The vilified cleric behind the Manhattan plan

The Imam

He is a 62-year-old imam who follows Sufism, runs a charity dedicated to "improving Muslim-West relations" and wants to build an Islamic community centre based on a Jewish version of a YMCA he once visited.

But in the eyes of those American politicians who have jumped on to the "Ground Zero mosque" bandwagon, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is a dangerous extremist who is determined to build a victory monument to terrorism.

Yesterday the imam was 6,000 miles away from his home in New York delivering Friday prayers in Bahrain as part of a US government-sponsored tour of the Middle East.

He has been careful to avoid any mention of the Ground Zero mosque but he was willing to talk about the dangers posed to the world by Islamic extremism.

"This issue of extremism is something that has been a national security issue – not only for the United States but also for many countries and nations in the Muslim world," he said. "This is why this particular trip has a great importance because all countries in the Muslim world – as well as the Western world – are facing this ... major security challenge."

Mr Feisal moved to the US as a teenager with his father from Egypt. Until last year he was the Friday prayer leader at the Masjid al Farah, which follows the Sufi tradition, the mystical branch of Islam that emphasises love and tolerance.

In Islamic circles he is regarded as an integrated moderate who has dedicated his life to improving relations between Muslims and the West. William Dalrymple recently described him as a "New Agey Muslim Deepak Chopra".

"In the eyes of Bin Laden and the Taliban," he wrote, "[Imam Feisal] is an infidel-loving, grave-worshipping apostate; they no doubt regard him as a legitimate target for assassination."

All of this, however, is lost on opponents of the Ground Zero mosque who have vilified him in right-wing blogs and Islamophobic rants whilst paying little attention to the scholar's Islamic pedigree or ideology.

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