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New York Islamic Center Imam Speaks Out

Aired September 8, 2010 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And thanks for joining us, everyone, a very big night, as many of you just saw.

For months now, the nation has been debating the prospect of an Islamic center, a mosque just two blocks north of the World Trade Center site. But missing from that debate has been the voice of the imam that everyone is talking about, Feisal Abdul Rauf. Well, tonight, just moments ago, he broke his silence exclusively on CNN. And he made some big headlines, breaking news tonight.

He said, if he had to do it over again, he would have chosen another site. He said, when it comes to moving it, all options are on the table, but giving in now, he says, could strengthen radicals on all sides and threaten national security. We are going to talk extensively about that tonight, much more with people on all sides of the question.

But, first, though, I just want you to hear, in case you missed the whole thing, I just want you to hear some of the most important things that the imam said tonight, some of Soledad O'Brien's interview, starting with why, for now, he is not moving the center.


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF, FOUNDER & CHAIRMAN, CORDOBA INITIATIVE: 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.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: 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, Soledad. 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.

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. And I have been there a million times.

RAUF: Yes. Yes, right. So...


O'BRIEN: But I think when people call it sacred ground, they're saying something terrible happened on this spot and we can't...

RAUF: Well, we've got to be fair. You can't say a place that has strip joints is -- 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 is all about, Soledad.

We've got to really mean what we say and say what our values are truly about.


COOPER: That's some of the interview. We are going to be playing more of the interview throughout this hour, as we discuss it.

I want to bring in Soledad O'Brien now, along with Fareed Zakaria, also Andy Sullivan, a New York City construction worker who is encouraging other construction workers to refuse work on the Islamic center near Ground Zero, Rosaleen Tallon, whose brother was one of the firefighters who died at Ground Zero -- also tonight, Bruce Feiler, bestselling author of "Walking the Bible," and, as I mentioned, Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN's "FAREED ZAKARIA."

Fareed, Let me start off with you. It does sound like he's saying -- I mean, it sounds like there -- there are talks or they are open to the idea of moving this, if they can find some sort of, basically, face-saving gesture. Did you read that?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: I did read -- read it that way.

But I think -- and I think what he was trying to say, what the imam was trying to say is that he is trying to be sensitive to the issue of how this will play. And I think it is true, if you read the -- the press around the world, not just in the Muslim world, by the way, around the world, it is being seen as a test of America's freedom of religion on the one hand and, you know, the -- the sensitivity of people who don't want mosques, and it is part of a larger debate about Islam in America.


COOPER: Do you think it is a national security issue now, as he says it is?

ZAKARIA: I think there's certainly a possibility that, if you have this -- this proposed -- the center crumble under pressure, if you have Korans burned in public demonstrations of anger, that radicals in places like Indonesia, in Jordan, you know, that the Osama bin Ladens of the world will use this to manipulate public opinion.

They have done it in the past. They have done it with things like the Danish cartoons. They have done it with all kinds of perceived slights. And this is being reported all over the world. So, I -- I do think there is some reality there.

But the main point -- I would say the main message I got out of that interview was that this man is genuinely a moderate and is looking for some middle ground. He was -- he never -- he time and again said: I don't rule out anything. And I'm looking for a way to ease the pain of people who felt hurt. I -- I tried to do this because I thought it would be a peacemaking and bridge-building effort.

COOPER: Right.

ZAKARIA: And that's -- that really does seem to be what's motivating him...


COOPER: Andy, you were on the program last night, saying you -- you don't believe he's a moderate. Did anything he say tonight change your mind?

ANDY SULLIVAN, CREATOR, BLUE COLLAR CORNER: Actually, he -- he has done more good for my movement tonight than 100 demonstrations have done.

COOPER: How so?

SULLIVAN: He shot himself in the foot so badly, I was -- you are not going to be able to chisel the smile off my face.

COOPER: How so?

SULLIVAN: With the whole national security thing. That's a veiled threat.

He's saying: You -- you make me move, and guess what? The whole Muslim, radical Muslim world is coming after us.

That's what I read.

COOPER: Mm-hmm. SULLIVAN: And when I was in -- when I was in the green room with Rosaleen, we both came to the same idea -- the same conclusion. I actually wrote it down on a piece of paper and I showed it to her.

COOPER: Rosaleen...

ZAKARIA: But, Andy...

COOPER: Go ahead.

ZAKARIA: ... if I may, for a second, I think what he was saying was not -- the way he said was, we have got to be careful how we resolve this. We have got to be sensitive to the fact that we want this to end up producing peace, not more conflict.

That was at least the -- the way in which he was approaching it. And I think, you know, in any of these negotiations -- it's one of the reasons why most newspapers around the United States did not publish those Danish cartoons, because they were not trying to create a situation where you would needlessly cause conflict or violence, including very conservative newspapers that, of course, defended the freedom of expression of that Danish cartoonist.

BRUCE FEILER, AUTHOR, "WALKING THE BIBLE": And what's more, actually...


FEILER: I mean, just -- just to jump in, and then I will let you speak here, is that what he said echoes more or less what General Petraeus said the other day, which is, if this thing does get caught up in the larger conversation, as Fareed mentioned, of anti-Islamic conduct in the country, it was General Petraeus who also said, that will -- that runs the risk of -- of helping the recruiting of extremists around the country -- around the world.

ROSALEEN TALLON, SISTER OF FIREFIGHTER KILLED ON SEPTEMBER 11: Well, I would really like to jump in, and I would say, on 9/11, it didn't take a mosque for extremists to come and attack the World Trade Center and kill my brother.

So, I -- what I'm finding here to be very disturbing is that now we're -- seem to be, this mosque has to go up, or there will be retribution. That's very disturbing, especially to hear Imam Rauf has come back from the Middle East and that he must be hearing chatter or something over there to think that there's -- that there's a possibility of retribution.

That -- that frightens me. And, imagine, when I first heard about this mosque, the first thing that scared me -- and -- and, now, I'm a layperson. Imam Rauf should have known this before he started on the path. I was very fearful for the security of New York.

I mean, when I lost my brother, I couldn't believe, you know, that there were such extremists in the world. And now, to think that, if -- if we don't build this mosque, that there's going to be retribution, that really upsets me. And what I had so hoped...

COOPER: But -- but to the point that -- that -- that they're saying, that it wasn't that, unless this mosque is built on this site, there will be retribution. He's -- I think what Fareed is interpreting it as is...

TALLON: I -- but that's what I got...


COOPER: ... unless there's resolution, that -- that...

TALLON: Yes, but he kind of -- but he kind of said that -- that the Muslims around the world are watching what we do here at this very site.

COOPER: Which is certainly -- which seems to be true. I mean, do you believe that's true?

TALLON: Oh, I do, but isn't -- isn't that really scary, that, if we don't build this mosque, as the old expression says, there will be hell to pay?


SULLIVAN: And he also -- he also called us radicals. In a very, you know, sublime sort of way, anybody that doesn't agree with this mosque is a radical. And the radicals have taken over the discourse, is what he said.

TALLON: Well, I would -- I would also like to say that...

COOPER: Well, he didn't name, you know, people who were opposed to this mosque as radicals. He -- he just talked about radicals in the United States.

SULLIVAN: He said, if it was moved, he said, radicals will take over -- radicals will take over the discourse.

I'm considered -- I take it as he's considering me a radical.

ZAKARIA: But, again, if -- if you -- if you listen to what he said I think a couple of times -- I don't have the exact quote -- he said: But my real concern is about radicals in the Muslim world.

Look, this guy has been fighting radicals within Islam for most of...


SULLIVAN: And, Fareed, I consider that a threat. I -- I'm a -- this is a turf war.


ZAKARIA: Well, I don't think you're understanding what I'm -- what I was saying.

He is saying: My real concern is the -- is the radicals of the Muslim world and how they will react.

SULLIVAN: I'm reading between the lines, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: No, no, I understand.



ZAKARIA: But what I -- what I mean is, his concern is much less about radicals in the United States. His concern is, to Bruce's point, General Petraeus' concern. And General Petraeus is concerned because he sees it on the front lines. We are engaged across the Middle East.

COOPER: Bruce, do you think the imam -- I mean, it's interesting to hear the perspectives of -- of our two guests who oppose this. Do you think, for the audience out there, who, basically, around -- around the country, most Americans oppose this. Certainly, in New York, it's opposed.


COOPER: Do you think the imam changed perceptions tonight?

FEILER: I think he did a great thing tonight, but I also think he came up short in one key area.

I don't think he has changed the fundamentals of the conversation. All right, if you put it in political terms, the way we talk about, I don't think he changed the debate. I don't think he changed that many minds. And I think -- and nothing that I have seen changed what I -- I also said here on the air last night, which is that I think that this is going to end up with a compromise, because I think, in fact, he -- he opened the door, opened it wider, and started walking through that door tonight.

But I -- but what I think is fantastic about what happened is -- is, look around us. You know, as I came in the studio tonight, there's -- there's news broadcasters out there. There's police. This is -- this is like the Super Bowl of interfaith relations.

And for those of us who -- who have participated in this conversation that came out of 9/11, this is truly advancing the ball, because what we're doing is, we're getting the conversation out.

TALLON: I'm sorry. The Super Bowl? This is not the Super Bowl.

This is pain. And, let me tell you, Imam Rauf said he -- he reached out to family members before this mosque was going to be built? There was no contact with family members. And, if he said there was, I would like to see a list. That's a lie. And I would also like to say, my mom and I were so hoping that Imam Rauf would bring peace to the 9/11 families before this anniversary. I was so sure, when he would come back from the Middle Eastern trip, that he would come back and he would give us a gift of peace and say: I wanted this to bring peace, but I see that it's not, and I -- I never meant to do this -- and to maybe look for another location.


FEILER: Let me jump in here. I'm looking at this beautiful picture here.


FEILER: And the -- the peace that you are talking about, what those of us who are working very hard, including Feisal Abdul Rauf, to accomplish is to create a situation where there is not open conflict among the religions.


TALLON: But why at Ground Zero? Why does this have to be -- why not bring it over to the Middle East? I think that would be a great location for the Cordoba Initiative.

They're the people that attacked us at Ground Zero over in the Middle East. And why don't they learn to be tolerant? I think that's a fantastic location. The Middle East would be a wonderful place.

New York is very tolerant already. New York has synagogues, mosques, and Catholic churches all coinciding, neighborly, in peace. This is the first real disturbance in New York since 9/11, and that's really sad to me. I'm so proud of New York.

FEILER: And this is the voice -- this is the voice that we are trying to get out, which is to say that what this city...

TALLON: But why at Ground Zero?


TALLON: Why at Ground Zero?


FEILER: Let me just -- me just try to -- try to answer what I think a lot of us are fighting for.

TALLON: But you're not answering, why at Ground Zero?

FEILER: Well, what the -- the conversation that we're having is that what New York is about and what this country is about and what -- and -- and it is about a situation where we have to say, there is another voice in this country that is not the extremists, that if the extremists who flew those planes into those buildings are responding to the Koran...


TALLON: I agree. And I -- it is that...


TALLON: I harbor no ill will towards the wonderful Muslim people that -- that had no part of 9/11. But I am just saying, why at Ground Zero? We have mosques all over New York, and I'm so proud of them.

FEILER: Rosaleen...


COOPER: We have to take a quick break.

Bruce, I just want you to be able to respond to -- respond to that, and then we have got to take a quick break.


FEILER: I think that what we have is, there is a community down there that he has, and they're trying to find a location.

I do not believe and have never believed that this is a real estate issue. I believe there is going to be a compromise that's going to come out of this.

TALLON: God willing.

FEILER: But I hope that all of us who care about what these people died for can stand up and say that what America is about is finding a way for people to coexist. And that is the message that we have to deliver around the world.


COOPER: We are going to take a quick break. We're going to continue with our guests again. And we're going to be discussing this for the whole hour. It's an important conversation to have.

We will also be showing you more of what Imam Rauf said tonight.

For better or worse, now this is a national conversation. You can join it. Live chat is up and running at Let us know what you think.

When we come back: a closer look at the allegations against Imam Rauf. We are going to put some of the claims of -- well, some of the stuff that's been out there, what are the facts? We are going to be "Keeping Them Honest," a look at that.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: Well, we had the novelty tonight of actually hearing from Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, instead of only hearing about him and about the Islamic center he plans to build.

By now, we have all heard plenty from people of goodwill and bad faith alike, some of the allegations completely outlandish. Others are completely plausible.

We wanted to know what is true about the imam.

"Keeping Them Honest," checking the facts about his background, Tom Foreman -- Tom.


You know, much has been said about the imam. And let's start with a big claim, that he said the United States is to blame for the attacks on 9/11. On "60 minutes" back in 2001, he said: "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened."

We showed this earlier on during Larry King's show. In the context of the whole interview, however, the imam is talking about the widely accepted view that American foreign policy has often been unpopular in the Muslim world, and that has been used by fanatics to justify their attacks.

Furthermore, he says America has made some alliances, such as to support the Afghan rebels against the Soviets, that later backfired, again feeding anti-American sentiment. He also said tonight, Anderson, you may note that he rather regrets those comments now, and he thinks they were insensitive at the time, because he understands how many people heard those as saying, essentially, it was our fault.

COOPER: Tom, some of the other claims that we have heard out there is that he -- he is tied, through this project in his private life, to terrorists or to -- to just plain criminals. What's the story there?

FOREMAN: New York papers have reported how his partner in the cultural center, Sharif El-Gamal -- he mentioned him earlier -- was charged with several crimes in the '90s, disorderly conduct, assault. In 2005, he was reportedly arrested for punching a man involved in a dispute with El-Gamal's brother.

El-Gamal told "The Daily News": "I regret many things that I did in my youth. I have not always led a perfect life."

Over in New Jersey, residents of some apartment buildings owned by the imam say that he does not maintain the property, allows garbage to build up, rats and roaches. His wife told a New Jersey paper, essentially, they're doing the best they can to take care of these places amid a lot of vandalism, and ,in any event, it has nothing to do with this other project.

And the imam's late father has been linked by some Web sites to the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the earlier radical Islamist groups in the Middle East. We can find no evidence of this. And the imam points out that his father was involved in a fair amount of peaceable work, including heading the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C.

COOPER: Tom, what about the idea that the imam himself has been traveling around, secretly soliciting money from -- from foreigners, from terrorist groups to pay for this project?

FOREMAN: If he is, it is very secret, Anderson.

He has lately been on a U.S. State Department speaking tour of the Middle East. And he's done this kind of thing before, working, as he said tonight, to bridge the gap between the Muslim world and others. And he has repeatedly denounced killings in the name of Islam, all killings done in that name.

And we found no evidence that he was raising money -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Tom, appreciate it.

Back now with Soledad O'Brien, Fareed Zakaria, Andy Sullivan, Rosaleen Tallon. Also with us, joining us, is senior political analyst David Gergen.

Soledad, I just want to start with you, because we -- because you did the interview. We haven't heard from you.

I want to play something that he said that Andy had -- brought up that Andy interpreted as -- as basically a threat, and he thought was actually going to help those who oppose this mosque.

We want to play what he said about what he feels, the imam feels, is a risk to national security.


RAUF: There is a certain anger here, no doubt.

But if we don't do this right, anger will explode in the Muslim world. If this is not handled correctly, this crisis could -- could become much bigger than the Danish cartoon crisis, which resulted in attacks on -- at 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, very dangerous, indeed.

O'BRIEN: Do you...


COOPER: Soledad, you were sitting across from him. How did you read that when he said it?

O'BRIEN: Yes. He clearly is very, very concerned about national security. And -- and I thought that the point that he was making that was not a threat that he was putting out, but just sort of saying: You know, I have spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and I understand that there are extremist elements there who will interpret this a certain way, and that will lead to a threat.

But the bigger point that I thought he was making was -- at one point, I actually thought he was asking me, so, you know, what do you think we should do? Because he kept saying, well, what's the answer then?

I think that, clearly, what is on the table is to try to find some kind of middle ground that allows for safe-facing -- safe face -- face-saving is what I'm trying to say, Anderson...


O'BRIEN: ... which allows the interpretation to the bigger -- the globe to be read a certain way, and also that really underscores the issues that I think that they are finally realizing about the sensitivity of the site, because I do think that number -- well, we talked about extremist elements. You know, that -- that -- those poll numbers, 71 percent, those are not extremist numbers. Those are, you know, regular folks who say, here is how I feel about it.

COOPER: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: And so -- and I think he agreed with that.

So, I think the concern is about national security. How do you -- he said: It's a -- was a mistake. You know, I wouldn't have done it if I -- if we had known then what we know now.


O'BRIEN: Now, how do we extract ourselves without setting up a situation where extremist elements that we all know exist in the Middle East, and certainly other places as well, without bringing something on from this maneuver?

COOPER: Right.

O'BRIEN: It's very nuanced and very, very tricky.

I didn't think that he was implying some personal threat in any way.

COOPER: Right.

David Gergen, I want to bring you in, because we haven't heard your voice.

Did -- did he -- you have been skeptical about this project for a long time, saying, yes, you know, legally, constitutionally, they have every right to build. Do they need to build it on this spot? It's obviously a sensitive issue.

Did -- did the imam change your mind in any way in either direction?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I certainly agreed with Fareed that he -- he came across -- he struck me as a man of peace, a moderate, a man who is a bridge-builder. I think he is genuine in that.

I did not think he offered a lot of alternatives, nor did I think he truly had heard the voices of a Rosaleen or of an Andy when he sort of lumps people together who are opposing this as extremists.

COOPER: Did...


GERGEN: "We can't let the extremists take over the argument."

You know, there are a lot of people who are not -- nowhere near extremists, but they have genuine feelings and emotions that are being challenged here.

COOPER: Rosaleen and Andy don't strike me as extremists.


GERGEN: Well, they're not.

But I -- and I do think and I -- Fareed and I have not had a chance to talk about this -- I do think that there is a middle ground you and I talked about a bit last night, and that is, I think, if you brought everybody to the table, including the families, and brought Jewish leaders and Christian leaders and the imam and Muslim leaders, and said, how can we build something that truly will be an interfaith center, where everyone prays, it's not a Muslim center, it's not a Christian center or a Jewish center, but somewhere where we can seek understanding, but you've got to have...


COOPER: The question now, though, is there so much bad blood and so -- you know, that -- that any involvement from this developer, you know, would -- would taint that, because -- because it is so ratcheted up now, at this point?

I mean, would you -- is that something...

TALLON: Imagine -- I imagine -- I guess I'm naive, you know? Like, they're talking about finding a solution to save face.

To me, the solution is for Imam Rauf to say, in memory of all those people and as a gift to New York, we're going to think about our plans, maybe build another location somewhere. Like, that would be such a gift, and showing strength on his part and on the Islamic world, strength, to me, to be able to say, we're going to give you this gift, New York.

We didn't realize -- as he said, he said that they -- that it probably was a mistake. And, to me, the strongest thing that you can put forth...

COOPER: Do you -- do you believe that when he says -- to either of you, do you believe that when he says that he didn't know this was going to cause -- that they didn't realize it was going to cause this amount of uproar?

SULLIVAN: They didn't -- they did not realize that at all.

And I think this whole mosque issue, actually, is transcending what's going on in the nation as a whole. First of all, I think the middle class, period, has been taken completely out of every conversation concerning any kind of giant legislation whatsoever. And I think this mosque issue is the "enough is enough" point.

COOPER: We have got to take a quick break.

We are going to have more with this panel right after a short break. We will be right back.


COOPER: Back now, fascinating discussion with Soledad O'Brien, Fareed Zakaria, Andy Sullivan, and Rosaleen Tallon, also with us, senior political analyst David Gergen.

Rosaleen, I was curious how you felt -- and also Andy -- when he made the point tonight that this is not Ground Zero proper, that this is several blocks away, and a street that has strip clubs and, you know, porno places, and that it's not sacred -- this block is not sacred ground.

TALLON: Well, I imagine there's so many things you could speak about. I mean, the building had -- part of the plane came down into the building.

And I know human remains were all scattered around there in the days and weeks after 9/11.

SULLIVAN: And that was never checked. It was never checked.


So, in that way, it was Ground Zero, maybe not delineated by the Port Authority, but to all of us who had loved ones missing down there, that was still Ground Zero.

And when I go down to Ground Zero, I look up into a little spot in the sky where I knew Sean was in the North Tower. That's -- I can see that. I can see that from being at the mosque. And -- and it's very close to where Sean was in the North Tower.

COOPER: Does -- does the existence of strip clubs and stuff, does that upset you?

TALLON: No, because the -- the strip clubs were -- were not -- I mean, that had nothing to do with the attack on 9/11. SULLIVAN: Unless the terrorists were strippers, I got no problems with that club.


COOPER: Well, they hung out in strip clubs, from what I read about some of them, if I remember from their time in America.

What do you...

ZAKARIA: You know, I think that, Anderson, the tragedy of all this is that, for the last nine years, everybody, from George W. Bush to, you know, very conservative scholars like Daniel Pipes, a scholar of Islam who is hard-core conservative, have been saying radical Islam is the problem; moderate Islam is the solution.

And we want to find moderate imams, clergymen, Muslim leaders who believe in interfaith dialogue, who believe in equality of sexes, who believe in creating sanctuaries where -- which are coed in which other faiths can pray.

So here you have, you know, a center that was going to be interfaith, that was going to have Jews and Christians on the board, that was going to have Jewish prayer room, Christian prayer room, interfaith dialogue. And it's just sad that, you know, this was -- this could have been an extraordinary American example of the alternative to extremism, the alternative to radicalism, but it has got mired in, you know, I think an unfortunate emotional debate.

And I feel as though, if this thing were built and functioning, people would actually, of all sides, would see that the people who are most threatened by this are the bin Ladens of the world. They're the ones who don't want centers like this.

COOPER: He made -- he made -- you're shaking your head, David. He made a point, though, that radicals are actually -- need each other and actually kind of are more opposed to moderates than anyone else.

GERGEN: Well, he did. But -- and I would think there would be a lot of people in this country who would resent -- and I think you voiced this earlier. Resent sort of being lumped together with radicals in the least because you oppose this or you have some real problems with this.

COOPER: Do you think -- do you agree with Andy that he was lumping those who oppose the mosque being built with radicalism in the United States?

GERGEN: I don't think that was his intent, but I think it could have been read into it. And are there some radicals in this country? Of course. And we see, you know, fringe elements...

COOPER: This past week in Florida.

GERGEN: The pastor in Florida. But when you get 67 to 71 percent of people in polls saying they have real problems with this, you have to have some sensitivity to what the American public wants.

COOPER: We've got to go, but just very briefly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought Soledad did a tremendous job and I think after...

COOPER: Now you're just trying to butter her up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After two months -- after two months of being away, this is his best shot at coming back and like really pushing his agenda? I think he failed miserably.

COOPER: Rosaleen (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would just like to say it's tremendous, but this is what it was all about. It is the sensitivity of what happened there nine years ago.

COOPER: And Soledad, your thought on the interview?

O'BRIEN: You know, I think that it's going to be very interesting what happens next. To me, what happened tonight was he opened the door for what's the other way that we can have a win/win?

And right now they're not in a position of a win that makes the 9/11 families who are opposed to this Islamic center feel like their sensitivity issues have been heard, a win that makes people who support the mosque feel like their sensitivities haven't been trampled on either. What is the path? I don't know that anybody has that answer at this moment.

COOPER: I'm going to second Andy's compliment that I think did a good job. I'll reserve judgment on the cute because I don't want to offend your husband. Soledad, thank you very much.

Fareed, as well.

We really appreciate you being on. Thank you. And bringing the picture of your brother, as well.

Andy Sullivan, it's great to have you, as always.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

COOPER: David, you stick around. We're going to talk with you more.

Up next, the growing national outcry not just about this Islamic center and mosque here at Ground Zero, but about other mosques elsewhere in the United States.

We're also going to talk with CNN's newest voices, Kathleen Parker and Elliot Spitzer. Parker-Spitzer, and no, it's not a new law firm. It's a new program here on CNN. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: We've been talking about the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. But increasingly, outcries over mosques a lot farther away from the neighborhood around Ground Zero, all across the country, in fact, with national figures weighing in.

Here's Pat Robertson on "The 700 Club" speaking out against plans to expand a Muslim community center that already exists in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.


PAT ROBERTSON, "THE 700 CLUB": You mark my word. If they start bringing thousands and thousands of Muslims into that relatively rural area, the next thing you know, they're going to be taking over the city council.

Then they're going to be having an ordinance that calls for public prayer five times a day. Then they're going to be having ordinances that there will have to be facilities for foot washing in all the public restrooms and all the airport facilities, et cetera, et cetera.

And before long, they're going to demand, demand, demand, demand. And little by little, the citizens of Murfreesboro, whatever little town it is, are going to be cowed.


COOPER: I want to take you over to the wall here, show you what happened in Murfreesboro since then the last couple weeks. Saturday the 28th of August, somebody torched construction equipment where the center is going to be built. These are some of the pictures of it. You see the burning. The FBI calls it arson, the culprit unknown.

Now, the arson came after a chain of demonstrations across the country in Murfreesboro and elsewhere.

Down here in the lower left, you see this is the demonstration in Murfreesboro. One of the signs there says mosque leaders support killing converts.

Here on the upper left, protesting a mosque in Temecula, California. A sign says "Muslims danced with joy on 9/11."

Moving clockwise, New York's Staten Island, no Islamic settlements in America."

And here, Gainesville, Florida. You know Pastor Terry Jones still planning to burning Korans this weekend on the anniversary of 9/11.

Now obviously, the protest signs, the arson, the scheduled Koran burning, none of it speaks for all Americans or even for most Americans. However, check out this poll. This is the latest polling from Pew Research, showing 25 percent of people they surveyed -- that's one in four -- say local communities should be able to prohibit construction of mosques if they do not want them.

So something like the Koran burning this weekend, if it, in fact, happens, could that spark violence? There's a report tonight that the FBI believes the answer to that question is yes.

ABC News quotes an FBI intelligence bulletin that expresses concern that Islamic radicals could try to attract -- attack the Koran burning or retaliate later on. And there's this question: is Islamophobia creeping into American society?

Let's talk about that. Joining me now are Elliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York, and Kathleen Parker, Pulitzer-Prize- winning journalist and noted conservative commentator. In October their new program begins right here on CNN at 8 p.m.

Welcome, thanks very much for being with us. Good to have you here.

KATHLEEN PARKER, CNN HOST: Thank you for having us.

COOPER: What did you think of the imam tonight?

PARKER: You know, I thought it was very good that he came out and spoke and that people could hear him in person and hear his voice. I think he probably changed very few minds. I think people are going to see exactly what they were prepared to see. If you're against it, you were going to sort of be looking for ways to convince yourself that he was playing some role, you know, in trying to be this sort of secret jihadist.

And then if you were for it already, then you'd understand that he seemed as a reasonable, rational person who's well spoken and has something important to say.

I doubt that he really changed many hearts and minds, but maybe it's a start, as he says, toward a conversation that needs to take place.

COOPER: Elliott, do you think he changed minds?

ELLIOT SPITZER, CNN HOST: No. I don't think. I think Kathleen got it exactly right. You saw in his commentary, which I found persuasive, thoughtful and very well spoken, precisely what you believed going in. And you saw that on your panel earlier in the show.

Those who were skeptics heard in his invocation of national security a threat. Others who were more sympathetic to him understood that in a context of international affairs, his saying, look, be careful that we don't create additional reasons for those who are radicals to hate us.

And so you can use this as a Rorschach test and see in it exactly what you already believe. And I think...

COOPER: The lines are so clearly drawn? SPITZER: The lines are so rigid, and the views about this are so deeply ingrained. And the passion, when you've lost somebody on 9/11, and the pain is so real, it's very hard to change minds.

COOPER: So are we beyond a place where there is dialogue or possibility of coming together to -- you know, David Gergen talked about some sort of solution of having, you know, a multi-faith center.

PARKER: I think that's a great idea. I think that's a great idea. I don't think we're beyond that. But I do think we have to be so careful as we give attention to these people who are, essentially, crackpots. OK? Let's talk about the...

COOPER: You're talking about not the people who oppose the mosque?

PARKER: No, no, no. Not, not -- certainly not. I mean, look...

COOPER: The Koran burners?

PARKER: There is some crackpotism involved in this. I mean, there was a time when the headlines were fairly rational and straightforward in news oriented. And you can see that was last December, as he said.

And then if you look at the headlines beginning last May, then they get increasingly inflammatory. And so, you know, I think that the rhetoric has been highly exaggerated in many cases.

The media, you know, we all have a role in that and we have to be so careful. Because when we do give attention to people like, for example, this fellow in Gainesville, who's threatening to burn the Koran -- I was talking to a friend of mine earlier tonight who lives in Gainesville. And I said, "Do you know this character?"

She said, "Yes, my church is about a quarter mile down the road from his." His church is a metal building. He's got approximately 50 followers.

COOPER: And sells used furniture on eBay.

PARKER: And I would like for the Muslim world to understand that this is just one individual who doesn't represent anyone but, you know, a handful of folks. That's just -- and that feeds, though, and builds this sort of -- the sense that this is an awful thing going on.

SPITZER: We need for time to pass. When emotions are this raw, you cannot address the issues rationally, because emotion overwhelms rationality. Andy in your prior panel said something very interesting and very important. He said this was the last straw for a middle class that is disenfranchised.

This issue is one of many that has led to an outbreak of anxiety, anger, venom. In many cases, legitimate because of emotions that derive from 9/11. In other instances it is just a focal point for an upset with the way our economy and our national politics is playing out. And so we need to understand this in that context. And I think when you view it that way, you understand how hard it is to bridge this chasm right now.

SPITZER: There's -- you know, we see these incidents now moving away from just this mosque but to opposing -- some oppose building any new mosque in the United States. Or some expose just the expansion in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. And those who support it say, "Look, this is Islamophobia."

I think that's a big element of Islamophobia. But I think this is also part of our history, and we need to be careful that we appeal to our better angels.

COOPER: This is just the newest group? Catholics to Jews?

SPITZER: Newest incarnation. And in fact, before I came on the show, I dug out George Washington's letter to a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790 where he addressed this and he said the wonderful thing about this nation, a new nation at that point, three years old -- 220 years ago, he wrote this -- is that we are tolerant.

And we need our political leadership to speak to tolerance. We need to go back to those values so that everybody can do what the imam wants to do and what David Gergen spoke to, which is to get people together and say, "Wait a minute."

COOPER: Let us not -- that's not what our political life is about now.

PARKER: We keep -- we keep hearing this. They're going to do this. If you let them give in.


PARKER: You let them do this, then they're going to demand, demand. Who is the "they"? I mean, these are Americans, too. And it makes me wonder how many people out there watching tonight actually know someone who is a Muslim?

You know, there seems to be -- I just feel like this has become a misunderstanding on a broad scale. And while absolutely, when you talk to people whose families died, you know, on 9/11, you can't -- you can't not take that seriously. I mean, that emotion is real, and it's still raw. But I think we've got to stop thinking of Muslims as being "them."

COOPER: We've got to take a quick break. Elliot Spitzer, Kathleen Parker, appreciate you being with us. Thanks very much.

A quick reminder, the new program "Parker-Spitzer" appears Monday, October 4, 8 p.m. right here on CNN. We're all excited about it.

Up next, Imam Rauf says politicians are the ones who are fueling the outrage over the Islamic center. We'll talk about that. "Raw Politics." (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Tonight, we finally heard from Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. In an interview with Soledad O'Brien, the imam said he believed the controversy over the Islamic center near Ground Zero began because some tried to use it for political gain. Watch.


RAUF: 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 No. 1 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.


COOPER: So, is that what's happening? Back with us, senior political analyst David Gergen.

Also joining us political analyst Roland Martin, author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith" and Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

David, is this just now a victim of politics?

GERGEN: Well, I think it certainly has become a political football. And there's no question that there were people in the political arena who did want to whip this up, and I think we all know that many of them were conservatives. They were generally offended and they wanted to make an issue of it.

I actually think it's important, though, not to say that's the only thing. "The New York Times" on its Web site, for example, said that the controversy broke out after that young man came into Manhattan. You know, the Muslim guy came in here, and was trying to blow some people up. Fortunately it was intercepted. It actually started happening then. So I think there's more than one reason we have this controversy.

COOPER: Roland, you describe the opposition to this center as, and I quote, unmistakable religious bigotry, intolerant and hypocritical. Isn't that painting with a very broad brush? I mean, you know, we had folks on who didn't seem, you know, religiously intolerant. They just opposed the location of this mosque.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN ANALYST: I spoke tonight at Howard University's Rankin Chapel, and we talked about the issue of faith, as relation to the intersection of media, as well. And the point that I told the students at Howard was simple, that as a Christian, I don't want anyone telling me where I cannot build a church. I don't want anyone sitting here, trying to say that, because I am a Christian how I cannot profess my love for Jesus Christ.

And I do believe that we are folks who do -- who refuse to accept the notion that Islam is a major religion. And this whole bigotry towards Islam, painting a brush as if they're all the same, that they all somehow are terrorists, that they're not American. And, as Kathleen Parker said, it's a question of them versus us. That's a part of this, absolutely.

COOPER: But it's not -- I mean, you can't say that everybody who's opposed to the mosque at, you know, the location near Ground Zero does that?

MARTIN: No, no. I am making the point -- first of all, those (ph) who oppose it are atheists or agnostic who oppose it, as well.

I am making the point that this is one of those tough times where we have to ask ourselves how much do we really love and cherish our own U.S. Constitution? And we cannot sit here and call ourselves a nation that supports our troops fighting for freedom across the country when we want to ignore this very freedom here. This is a tough choice when you -- when you are an American.

COOPER: Cliff, you're a former staffer at the Republican National Committee. Rauf -- Imam Rauf says basically this is a victim of politics. A lot of Republicans have been opposed to this. Are they using this?

CLIFF MAY, PRESIDENT, FOUNDATION FOR DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: No. And I think that's very unfair to say, and I think it's very unfair to demonize the 70 percent of Americans who have serious questions about this. I've been called a hater, an Islamophobe and a bigot because I raised questions.

Look, there are politicians on all sides of this. I don't agree with Mayor Bloomberg, but I don't think he's using it for politics. Governor Paterson tried to find a compromise. I don't think that was political.

So to say, yes, but anybody who disagrees with them or disagrees with me or who thinks that maybe this is an unwise choice, they're bigots, they're Islamophobes and, yes, they have ulterior motives.

Nobody is questioning the right -- of most of the 70 percent, if you look at the polls, are not questioning the right to put a mosque or a church anywhere. They're questioning whether this is a good idea to put this $100 million structure -- and it was originally -- originally it was called an Islamic facility. Tonight the imam called it an interfaith center, I believe.

If it's an interfaith center, let's do this. Let's ask him to do this. It's 15 floors. Let's put a church on a high floor. After all, Christians were the ones who founded this great nation. Then maybe a synagogue. Jews were, as was noted before by the governor, among the first to find religious freedom here. And then a mosque, as well, on a lower floor. If we did that, I think you could say it really is an interfaith center, and I think minds would change.

Also if you moved it to another location, because this is a sensitive location, an open wound, I think minds would change, as well. But I really resent the demonization of those who oppose this.

MARTIN: Anderson, but you just heard Cliff do exactly what I'm talking about. Who are you to tell another religion how they should build something? As a member of Salem Baptist Church in Chicago and the Church Without Walls in Houston, I don't want some other faith telling my pastor or the members what we should build.

MAY: Roland.

MARTIN: No, no, no. But you -- wait, wait, wait, Cliff. Then...

MAY: It's unfair, Roland.

MARTIN: Then you further insulted another religion by saying, "Well, because since we founded the country, put us on the top floor, and as Muslims, you can be on the lower floor." Who are you to tell them what to do with their center?

MAY: You know what? It's interesting. You think that it's -- the First Amendment is important, but for me to make a suggestion, you object to my First Amendment right.

MARTIN: No, no, I object...

MAY: I'm making a suggestion. All I'm saying is, if the imam wants to make the statement that that we really mean this as an interfaith center, not strictly a Muslim facility that may allow some others in, then there are ways to do it to make that convincing.

GERGEN: If I could change the subject briefly, the role of media in this, Anderson, because I do think that's important to you. The media can play a constructive role. But if you were to have the imam back with the families and have a real conversation, I thought tonight was constructive.

On the other hand, if we give a lot of attention to these Koran burnings on Saturday, we make a great big deal out of it, this -- this fringe element guy with 50 people, I think that's a mistake. I think we should not do that.

COOPER: David Gergen, Cliff May, good to have you on. Roland Martin, as well. Take a quick break. More ahead. We'll be right back.


COOPER: Been quite a night. We're following some other stories. Isha Sesay joins us with the "360 News & Business Bulletin" -- Isha. ISHA SESAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there, Anderson.

President Obama has released a new plan to jump-start the economy. Speaking today in Ohio, he announced a $350 billion package that includes tax cuts for businesses and spending on infrastructure. He repeated his intention to let the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year for wealthy Americans, while extending them for the middle class.

Incredible scene in Dallas tonight. At least four tornadoes touched down in and around the city, all remnants of Tropical Depression Hermine. Damage was thankfully minimal, and no major injuries were reported, but the tornadoes forced Dallas' airport to shut down for a while.

And in Las Vegas, a lion at the MGM Grand attacked a trainer in front of a crowd. Look at these pictures. According to a statement by MGM, the trainer was taken to a hospital, treated and has been released.

COOPER: Yikes.

SESAY: Absolutely scary stuff.


SESAY: But Anderson, I'm not just here to bring you a headline. Here's a little bit of life wisdom for you, because that's what I'm here for. If you find yourself in a cage with a lion, chest out time. Because apparently, the lion sensed some kind of fear from the trainer, and that...

COOPER: Chest out?

SESAY: Chest out. Man up. That kind of thing.

I'll see you tomorrow.

COOPER: I appreciate that you just told me to man up.

SESAY: I'm here to keep you on track.

COOPER: Thank you, Isha.

A lot more ahead at the top of the hour, starting with the imam on the so-called Ground Zero mosque. We'll hear it in his own words, ahead.