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mam Feisal Abdul Rauf, right, leads the prayers during an Iftar ceremony hosts by Dubia Scholl of Government in Dubai, United Arab Emirates,Tuesday Aug. 31, 2010. AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili

New York imam: Mosque fight about Muslim role

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- The imam leading plans for an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York said the fight is over more than "a piece of real estate" and could shape the future of Muslim relations in America.

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The dispute "has expanded beyond a piece of real estate and expanded to Islam in America and what it means for America," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told a group Tuesday that included professors and policy researchers in Dubai.

Rauf suggested that the fierce challenges to the planned mosque and community center in lower Manhattan could leave many Muslim questioning their place in American political and civic life.

But he avoided questions over whether an alternative site is possible. Instead, he repeatedly stressed the need to embrace the religious and political freedoms in the United States.

"I am happy to be American," Rauf told about 200 people at the Dubai School of Government think tank.

It was his last scheduled public appearance during a 15-day State Department-funded trip to the Gulf that was intended to promote religious tolerance.

The State Department said that Rauf was returning early to the United States on Wednesday.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the imam was departing the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, and will return to New York. Toner said Rauf's early return did not cause the cancellation of any programs on his State Department-funded trip.

He said he became closer to Islam after moving to America, where he had the choice to either follow the faith or drift away.

"Like many of our fellow Muslims, we found our faith in America," he said.

During his Middle East trip, Rauf generally sidestepped questions over the backlash to the Islamic center location about two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center towers.

But in an interview published Monday in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, he linked the protests to the U.S. elections in November. Many conservatives have joined the opposition to the center, which is being spearheaded by a newly formed nonprofit organization that includes real estate developers and has named Rauf as one of the directors.

"It is important to shift the discussion from a discussion of identity politics," he said. "We have to elevate the discourse because there is more that bonds us ... in terms of mutual responsibility."

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