New York (CNN) -- Saying America has let extremists "hijack the agenda," the imam behind a controversial proposal to place an Islamic community center and mosque near Manhattan's ground zero said Monday he wants to create a platform where the voice of moderate Muslims can be amplified.
"This is an opportunity that we must capitalize on, so those who teach moderation will have a megahorn," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told the Council on Foreign Relations.
"We come together at a time of great crisis and danger," he said. "What began as a dispute over a community center in lower Manhattan has spawned and grown into a much larger controversy about the relationship between my beloved religion and my beloved country, between Islam and America.
"The events of the past few weeks have really saddened me to my very core," he said. "I regret that some have misunderstood our intentions. I'm deeply distressed that in this heated political season, some have exploited this issue for their own agendas."
Since 1983, Rauf said he has served as imam of a mosque in New York's Tribeca neighborhood, 12 blocks north of the site of the former World Trade Center. The Twin Towers, he said, defined the neighborhood's skyline and were part of its daily life. Some of his congregants died on September 11, 2001, he said, and Muslims grieved alongside their neighbors and helped in efforts to rebuild.
"I belong to this neighborhood, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "I'm a devout Muslim. I pray five times a day -- sometimes more, if I can -- and I observe the rituals required by my faith. And I'm also a proud American citizen, let no one forget that. I vote in elections, I pay taxes, I pledge allegiance to the flag, I am a Giants fan."
Muslims play a role in American history, from the African Muslims brought over as slaves to the Muslims of today, he said.
Immigrants to the United States have traditionally faced challenges in fitting in, he said, and been targeted for rejection by other groups -- Jews, Catholics, African-Americans and Hispanics, among others, he said. Each time, the group has been able to overcome those challenges. "Now, it is our turn, as Muslims, to drink from this cup."
Every religion has extremists, he noted.
"Islam categorically rejects the killing of innocent people. Terrorists violate the sanctity of human life and corrupt the meaning of our faith," he said. "In no way do they represent our religion and we must not let them define us."
He said there is a battle to be fought -- but it's not jihad against nonbelievers, as Muslim extremists say.
"The real battlefront, the real battle we must wage together today, is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but it is between moderates of all faith traditions against the extremists of all the faith traditions. We must not let the extremists, whatever their faith, whatever their political persuasion, hijack the discourse and hijack the media. That only fuels greater extremism."
Rauf espoused creating a coalition of moderates from all faiths to combat extremism. "Everybody's looking for a Hail Mary pass," he said. "It won't happen in this situation."
"The story is not over," he said. "What happens right here, right now, in our city matters, and it matters more than ever. The way we confront our problems, the way we speak about them, the way we seek to reconcile our differences is watched" across the world.
"Is there really a need for an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan?" he said. "Is it worth all this firestorm? The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is a categorical 'Yes.' Why? Because this center will be a place for all faiths to come together as partners, as stakeholders, in mutual respect. It will bring honor to the city of New York."
"Let us therefore reject those who would use this crisis and the sacred memory of 9/11 to achieve their own ends," he said. "Let us especially not exploit the memories of the victims of that tragedy or the suffering of their families and friends. Let us condemn the use of holy texts or religious symbols for political or financial gain, even for fame."
A number of things have combined to bring Muslim extremism to the forefront, he said, including political and socioeconomic issues along with religious perceptions shaped by the media, which have created a "witches' brew."
Right now, "we have a situation, or a status quo, where the extremists can hijack the agenda," he said. And despite all our our intelligence, "we haven't figured out how to quiet them down."
During a question-and-answer session, Rauf would say little about negotiations regarding the community center, only that "we are exploring all options as we speak right now, and we are working through what will be a solution, God willing, that will resolve this crisis, defuse it, and not create any of the unforeseen circumstances that we do not want to see happen." Asked whether compromise was among the options under consideration, he said, "Everything is on the table."
Asked whether he anticipated such a controversy over the community center, Rauf said no. When the news became public, with a front-page New York Times story in December, "nobody objected," he said.
On what he would have done differently, he said, "we would try to do it differently. We would have had different stakeholders ... maybe not even do it at all."
He said he is not suggesting those against the center are radicals. But "there is a lot of unawareness of Islam in this country, which is why I urge people to understand it," he said.
The idea that Muslims are happy about extremism is incorrect, he said. "They're miserable, and they want something better, and we don't know how to give it to them because radical extremists have hijacked our discourse."
"The important part of what I'm trying to do, and my work, is that ... I want a space where the voice of the moderates can be amplified," he said. "It's not good enough to teach where no students will hear you."
On the idea of strict Islamic or Sharia law, Rauf said Muslims already practice sharia law -- in their dietary restrictions, when they pray, fast or when they bequeath their estates to their children under American law, for instance.
Ninety percent of Sharia law is consistent and compatible with the U.S. Constitution, he said, and the areas of difference are "small and minor."