the need today is to build those types of relationships, to forge those bonds that would help us create an atmosphere of peace.

O'BRIEN: But doesn't the controversy that has happened now work against that? Isn't that exactly the opposite of what you're striving for?

RAUF: In some ways, yes. But in some ways, it also is a silver lining here.

O'BRIEN: How is it a silver lining?

RAUF: It give us an opportunity to speak about this subject in a manner that is sober, in a manner that is coherent, to look at what we are all about as Americans, to look about what it means to be Muslim in America, to look at how we are going to put back this genie of clash between the West and Muslim world back into the bottle.

O'BRIEN: There are plenty of Muslims, as I've been doing research, who have 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'm 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.

O'BRIEN: Then why is it hard to back up and say, and now that we've done it, let's undo it, let's just say we won't. Let's pick another spot that's been offered?

RAUF: As I just mentioned, our national security now hinges on how we negotiate this, how we speak about it, and what we do. It is important for us now to raise the bar on our conversation--

O'BRIEN: What's the risk? When you say "national security," what's the risk?

RAUF: As I mentioned, because if we move, that means the radicals have shaped the discourse. The radicals will shape the discourse on both sides. And those of us who are moderates on both sides -- you see Soledad, the battle front is not between Muslims and non-Muslims. The real battle front is between moderates on all sides of all the faith traditions and the radicals on all sides. The radicals actually feed off each other. And in some kind of existential way, need each other. And the more that the radicals are able to control the discourse on one side, it strengthens the radicals on the other side and vice versa. We have to turn this around.

O'BRIEN: Let me play a question from an i-reporter. Her name is Cathy Cortson (ph). And she's in Fullerton, California. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CATHY CORTSON: Why couldn't you find another -- another place? I just feel like there's an ulterior motive. And I know that's probably wrong, but that's how I feel. And I think a lot of Americans feel that way, too. That you want to upset us for some reason. Is that true?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAUF: No, it's not true. It is not our intention to create more conflict. This is our intention to say we, as Muslims, we as American Muslims, want to contribute to the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan. We want to enhance relationships with our American non-Muslim fellow countrymen. We want to forge better relationships. And we want to be part of the solution. Not only want to be, we are ready. We are willing. And we are able to be part of the solution. If the problem is perceived to lie in the Muslim community, which definitely a certain amount of that is, if the problem is perceived as a matter of religion, then we -- then the solution also lies in our being engaged in this process. We are not going to achieve peace between the West and the Muslim world without the engagement of Muslims and Western Muslims in particular.

O'BRIEN: It sounds like you're saying we're going to force a peaceful option. So I'll leave it there for a moment. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about that on the other side.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: You can see the police officer there. That is the location of this proposed Islamic center. I was there yesterday. People carrying placards are walking by. We're back with Imam Feisal. Nice to have you. Feisal, excuse me. Nice to have you.

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 of the table now?

RAUF: Nothing is off the table, Soledad.

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

RAUF: But we are consulting. We're 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 the 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 many, many factors, and that has been dominant among them.

O'BRIEN: Is there a middle ground that has you pull out of the center and do something else? That's what it sounds like you're saying. Is it possible?

RAUF: We are discussing many things right now. But, you know, we haven't found, yet an option that would work in a safe way.

O'BRIEN: What are what you're considering it?

RAUF: As I said, we consider everything in life. But we have to be very cautious here because the voices of the radicals have ratcheted up. And we must make sure that the moderates take over the conversation.

O'BRIEN: In your op-ed in "The New York Times," a lot of what you talked about were interfaith worship centers.

RAUF: Yes.

O'BRIEN: It's a change from what was on the website originally. Is this a change in the face of the controversy? Is this the negotiation?

RAUF: When I found the Cordoba initiative after 9/11 in response to a perennial question was, how can we fix this relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. I found the Cordoba initiative as a multi faith and multinational initiative. Because it became very clear and very apparent that if we were going to do this, we have to have Muslims and non-Muslims in this country and internationally cooperating together, in addressing the fundamental causes that have caused this and are continuously fuelling this.

O'BRIEN: But the controversial itself--

RAUF: So the Cordoba house --

O'BRIEN: --though, right, isn't that causing to some degree an instability and a risk, a risk of safety? I mean, there's an address now that has become the flash point for a lot of anger. Isn't that a risk to Muslims and Americans?

RAUF: There is a certain anger here, no doubt. But if you don't do this right, anger will explode in the Muslim world. If this is not handled correctly, this crisis could become much bigger than the Danish cartoon crisis, which resulted in attacks on Danish embassies in various parts of the Muslim world. And we have a much larger footprint in the Muslim world. If we don't handle this crisis correctly, it could become something which could really become very, very, very dangerous indeed.

O'BRIEN: Do you ask yourself how did you miss that? I mean, it's been your life's mission, and you and I have spoken in the past years, to build bridges and reach out. And yet, given what you know now, would you have built?

RAUF: As I mentioned it, this story is not new. People knew about it.

O'BRIEN: Right, but given what you know now, would you have said, listen, let's not do it there? Because it sounds like you're saying in retrospect wouldn't have done it.

RAUF: Well, yes.

O'BRIEN: You would not have done it?

RAUF: If I knew this would happen, this would cause this kind of pain, I wouldn't have done it. My life has been devoted to peacemaking.

O'BRIEN: There are so many people who say, so if you're saying it was a mistake, then why can't you get out of it and not do it?

RAUF: Because we have to now make sure that whatever we do actually results in greater peace, not in greater conflict.

O'BRIEN: Many of the things that you've said over the last couple of years have been parsed, as you well know. I'm sure you've read yourself over and over again in over the years. When we come back in the next break, we're going to talk about some of the things you've said. A "60 Minutes" interview with Ed Bradley. We'll talk a little bit about Hamas and your position on Hamas as well right after the short break.

RAUF: By all means.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: We're back talking to Imam Feisal. Thank you for being with us. There are two mosques already in that region of Ground Zero. Yours, as you pointed out, is about 12 blocks away from the actual Ground Zero, what people call the hole in the ground. I live downtown. I've seen it a lot. Then another one that's just about two blocks away. Why do you think this structure's causing all this controversy now?

RAUF: Well, there's a certain amount of anti-Islamic sentiment in this country.

O'BRIEN: Why now?

RAUF: And we have seen it in the attacks upon mosques in various parts of the country in the last several weeks. So it is clear that this issue is not just about our center, which is an attempt to create peace between Muslims and non-Muslims. This has aroused a certain anti-Islam sentiment which is unfortunate in this country.

But we need to look at it. We need to have a discourse about it. We need to make sure this doesn't dominate the discourse between us, because Americans believe fundamentally and in a very fundamental and strong way about freedom of religion, about separation of governments and churches, separation of church and state, which means that the powers of the government should not be used to coerce people to believe in any one religion. But it should be used to defend and protect religious rights and freedoms.

So this is the conversation we need to have right now.

O'BRIEN: About two weeks after 9/11, you were interviewed by Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes." I want to play a little chunk of how that interview went. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED BRADLEY, "60 MINUTES": Are you in any way suggesting we in the United States deserved what happened?

RAUF: I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened. But the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.

BRADLEY: You say we're an accessory?

RAUF: Yes.

BRADLEY: How?

RAUF: Because we have been an accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: There, you have said when people run that various snippet, that that is taken out of context. What's the context?

RAUF: Well, I was describing the fact that United States had actually worked with the Taliban, cooperated with the Mujahadin. The Mujahadin were VIPs in the Reagan White House administration. And Osama bin Laden was something that we -- the United States cooperated with in fighting the Soviet Union.

However, looking back at it right now, I realize it was not a very compassionate thing to say and I regret having used those words.

O'BRIEN: But do you believe that U.S. policies led to the World Trade Center being hit by planes, by terrorists?

RAUF: Um, I --

O'BRIEN: You know, there's -- maybe shouldn't -- you feel it wasn't necessary a politic thing to say, but do you think it's true?

RAUF: Well, I mean, Osama bin Laden was something, you know, we had worked with before and we seen what bin Laden did. And the sentiment certainly was bin Laden has shifted and we see what has happened and we have to understand what has happened in order to solve it. But we -- we -- the work that we have to do now is not about pointing fingers.

O'BRIEN: People always say that to me, I don't want to point fingers, when they don't want to necessarily answer the question, which is do you think the U.S. was responsible for those attacks on its own soil by terrorists?

RAUF: I was also trying to say -- to share part of my role in bridge building, Soledad, is like what I do when marital couple comes to me, you know, when they've had some discord, for counseling. And part of what I have to do is to speak the truth to each side, or to tell them, when you say this, your husband hears that. When you, sir, when you say this, your wife hears that.

It is part of my responsibility as a bridge builder to speak the truth about what's great about America, what we've done right, and what our less glorious moments. And many people feel that the Iraq adventure, for example, has been one of our less glorious moments. But unless we're able to look and speak truthfully and understand the issues, then the conversation is going to devolve into a situation where we're not going to be able to work and build bridges towards peace.

The bigger conversation and the more important one is how do we build peace? It's not that easy.

O'BRIEN: But doesn't that bring us back around to the same thing? Is it how to build peace to put a cultural center, Islamic cultural center that will have a mosque that is angering so many people, that 71 percent of the country says is not the right thing to do? Is that the right step to peace?

RAUF: First, we always said there's going to be a dedicated prayer space for Muslim, which we do need. And we want to have prayer space for Christians and for Jews. As I said, we have to build on our common platform. We need to build -- we need to make a space which creates and emphasizes a culture of worship.

I as a Muslim want you, as a Christian, to really be a perfect Christian. I want my Jewish friends to be perfect Jews, to live according to the highest principles of what it means to be a Jew, to be a Christian, to be a Muslim.

O'BRIEN: There are many people who say that's not what Islam is about. I know we have to take a short break. When we come back on the other side, I want to play for you a chunk of what Franklin Graham has said about Islam and get your response to that, because it's very tough and it's very harsh. So we're going to take a short break. Be back in just a moment .a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: We're back with Imam Feisal. Nice to have you.

RAUF: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about money. A hundred million dollars is the price tag for this Islamic cultural center. Where are you going to get the money?

RAUF: Well, we have yet to raise the capital campaign.

O'BRIEN: You have no money for it yet.

RAUF: We have not raised any money for it yet.

O'BRIEN: Where will you get the money? RAUF: We will raise from whatever source we can, domestically, especially. And we're very transparent on how we've raised the money. This has been something that we've committed ourselves to.

O'BRIEN: Meaning you will list whoever is giving you money.

RAUF: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Will you turn down money from people who, say, give money to Hamas?

RAUF: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: No question about it? Anyone who supports Hamas cannot give money to you?

RAUF: We will do whatever is absolutely correct and legal and the safe thing to do.

O'BRIEN: Which means what exactly? I mean, because that's -- that's an extra condition.

RAUF: You see, I'm the visionary behind it. I'm not the actual builder. I'm not the financial expert. I'm not the legal expert on these things. But I have a vision here of establishing something which I know in my heart of hearts will be a powerful instrument of peace.

O'BRIEN: Who would you not take money from? Who would you say no, take it back? Who would you turn it away from me?

RAUF: We would turn away from anybody who is deemed to be a danger to this process.

O'BRIEN: There have been a lot of questions, and I think a fair amount of controversy and criticism about questions that people have had about your take on Hamas. You were asked in an interview in the radio; the interviewer said, is the State Department correct in designating Hamas as a terror group? And you dodged the question. You went on a long time. But there was really sort of no answer to it.

So -- and I guess people sense that whatever that answer is, if you -- if you don't condemn Hamas, then in a way maybe you're supporting Hamas as a terror organization. So I guess I'd ask that question again. Do you -- you know, is the State Department right in saying that Hamas is a terrorist organization?

RAUF: I condemn everyone and anyone who commits acts of terrorism. And Hamas has committed acts of terrorism.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about Islam. I want to play you a chunk of what Franklin Graham, a leading Christian, has said about your religion.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) FRANKLIN GRAHAM, CHRISTIAN LEADER: The teaching of Islam is -- is to hate the Jew, to hate the Christian, to kill them. Their goal is world domination. And for the Muslim, peace means when all the other nations are subject to Islam. Then we are at peace. The world will be at peace when the entire world is under Islam. Well, I don't agree with the teachings of Islam.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: How do you respond to that?

RAUF: Islam does not preach that at all. And the Koran is quite specific. Koran says whoever believes in God in the last day shall be saved. It is a religion whose very name, Islam, comes from the word Shalom, which means peace. It's about establishing peace. We greet each other with peace be upon you, which the Jews do in greeting each other.

It's a religion based upon peace. But have there been people who have -- you know, Muslims who have expressed such sentiments? Yes, they have.

O'BRIEN: The 9/11 hijackers said they were acting in the name of Islam.

RAUF: That is a travesty. That is a travesty. Just as the inquisitors, you know, in Spain were committing a travesty against the teachings of Jesus Christ. We do have people in our faith community who have committed travesties against the teachings of Islam. This is part of the -- of the -- of the war or the battle within Islam today.

O'BRIEN: Had moderate --

RAUF: -- which has to be waged and which is being waged.

O'BRIEN: Have moderate Muslims been vocal enough against extremists?

RAUF: In the Muslim world, there are many people who have been vocal and we have been very vocal against extremists. But how to win this battle is an on-going battle. And we must continue to wage the battle for peace.

O'BRIEN: What is the likelihood, do you think, of another 9/11- type attack here?

RAUF: I hate to think of that. I hate to think of that.

O'BRIEN: But you said security, national security, is obviously of great concern to you.

RAUF: It is fundamental importance to us. I mean, look at what 9/11 did to our country. It traumatized the country. It has created a situation where Muslims are under even greater suspicion. It is important for us to -- to change that discourse, to change that perception. And how do we change this perception, Soledad, if we don't engage, if we don't dialogue, if we don't get to know each other?

O'BRIEN: Engaging and dialogue and getting to know each other. Right now, it's kind of a screaming match in front of a store front.

RAUF: Because the radicals on both have taken over the discourse.

O'BRIEN: But do you think -- again, when you look at -- when you ask your average American, 71 percent say they think it's a bad idea. The wisdom is not there in doing this. So are those people radicals?

RAUF: No.

O'BRIEN: Are they Islamophobic?

RAUF: No, it's because people are concerned. People want this problem to go away. I have been in this neighborhood for 25 years. I'll continue to be in this neighborhood after this thing dies down. Mayor Bloomberg was quoted as saying that he believes that the day after election day, this story will go away.

O'BRIEN: Do you think that's true?

RAUF: That's what he said.

O'BRIEN: Do you think that's true?

RAUF: I hope it's true. I hope it dies down tomorrow, because we need this -- this dangerous discourse to die down. We need to build bridges, to build relationships, to build friendships, and to build a new chapter in Muslim/non-Muslim relations.

O'BRIEN: Is this the right way to do that?

RAUF: How do you propose we do it? How do you pose we really engage? You know, Soledad, we must -- look, this is a matter of engagement right now. How do we -- how do we continue engagement is the question.

O'BRIEN: But engagement where people are furious, people -- many people on both sides of the issue are furious. Is that the kind of engagement --

RAUF: I ask, what is the solution? What is the solution to create an advancement of peace? We have to advance a discourse on peace. Our politicians get it.

O'BRIEN: Isn't that the opposite of peace? Two sides yelling at each other with placards two blocks from Ground Zero, which people I think here in New York and around the country would say that is sacred land. That is -- that's a special place for everyone in America. Is that -- is that a step toward peace there?

RAUF: Well, as Clyde Haberman (ph) and many people have said, look at what exists in that neighborhood. Look at what exists around the corner. O'BRIEN: Oh, I -- believe me, I live downtown so I know the neighborhood very well.

RAUF: So let's be clear. Calling this particular block sacred ground and what exists there. There's, you know --

O'BRIEN: Strip clubs and delis. I've been there a million times. But I think when people call it sacred ground, they're saying something terrible happened on this spot and we can't --

RAUF: We've got to be fair. You can't say a place that has strip joints is sacred ground. We've got to be just. We've got to speak the truth. We've got to have justice for everybody. We're a country of justice for all, not justice for non-Muslims only or some groups and not for others. This is what America's all about, Soledad.

We've got to really mean what we say and say what our values are truly about. This isn't -- the discourse has been hijacked by people who say no.

O'BRIEN: But in that 71 percent of people, those are not extremists.

RAUF: I recognize that. This is why I'm on the show with you today. I want to talk to these people, show them my face, show them what I'm about, show them my track record. I have been looked at every which way. Every statement has been looked at, including that is from 30 years ago when I was a young man.

I've committed myself to this. Let me tell you my story.

O'BRIEN: I'm going to have you tell me your story but after the commercial break.

RAUF: It's very important to this particular issue.

O'BRIEN: We'll talk about your work with the State Department as well. We're going to take a break and we'll come back in just a moment.

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O'BRIEN: Let's talk a little bit about your past. You've been working for the State Department or with the State Department for many years, under the Bush administration and now as well. What exactly do you do?

RAUF: Well, the State Department has a visitor's program, exchange program where they send people from this country, Americans all over the world, to talk about things in Latin America and various other subjects. And they also invite people from other parts of the world to visit the United States, get to know the United States.

O'BRIEN: That's a national security mission in a way? RAUF: It's kind of an exchange visitors' program to get -- to build relationships between people in various professions, religions, et cetera, with their counterparts, with other people in other parts of the world. I've done about half a dozen of these to various parts of the Muslim world.

O'BRIEN: You've heard about this pastor in Florida, Terry Jones, who is proposing burning Korans on 9/11. What do you think of that?

RAUF: I would plead with him to seriously what he is doing.

O'BRIEN: Why?

RAUF: It's going to feed into the radicals of the Muslim world. It's dangerous. General Petraeus has said that. It is something that is not the right thing to do on that ground.

O'BRIEN: Do you think he has a right to do it?

RAUF: And more importantly -- and more importantly -- well, we have freedom in this country, freedom of speech. But with freedom comes responsibility. And a famous saying to shot fire in a crowded theater. This is dangerous for our national security, but also it's the un-Christian thing to do. Jesus Christ didn't teach us to do that. We Muslims have a -- we look to the example of our prophet. Many Christians say what would Jesus do? Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek. Jesus taught us to love your enemy.

We are not your enemies. But this is what Jesus taught us to do. And I would like to suggest that, you know, we all have to live by the highest principles of our faith traditions. As I mentioned, it's important -- I want Christians to live -- to be perfected Christians and I want Muslims to be perfected Muslims and Jews to be perfected Jews. If we don't do that, if we judge each other by the worst of the other's behavior and by the best of our own, where are we going?

O'BRIEN: On that note we'll take a short break. We're back in just a moment. Stay with us, everybody.

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O'BRIEN: We have time for one last question with Imam Feisal. Can you unequivocally say we're going to build this Islamic Center/Mosque at this location, two blocks from Ground Zero?

RAUF: We certainly hope to build the Cordoba House vision of a multi-faith center that will build relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims.

O'BRIEN: There?

RAUF: On this night, my Jewish friends are celebrating Rosh Hashanah, and I wish to wish them a happy Rosh Hashanah, including Larry King, on whose show we are on tonight, and to wish them well. And in this peace, in this team, we need to build peace. Peace is the name of our religion. Peace is how Muslims and Jews create each other. And Jesus Christ said blessed are the peace makers, for they shall be called the children of God.

O'BRIEN: Thank you for talking with us this evening. We certainly appreciate all your time. Let's send it right back to Larry King. Larry?

KING: Thank you, Soledad. Outstanding job. Want to personally welcome Piers Morgan to the CNN family. We at this program will continue through the end of December and then Piers will take over his own show in this time slot starting in early January. We'll complete 25 and a half years in this slot on CNN.