CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — 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."
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