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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As the controversy over the proposed Islamic center rages on, however, some Muslim groups worry about increased discrimination and violence. "The fear is that Muslims cannot take their place in American life without harassment or subjugation or being seen as being involved with some conspiracy theory," says Ahmed Rehab of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Though the council does not have exact figures yet, Mr. Rehab says, anecdotally the number of civil rights complaints filed through the council has risen since the "ground zero mosque" began making headlines.Skip to next paragraph
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Already, the number of Muslim workplace discrimination complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been going up – 53 percent in the past three years. In New York, meanwhile, authorities recently charged Michael Enright with attempted second-degree murder and hate crimes for stabbing a Bangladeshi cabdriver after he learned he was Muslim.
Behind the explosive, unholy mix of religion, politics, and tolerance run deep crosscurrents of American social history. Controversy over religious differences sprung up almost immediately with the first settlers, and the American experience with such conflict has helped shape the deep values of religious freedom and tolerance in this country today.
Even in Colonial times, Rhode Island sprang up as an early "baptist" community after Puritan leaders in Massachusetts banished Roger Williams for his version of the Christian faith. Mormons fled to the West and built a thriving community in Utah after an angry mob in Illinois murdered their leader Joseph Smith. Sporadic acts of vandalism plague synagogues to this day.
"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."