Several proposed Islamic centers, including one near Ground Zero, have touched off a heated nationwide debate that raises questions about the state of religious tolerance in post-9/11 America.
A planned mosque and Islamic center, just a stone’s throw away from the World Trade Center site, even prompted Sarah Palin to send a series of Twitter posts Sunday asking peace-seeking Muslims to "pls reject it in the interest of healing."
The possibility of an Islamic center in California compelled a Baptist minister, whose church would sit next door to the mosque, to compare the plan to putting cats and dogs in the same cage. In Murfreesboro, Tenn., a proposed mosque led to heated outbursts at public hearings, including threats to boycott any builder who works on it.
Opposition over mosque building appears to be at a new high and follows a recent string of thwarted terror plots involving American Muslims, say experts. Muslim leaders say the protests are built on bigotry and ignorance, while opponents say they have legitimate concerns over Islamic militancy.
“Anytime a Muslim raises his head in society, a cottage industry of Muslim-bashers comes against them,” says Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. “These debates seem to have liberated the inner bigot in a number of people.”
Protests about the building of mosques is relatively new, says Joe Feagin, a professor on racial and ethnic relations at Texas A&M University in College Station.
“I don’t remember seeing any discussions of protests and attacks on mosques until 9/11,” he says. But, since then, he says much of the discussion of Middle Eastern people is negative. “We’re talking extreme stereotypes circulated by the right wing talk shows,” he says.
Longtime observers of Muslim communities in America say opposition to mosques used to be relatively minor and would typically be more about zoning issues than politics. Now groups are protesting against mosques because of opposition to Islam, says Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky.
“The level of anger is at new heights,” says Mr. Bagby. “Groups are feeding that anger based on ignorance.”
Some of the opposition is a reaction to the recent string of Muslim Americans arrested on terror charges, he says. However, Bagby adds, the American mosque is not an incubator of militancy but a bulwark against radicalization.
Opponents to the proposed mosques have reasons for their stances that range from concerns over parking to anti-Muslim views. Some complain that the Islamic centers or Mosques may become a place for jihadists to gather. On one YouTube video that has been viewed by 2.2 million people, David Wood, a student at Fordham University, shows a photo-shopped image of downtown Manhattan filled with mosques and minarets that he says indicated the terrorists had cleared downtown for the construction of new mosques.
The most public and heated discussion is over plans to build an Islamic center, Cordoba House, about two blocks from Ground Zero. The pros and cons have been discussed on television around the world. It’s become part of the gubernatorial race in New York. And, websites, such as You Tube, are filled with rhetoric about the proposal. At a recent public hearing, some relatives of 9/11 victims said it would be a “slap in the face.”
However, Father Patrick Ryan, a professor of religion and society at Fordham University, says there were 40 to 50 Muslims who lost their lives at the World Trade Center. “Why shouldn’t they have a Mosque there?” he asks.
It’s also resulted in lots of hyperbole: Mr. Wood’s video was dissected by Loonwatch.com, which pointed out that the photo of downtown Manhattan actually came from a comedy website with no religious affiliation.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended the right for the Muslims to build the center, which the local imam describes as being similar to Jewish centers or YMCAs. Bloomberg says political attempts to stop the construction would be “un-American.”
The mosque proposal appears to be set for approval, barring a red light from the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission.
The mosque debate is going on in Temecula, Calif., where a local Muslim community has purchased property to build a new facility for their growing membership.
“We have applied for a building permit, we’ve been working with the city and planning commission for the last three years on the design to minimize noise and traffic, and now that it’s in the public hearings, all of a sudden people come in to say something so negative,” says the Imam Mahmoud Harmoush.
Bill Rench, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, which sits next to the proposed mosque site, has come out against its construction.
Mr. Rench says that as an “independent Baptist” he would fight for freedom of religion in America. But, he adds, “We don’t want to do anything that encourages Islam.”
He worries about the prospect of loud speakers at the Mosque when people are called to prayer. And, he points to places such as Dearborn, Mich., which he says is now “under the power and influence of Islamic immigrants.”
Imam Harmoush doesn't understand the opposition. His mosque has been a peaceful part of the community for the past 10 years, he says. For the past five years he has been part of a local interfaith council, trying to serve the broader community with food banks and food pantries. “We are just raising our families and living like any other citizens,” he says. “In all areas of the community we are just trying to live side-by-side."
While the debate rages, the imam says the mosques’ voice mail is filling up with so many threatening hate messages he is thinking of calling the FBI. He is especially concerned that he has been told protestors with threatening dogs and loud noise will disrupt his prayer service at the end of the month.
“I would like to have meeting with the pastor,” he says. “I want to know where you came up with this religious hatred, what happened to ‘love your neighbor.' "