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Originally published May 4, 2011 at 9:49 PM | Page modified May 5, 2011 at 6:33 AM

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'Ground Zero' imam to speak in Seattle this weekend

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, leader of a project to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero, is delivering the keynote address at a conference on "Confronting Islamophobia" on Friday and Saturday at St. Mark's Cathedral.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Conference this weekend at St. Mark's

"I Am My Brother's Keeper: Confronting Islamophobia"

When: 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday (lunch, dinner included), St. Mark's Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave. E., Seattle. $10 for Friday only; $45 for Saturday only; $55 for Friday and Saturday. On Saturday, students may attend for $15

Information: www.confrontingislamophobia.org.

Tickets: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/158529

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Even as the U.S. caught and killed Osama bin Laden this week, some American Muslims expressed fear that it could trigger a backlash against Muslims here.

In a few places, their concerns have been borne out — in Maine, where a mosque was vandalized, and in Oregon, where frightening comments prompted a Muslim group to cancel an event. Some Muslim and other faith leaders are asking Everett Community College to cancel a talk Thursday by a writer whose views they fear could incite violence against Muslims.

Such developments highlight the importance of a conference called "Confronting Islamophobia" Friday and Saturday at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, its organizers say.

Keynote speaker is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who leads the effort to build a 13-story Islamic community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. News of the project — dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque" by some — created an uproar among those who felt it would be disrespectful to build an Islamic center so close to the site of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sponsored by some 40 organizations including Muslim, Christian, Jewish and secular groups, the conference here this weekend is expected to draw about 450 people.

Rauf, 62, who lives in New Jersey, spoke by phone about bin Laden's death, attitudes toward Islam and events in the Middle East. Some of his comments have been edited for length.

Question: What are your thoughts on the death of bin Laden?

Answer: It is a good thing that this has happened. The coincidence in terms of timing between this and what is happening in the Arab world today is a very definite sign that the whole world is tired of terrorism. Terrorism is fundamentally against Islamic law. The Quran says no soul shall be responsible for the sins of another. Terrorists have violated this by targeting innocents.... Al-Qaida has targeted innocent people not only in the West but all over the Muslim world as well.... It's just not the way to go.

Q: What do you think of the current uprisings in the Middle East?

A: I'm very, very hopeful. I've always mentioned the world needs democracy. Democracy means many things, but most of all it means a government that is for the people, not the elite.

Q: What prompted you to accept the invitation to the conference here?

A: (Supporters of the Islamic center project in Manhattan) recommended I should increase my outreach because they felt that if people got to meet me personally, it would help create a much more three-dimensional picture of what we are, what we represent, and give people an opportunity to ask me their questions and come to their own conclusions.

Q: What did you think of the reactions to the project?

A: America was built on the concept of religious freedom. This felt, to me and to many people, like a violation of that.... I could understand part of it (the opposition to the project). But what I also observed is how this was a media-created emotion and the facts were ignored. Facts like I've been part of this Lower Manhattan community in Tribeca for a quarter-century. I've been imam of a mosque there 10 blocks away since 1983. The community knows me.... In December 2009 when the story broke, there was no reaction like this. The reaction only began in May 2010 when the midterm election season began to kick in.

Q: How is the project currently proceeding?

A: The controversy has made planning far more complex and thrown off our timelines. It has also brought a more important question for me and my work.... What happened last year was more important than one piece of real estate. The bigger question is how America will relate to Muslims, both domestically and internationally.

Q: Where is funding for the project coming from?

A: We haven't begun to raise funds yet.... We'd like to target the donations mainly domestically.

Q: News accounts have quoted you as making remarks that have alarmed some people. For instance, in an interview shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, you said: "United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened." And in another interview, you refused to label Hamas a terrorist organization, saying "the issue of terrorism is a very complex question." Do you still feel this way?

A: No. What I said was unkind. And Hamas is, indeed, guilty of terrorist actions. The anger that had been felt in certain parts of the Arab Muslim world primarily had to do with our policies more than anything else. The fact that we are now supportive of democratic regimes and ... true democracy to take place is very important in engendering positive feelings toward America.

Q: You talk of acceptance of other faiths. But do you feel there's a lack of acceptance of you, as a Sufi Muslim, by adherents of other branches of Islam?

A: There has always been a tendency in every religious tradition to identify themselves in a particular way and then reject others. I am as orthodox a Muslim as they come. I believe and I argue and I preach that what people call Sufism is the fundamentals of our faith in the sense that it's about spirituality.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com. Information from Seattle Times reporter Katherine Long and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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