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.
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"Throughout our American history there's been a series of moments when the sense of some kind of established status quo felt [it was] being invaded," says William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "It was true in the late 19th century when the perceived Protestant status quo saw immigrants coming from Roman Catholic countries and upsetting the balance of the culture. The Catholic invasion from Ireland, Italy, and other central European countries was somehow going to alter the Protestant identity of the nation. That was the fear."Skip to next paragraph
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The US today again stands on the verge of profound demographic changes. Protestants now make up barely 51 percent of Americans, according to Pew, and the internal diversity and fragmentation of this group almost makes the term meaningless. At the same time, as Latin and Asian populations expand their presence, making non-Protestant and non-Western religious practices even more visible, cultural unease, too, is only expected to increase.
"We've all seen an increase in anxiety in general – with the economic downturn as well as the terrorism threat," says Professor Hicks, who studies the intersection of religion and economics. "So you see people who are more stressed out because of their financial situation, more people with family stresses and cultural anxieties towards anyone who looks different or who appears to be threatening."
Politically, a new rallying cry against sharia, or Islamic law, has begun to galvanize opposition to the presence of any new mosque around the country, if not Muslims themselves.
Former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who last month compared the effort to build the Islamic center to Nazis posting signs next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., has been outspoken in denouncing "creeping sharia" in the US. He has argued that "radical Islamists" are attempting to use American values of tolerance and freedom of religion to implement sharia law by stealth, which for him includes the practices of honor killings, physical mutilations, and spousal rape.
And though sharia law has a multitude of interpretations within a wide spectrum of Muslim traditions – like any other widespread global faith – a growing number of Americans are identifying the word with the chilling practices of the Taliban, and as representative of all of Islam. One of the most common signs held up by protesters at ground zero has been a one-word sharia in bloodlike letters.
The lack of an informed distinction between the sharia law of radical groups like the Taliban and the religious practices of the vast majority of the world's 1.57 billion Muslims, say observers, only leads to further unease in today's volatile times. "We see a public that is still ignorant of the tenets of the Islamic faith, as practiced by the majority of Muslims," says Robin Lauermann, professor of politics at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. "It is reinforced by sound bites and stereotypes rather than meaningful education about the faith."
For Farooqi, whose faith does not permit him to shake hands with an unmarried woman, sharia law is more about the five pillars of Islam, which includes almsgiving and helping the poor. "I am a follower of Muhammad, the messenger, peace be upon him. So for me, I want to follow his footsteps, I want to help the poor, because he helped," he says. "This is the basic duty of any human...."