For those who consider Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf the embodiment of evil -- a wily terrorist sympathizer bent on bringing "stealth jihad" to the United States -- the sight of him in a light blue cashmere sweater may feel incongruous. But these days, the imam seems a lot more relaxed than he did this summer, at the height of the furor over Park51. And while the most vitriolic or unfounded accusations have not faded, they pack less of a charge for him now.
After finding themselves on a 24/7 media loop for the better part of the autumn, the imam and his closest allies have recently managed to escape the attention of the press.
But last week, the imam returned to the spotlight with a press release announcing a project known as the Cordoba Movement. The announcement, he said, was directed at supporters of Park 51, "to expand upon the birth of a movement which happened this summer, with the thousands of people who rallied around us from all 50 states of the union and as many countries across the world and all six [sic] continents."
Echoing the thoughts of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others, the imam thinks the furor over Park51 had more to do with pre-election hype that flared before November's midterm elections and a campaign of misinformation by opponents and less to do with genuine grassroots opposition.
The issue, he said, "was not really our location."
"What happened this summer was really the rise of Islamophobia in America," he said. "Because there were three, four, five other centers at the same time -- real mosques that were planned, that were also attacked at the same time."
Still, the imam thinks he could've managed the controversy more skillfully, primarily by engaging with 9/11 families earlier, "and in a much more robust manner."
Now, he claims those discussions are taking place. And he's set to hit the lecture circuit at Harvard, Yale, the University of North Carolina and other institutions. At the same time, his wife, Daisy Khan, has been speaking in public. Last week, she addressed Rabbis for Human Rights about what she sees as a nationwide campaign against Islam.
"We are inviting people who consider themselves to be moderates and progressives," she told the audience, "and they can be people of all beliefs and no beliefs, against the extremists who tend to dominate the discourse."
Organizers are vague about how much money has been raised for Park51. Some claim nothing has been raised, others, like Daisy Khan, simply say it's very early in the fundraising process. But the ultimate goal remains $100 million, of which they hope to have $8 million in hand by June. They say the project's eventual nonprofit status means all financing will be completely transparent.
The plan calls for a 15 or 16 story building, with two separate sections, one with the mosque, the other containing a community center with a swimming pool, wellness center, culinary school and restaurant and a 500 seat auditorium. Park51 supporters say these services are primarily aimed at the lower Manhattan community, rather than Muslims. But there's also talk of partnering with a Muslim domestic violence group and offering programming that draws secular Muslims as well as more devout ones. The mosque and community center would not only have separate entrances, say supporters, but separate sets of board members as well.
While the people behind Park51 have consciously avoided the media these last few months, opponents have been frustrated by the absence of coverage. And have tried to renew interest in the subject.
Today, in a midtown theater, a group of opponents is premiering a 45-minute documentary, "Sacrificed Survivors: The Untold Story of the Ground Zero Mega-Mosque." The movie is being distributed by the Christian Action Network. While many scenes relive the events of September 11, 2001, others depict, over an ominous score, a number of prominent mosques around the world that had been -- according to the producers -- Christian or Jewish houses of worship at an earlier time.
"Islam builds on what it conquers," says one man. "And this has happened for, I guess, hundreds of years."
One of the people promoting the movie is Andy Sullivan, a former professional karate fighter who's worked in the construction business for 30 years. He's even helped build two mosques, he said.
"I got plenty of Muslim friends," he said. "My kids grow up half a block from a mosque in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. That's a very, very huge populace of Muslims, in Bay Ridge. As a matter of fact, they call it Bay-root, now," he said, with a laugh.
But he was outraged at the proposed location for Park51 and said many Muslims he knows are also against the project. In recent months he organized a boycott by construction workers, who said they wouldn't work on the site. He also organized a boycott of celebrities who've endorsed the project, including John Cusack, Mayor Bloomberg, Stephen Colbert and Justin Bieber, who Sullivan claims gave the go-ahead to Park 51 in an interview with Tiger Beat magazine. Sullivan sayid regardless of Bieber's not-so-advanced age, his children will no longer attend Bieber's concerts.
"Are my two kids going to derail the Bieber machine?" asked Sullivan. "I don't think so. But it hurts. He said something that clearly hurt my kids, and hurt me. So, if you're gonna say statements that hurt, be prepared. There's gonna be fallout."
While the people behind Park51 say they've been engaging with 9/11 family members, others dispute that. Rosaleen Tallon is the sister of Sean Patrick Tallon, a firefighter who died on 9/11. She said the vast majority of family members oppose the project.
"Imam Rauf went on CNN and stated that they'd met with family members. And maybe they were a token group of people who supported the mosque. But there was never a major outreach to 9/11 family members. But of course, you wouldn't reach out to a group that you already knew the feelings of."
Although they haven't been out demonstrating, opponents of the project have been seething over news that Park51 has applied for funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which is taxpayer supported.
"So we are supposed to supply the seed money for a Ground Zero mosque?" said Pamela Geller, a leading opponent of the mosque. "You can't make this stuff up."
Geller had planned the first anti-Park51 protest in months, for Tuesday. But, in a shift from earlier protests, which drew thousands of people to Ground Zero, this one was going to be smaller, at a committee hearing on Wal-Mart held by the City Council. Geller said she wants to highlight the hypocrisy, as she sees it, of council members failing to oppose Park 51, but continuing to place roadblocks before Wal-Mart.
"That you would keep [Wal-Mart] out, ban them, and yet, the very idea of a Ground Zero Mega Mosque is extolled, and those who suffer -- not only the 9/11 families, but all Americans who were attacked that day, and all of America was attacked that day -- are derided, and called racist, Islamophobic, anti-Muslim bigots, because of the pain that they're suffering, it's outrageous."
As it turns out, the Wal-Mart hearing was postponed until next month, so the protest will have to wait.
"Whenever it is," she promised, "we'll be there."