DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The imam spearheading a proposed Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York believes the fierce opposition is closely linked to the U.S. elections in November, according to comments published Monday.
"There is no doubt that the election season has had a major impact upon the nature of the discourse," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was quoted by the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National in an interview as part of his State Department-funded trip in the Gulf.
Rauf did not cite any particular political race possibly tied to the protests, but many political figures have aligned themselves with the opposition to the $100 million project that includes a mosque and Islamic cultural center.
Some Republicans running for midterm elections around the United States have used the project as a campaign issue after Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin announced their opposition. Kevin Calvey, a Republican running for Congress in Oklahoma, said the Muslim leaders associated with the mosque "are clearly terrorist sympathizers."
Democrats are also feeling the pressure to respond to the debate.
The highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is facing a tough re-election in Nevada, has said the mosque should be built farther away from Ground Zero.
President Barack Obama has said Muslims had the right to practice their religion and build the Islamic center in lower Manhattan. Obama later said he wasn't endorsing the specifics of the plan.
Rauf compared the current struggles facing American Muslims to past religious-based prejudices and attacks against other groups, including Jews and Roman Catholic immigrants.
"And this is why it is important, the issue of radicalism is a threat to all of us," he was quoted as saying. "We have radicals in the Muslim world and we have radicals in the other faith traditions as well."
He said extremists from all faiths "feed off each other and need each other to sustain themselves."
"So we need right now to combat the radical voices. That's the only way we can win this struggle, and establish a peaceful world order, which is what everybody wants and everybody needs," he told the newspaper.
Rauf has made only selected public comments since beginning a three-nation tour earlier this month -- concentrating almost exclusively on his views about moderate Islamic values and interfaith dialogue. He has so far avoided any extensive statements addressing the opposition to the project or recent anti-Muslim violence, including the slashing of a New York taxi driver last week.
The imam said Muslims in the United States are part of an "evolving American Islamic identity."
"But as time goes on and as the second generation establishes itself and is rooted in the United States they articulate an expression of who we are as Americans and to be seen decreasingly as alien and being local ... In perceptions between the Muslim world or the Arab Muslim world and the United States in particular, it is an ongoing picture, it is dynamic," he said.