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America's Muslims: Caught In the Middle?

John Voll, Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, says during most of the 20th century, the small population of Muslim Americans were not considered a danger.

"However, once you hit the 1990s, there was a growing sense that Muslim militants and terrorist acts undertaken by Muslims represented a real threat to the United States," says Mr. Voll. "Then the Muslims weren't just different any more. They've become viewed as an anti-American security threat."

Mr. Voll adds Muslim intolerance as manifested by radical groups like the al-Qaida terrorist network haunts moderate Muslims. Many in the United States are responding with activism. Ahmed Younis, Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a group that promotes better understanding of Islam in America, says the American Muslim identity was among the casualties of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which, he says, gave a boost to anti-Muslim voices in the United States.

"There is a whole market of people that are manipulating the genuine fears of the American public. Their goal is very simple -- to make sure that Islam and Muslims are not a part of mainstream American society because they see that as a threat to their existence."

Many scholars say there's a growing anti-Muslim bias, or Islamophobia, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Last December, U.N. secretary General Kofi Annan said Islam is often distorted and he called for efforts to end negative stereotypes of Muslims. Some Muslim leaders say Islamophobia resembles anti-Semitism. But Paul Rosenzweig, a terrorism specialist with the Heritage Foundation research group says, that comparison is overblown. He says fear of Islam is an unfortunate direct result of recent events on the ground.

"It is a consequence of the fact that there has been in the last 10 years, with the peak of September 11, a wave of Islamic terrorism. That is what is happening in the world today. That is the cause of the anti-Islam feeling that is somewhat generated. That is not the product of people blaming Islam for their social problems as it is with anti-Semitism or anti-black sentiment."

Mr. Rosenzweig says that moderate Muslims, especially in the United States, could be doing more to promote their image. "In some sense, Islam has been hijacked," he says. "To be fair though, that is, in part, because moderate Islamists have allowed it to be hijacked. They don't speak out often enough or clearly enough in opposition to the radicals."

But Ahmed Younis of the Muslim Public Affairs Council disagrees. "The reality of the matter it is very well documented that after September 11th and all extremists acts," he says. "The American Muslim community has been extremely vocal in its condemnation of terrorism and extremism as an element of Islam. So there is a distinction between 'they are not condemning' and 'they are not being heard condemning.' "

Mr. Younis, a frequent guest on major television news programs in the United States, adds he is getting more chances to speak to the media than the average Muslim leader. He disagrees with the argument made by some Muslims that there is global effort to stifle their voices.

"The proposition that there is a media conspiracy to exclude Muslims is an absolute fallacy. This does not mean we have full access -- we don't have full access. But it has very little to do with conspiracy theories that we have taken as part of our identity. Some of it has to do with the fact that we did not have the most eloquent spokespeople in our community in the past 10 years," says Mr. Younis.

Professor John Voll of Georgetown University says American Muslims need more unity among their ranks of African Americans, south Asian immigrants and Middle Eastern immigrants. He compares the challenges American Muslims face to those confronted by American Catholics a half century ago.

"Catholics were able to liberate themselves from the impression that they were primarily interested in Roman politics. One of the differences between the Catholic American community and the Muslim American community is that Catholics have hierarchy while Muslims have hundreds of different organizations with little effective coordination."

Professor Voll notes that some groups are making headway in represented American Muslims effectively. But he adds they have their work cut out for them, citing a recent Cornell University survey in which a quarter of Americans say all Mosques and Muslim civic organizations in the United States should be monitored by law enforcement agencies.