Lukewarm reaction to NY imam on Middle East tour

DUBAI Wed Sep 1, 2010 8:04am EDT

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, delivers a speech during a Ramadan Iftar (break fast meal) inside the Dubai School of Government in Dubai August 31, 2010. REUTERS /Mosab Omar

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, delivers a speech during a Ramadan Iftar (break fast meal) inside the Dubai School of Government in Dubai August 31, 2010.

Credit: Reuters /Mosab Omar

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DUBAI (Reuters) - A heated U.S. debate over a planned Islamic center near New York's World Trade Center site is seen by Middle East media, scholars and citizens as more of a domestic American issue rather than an attack on their faith.

Kuwait-born Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Muslim cleric leading the project to establish the center, has been in Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the past two weeks but met with a more subdued reaction than the U.S. media.

"Muslims this time are not part of this, they didn't call for it, they didn't defend it and didn't bother with the whole issue," Saudi columnist, Abdulrahman al-Rashid, wrote in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat.

The U.S. row is perceived as much less of an affront to Islam than Switzerland's vote to ban minarets and France's moves to forbid the full face veil, observers say.

Asked whether the American people were becoming more intolerant, the Imam Abdul Rauf played down American prejudice.

"If they are informed properly about what the actual facts of the situation are, they will always make the right decision," he said.

Abdul Rauf's project, now named Park51, has been dubbed by its critics the "Ground Zero mosque" because of its proximity to the World Trade Center site where nearly 3,000 people were killed in the September 11 attacks.

Families of victims of September 11 and conservative politicians have mounted an emotional campaign to block the planned center, saying its location was a provocation.

U.S. President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg support the right of Muslims to build the center.

An American Muslim cleric who delivers a weekly sermon at an Abu Dhabi mosque said the row was more about U.S. domestic politics with the November 2 congressional vote looming.

"It's really a local issue," the cleric, Jihad Hashim Brown, said. "It has to do with the current congressional election. As soon as the elections are finished it will blow over."

Recent French moves to ban Muslim women from wearing the niqab or burqa in public triggered more of a media outcry in the Middle East.

"The niqab ban was a state-endorsed one and so seemed to Muslims like an act of oppression," said public relations consultant Riham el Houshi, 22, an Egyptian living in Qatar, adding that she thought building the planned center was insensitive.

Qatari Ghanim al-Naimi said the right to build mosques anywhere in the world should be guaranteed: "Religion had nothing to do with (September 11)."

(Additional reporting by Regan E. Doherty in Doha, Souhail Karam in Riyadh and Eman Goma in Kuwait; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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