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Mosque debate: Behind America's anxiety over Islam

Controversy over the New York and other mosques underlines the struggle to balance values of religious tolerance with fears, real and imagined, in an age of terrorism.

By correspondent / September 3, 2010

New York firefighters were among those who came out in late August to protest the building of a Muslim center near ground zero. Hundreds rallied on both sides of the issue.

Photos by Ann Hermes / Staff

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New York

As the maelstrom over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero rages a short distance away, Shahid Farooqi, a devout Pakistani immigrant, is handing out book bags and school supplies to hundreds of needy children and their parents for the start of the school year. It's Ramadan, the most holy month on the Islamic calendar, and Mr. Farooqi is volunteering his time with the Islamic Circle of North America, a grass-roots organization devoted to establishing a place for Muslims in America.

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The charitable giveaway is the religious group's first event here at an undeveloped lot in Midwood, a neighborhood in Brooklyn often referred to as "Little Pakistan," where it plans to build a youth center. Farooqi and others are dressed in classic American volunteer attire – yellow T-shirts emblazoned with a logo – but the men also wear topi skullcaps and the women observe hijab, covering their hair and necks with scarves. The volunteers are well aware that a 15-minute subway ride away, hundreds of protesters, many carrying US flags, are marching through the streets of Manhattan near the site of a much larger proposed community center, chanting, "No mosque here! No mosque here!"

"When you have certain beliefs, of course not everyone is going to be happy with you," says Farooqi, a history teacher who lives in Queens with his wife and four children. "But regardless of people finding and putting labels on us, still, we have to do good work, and we have to face those challenges ... and we believe that once we continue doing this, we're going to make our home here, in this society...."

In many ways, Farooqi's experience of making a home in New York represents a profound trajectory in American religious history: New groups have immigrated to the US over the centuries, bringing unfamiliar religious practices, and a host of new religious ideas has sprung up from within the fertile soil that freedom brings. And these have always sparked unease and even public resistance from those who hold more established ways of understanding God.

Today, however, the vortex of discord sweeping over the country has exposed a deep-seated mistrust, if not outright phobia, of Muslims trying to establish a place in America. While this may be a predictable historical pattern as Islam becomes more visible in American communities, it has also laid bare a country struggling to balance its deeply held values of religious freedom and tolerance with its fears, real and imagined, in an era of terrorism.

Trauma and anger still linger over the World Trade Center's unprecedented destruction.