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Islam: Not in My Backyard?

The proposed mosque near Ground Zero is grabbing the headlines, but it's not the only one that's causing a stir. What does this say about freedom of religion and America's relationship with Islam?

By Laurie Goodstein

Over the summer, a high-profile battle erupted over plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque in New York two blocks from Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center stood until it came crashing down in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

What would otherwise have been a local issue—after all, two other smaller mosques have existed nearby for decades without any controversy—has morphed into a highly politicized national debate about the particular sensitivities required when dealing with the site of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

But it's not the only mosque meeting resistance: There have also been protests against mosques in Tennessee, California, and Wisconsin.

At one time, neighbors who did not want mosques in their backyards said their concerns were over traffic, parking, and noise—the same reasons they might object to a church, a synagogue, or a Walmart. But now the gloves are off.

In the recent conflicts, it seems that for many people, the problem is Islam itself, with some opponents quoting passages from the Koran and arguing that even the most Americanized Muslims secretly want to replace the Constitution with Shariah, or Islamic law.

These skirmishes have helped fuel a growing debate: While many Americans continue to believe that the best way to uphold America's democratic values is to allow Muslims the same religious freedom as everyone else, others say it's time to pull away the welcome mat from a faith they see as a particular threat.

It's possible that any anti-Muslim feeling is similar to the resistance, sometimes violent, Americans have displayed when other "new" religious groups started arriving in large numbers in the 19th and early-20th centuries—Catholics, Jews, and Mormons, for example. Or, do the associations many Americans make between Islam and terrorism—justified or not—mean that something different is going on?

"There is a very deep problem among a significant minority of Americans when it comes to their attitudes toward Muslims and Islam," says John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Protests against mosques, he predicts, are "something we're going to see more and more of."

At the same time, there are plenty of places in the U.S. where mosques coexist with the community without major conflicts.

"We are, of course, concerned about those pockets of protests, but it doesn't represent the overwhelming numbers of mosques that are coexisting with their neighbors happily," says Rizwan Jacka, a leader of the ADAMS Center, an Islamic center in northern Virginia that now serves more than 5,000 Muslim families.

Who Are America's Muslims?

Jacka says ADAMS (which stands for All Dulles Area Muslim Society) has excellent relations with the community; it even shares a facility with a local synagogue. In Dearborn, Michigan, the Islamic Center of America, one of the country's largest mosques, has maintained good relations with nearby churches and the community since the group's founding in the 1950s. And in many places, Muslims are well integrated into the fabric of American life. Teaneck, New Jersey, for example, has a population that is 30 percent Jewish and a practicing Muslim for its mayor.

Largely because of an influx of Muslim immigrants in the past few decades, Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the U.S. Since the Census doesn't track religious affiliations, the number of American Muslims is hard to pin down; estimates range from 1.5 million to 9 million.

Whatever its size, the Muslim community in the U.S. is very diverse (see pie chart, above right). According to a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center, Middle Easterners are the largest group, followed by African Americans (starting in the 1960s, a significant number of blacks in the U.S. converted to Islam), and South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, etc.). Thirty-five percent of American Muslims were born in the U.S.; the other 65 percent come from more than 60 different countries.

Muslims live all over the U.S., but the states with the largest Muslim populations are California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, Virginia, Texas, Ohio, and Maryland.

As a group, American Muslims have a higher median income than Americans as a whole, and they vote in higher numbers. In addition, they are increasingly contributing to American culture, forming Muslim comedy groups, rap groups, scout troops, and magazines.

As they become more established in the U.S., they are increasingly looking to build mosques. And that is leading to conflicts.

The controversy that has made national headlines is the mosque planned for a site, formerly occupied by a Burlington Coat Factory, two blocks north of Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. The 15-story tower, which will not be visible from Ground Zero, will house a community center with a pool, a 500-seat auditorium, and a mosque. The city gave the go-ahead in August.

Religious Freedom

President Obama, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who represents the neighborhood, all support the project.

"This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable," President Obama said. "The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are."

Many Americans seem to be drawing an interesting distinction: A poll by CBS News found that 67 percent of Americans believe Muslims have the right to build a mosque near the site of Ground Zero, but 71 percent say it is inappropriate to do so.

While an array of religious groups support the project, opponents include some families of 9/11 victims, some Democrats like Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, and prominent Republicans like 2008 Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Less well-known is the controversy in Temecula, California, about 60 miles north of San Diego. A Muslim community has been there for about 12 years and expanded to 150 families who have outgrown their makeshift worship space in a warehouse, says Mahmoud Harmoush, the imam and a lecturer at California State University, San Bernardino. The group wants to build a 25,000-square-foot center, with space for classrooms and a playground, on a lot it bought in 2000.

Recently, a small group of people from the area became alarmed about the mosque. Diana Serafin was among an estimated 25 people who turned out to protest. She worries that the U.S. will be overtaken by Islam in the next few decades and that American Muslims will implement Islamic law here in the U.S.

"I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion," she says. "But Islam is not about a religion. It's a political government, and it's 100 percent against our Constitution."

However, the protesters were outnumbered by at least 75 supporters, including Larry Slusser, a Mormon and the secretary of the local interfaith council. "I know them," he says. "They're good people. They have no ill intent. They're good Americans. They are leaders in their professions."

Religious freedom is also at stake, Slusser says, adding, "They're Americans; they deserve to have a place to worship just like everybody else."

There are about 1,900 mosques in the U.S., which run the gamut from makeshift prayer rooms in storefronts and houses to large buildings with adjoining community centers.

'Homegrown Terrorists'

A two-year study by a group of academics on American Muslims and terrorism concluded that contemporary mosques are actually a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism.

Radicalization of alienated Muslim youths —"homegrown terrorists," as they've become known—is a real threat, says Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. "But the youth we worry about," he says, "are not the youth that come to the mosque."

In central Tennessee, the mosque in Murfreesboro is the third one in the past year to encounter resistance. It became a political issue when Republican candidates for governor and Congress declared their opposition. Authorities are investigating a suspicious fire at the site as a possible hate crime.

"A mosque is not just a place for worship," says Nonie Darwish, president of a group called Former Muslims United. "It's a place where war is started, where commandments to do jihad start, where incitements against non-Muslims occur. It's a place where ammunition was stored."

Camie Ayash, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, laments that people are listening to what she calls "total disinformation" on Islam and Islamic law.

"A lot of Muslims came to the U.S. because they respect the Constitution," she says. "There's no conflict with the U.S. Constitution in Shariah law. If there were, Muslims wouldn't be living here."

In Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a conflict over a mosque was settled when the Town Executive Council voted unanimously to give the Islamic Society of Sheboygan a permit to use a former health-food store as a prayer space.

Mansoor Mirza, a doctor who owns the property, is trying to take the long view of the controversy.

"Every new group coming to this country—Jews, Catholics, Irish, Germans, Japanese—has gone through this," Mirza says. "Now I think it's our turn to pay the price, and eventually we will be coming out of this, too."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, September 20, 2010)