DUBAI, Aug. 31, 2010— -- The Muslim cleric behind a proposed Islamic center near the site of the 9/11 terror attacks is cutting short his Middle East tour in order to return to America and face the firestorm at home.
When asked whether he would revise the plans or location of the center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said that his strategy for dealing with the controversy "is still baking in the kitchen."
A State Department official in Washington confirmed that Rauf would leave from Dubai, where he gave a lecture and led prayers at a Ramadan evening meal at the Dubai School of Government, a Harvard University affiliate.
"At his request, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf will depart the United Arab Emirates on September 1, having successfully completed programming in the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar. He will return to New York and his work there," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Rauf is the driving force behind plans to build an Islamic cultural center, officially known as Park51, two blocks from where the World Trade Center was destroyed by Muslim extremists, killing nearly 3,000 people.
Plans for the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, approved by the city of New York, have stirred opposition from critics who claim that it is insensitive to build an Islamic center so close to what many consider hallowed ground. Opponents have ranged from the Anti-Defamation League to conservative politicians like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. New York Gov. David Paterson was rebuffed when he offered to help Rauf find another site.
Opposition to the project appears to be growing. A poll released today by Quinnipiac University found that 71 percent of New Yorkers want it moved and want state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to investigate funding for its construction.
Rauf has said he would speak publicly about Park51 upon his return to the U.S.
"I'm proud to be American...America is where I found my faith," he told ABC News today.
The imam said the battle over the project "has expanded beyond a piece of real estate and expanded to Islam in America and what it means for America."
In previous comments, Rauf suggested that conservative politicians were using the issue to stoke support in the months before the November elections.
Ground Zero Mosque Developer Wants Less Emotional Appeal
Rauf also made a call to resist emotional and extremist appeals.
"We must shift the discourse away from identity politics - I'm a Muslim, I'm not a Muslim, I'm Sunni, I'm Shiite," he said, comparing it to a brawl among soccer hooligans.
"It's important to go beyond emotion," Rauf said.
Rauf was critical of the what he described as the identity politics in how Islam is practiced today.
"We have made Islam a God, we worship Islam instead of God. We're so passionate about our identity that we forget the essence, which is the relationship with God," he said.
He asked for a less emotional approach among Americans as well.
"The reason America is successful is because of its diversity, because of its immigrants...multi-culturalism is a fundamental," he said. "The real battle is against radicalism in all its guises."
But even at least one Muslim in Dubai wondered whether Rauf had selected the right site for his cultural center.
Mishaal Al Gergawi, a prominent local writer and analyst, said, "Maybe it's just creating another battle. Maybe it's too early. Maybe it should come in five years. I'm really on the fence."
ABC News' Kirit Radia contributed to this report