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 Goodstein, Laurie | New York Times Upfront, September 20, 2010 | Go to article overview

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?


Goodstein, Laurie, New York Times Upfront


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. …

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