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August 31, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque Controversy Puts Many US Muslims on Defensive

The controversy over plans to build an Islamic center near the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City has put many Muslims living in United States on the defensive.  But despite a rash of anti-Muslim rhetoric and possible hate crimes, some Muslims see the mosque debate as an opportunity to reaffirm their place in American society.

A rally organized by a political commentator brought a huge crowd to Washington's National Mall last weekend.

It started with a patriotic oath led by a boy scout. A few hours later, Muslim scouts in the Washington suburb of Sterling, Virginia, held a much smaller gathering in the same patriotic way.  They marked the Muslim holy month of Ramadan by inviting non-Muslims to join them in breaking their fast.

"We do want to show people that we are just normal citizens living our lives, and we happen to be Muslims -- and we are religious Muslims -- but we fit into the fabric of American society just as well as anyone else," said Jasmin Ullah, a youth group leader for the All Dulles Area Muslim Society.

But the plan to build an Islamic center near the site known as Ground Zero has sparked heated debate across the country, and concerns about possible hate crimes toward Muslims.  

Everyday discrimination

Ullah covers her hair in public with a white silk veil.

"It is frightening to think that people who would just normally pass you on the street, maybe even say 'Hello,' now look at you with distrust just because of your religion,"  Ullah said.

It might appear that Muslims in America are having problems integrating into society as in Europe, where tensions have flared over mosque building and Muslim women wearing a veil in public places.

US wars

Solon Simmons is with the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution in Arlington, Virginia.  He links the mosque controversy in the United States to the economic recession, combined with a popular sense that American power has suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan -- both countries with large Muslim populations.

"The role of America is still going to be important in the world, but people feel that there is a big change," Simmons noted.  "And in their own lives, they feel less powerful themselves."

Will controversy fade?

Although those issues might continue to resonate, Simmons says the controversy over building a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center attacks eventually will fade.

"I suspect that we will not even remember it," Simmons.  "My sense is it will come and go.  The facts will become clear; people will realize it is not a big deal and they will move on."

And that might be happening already.

Peace seekers

Glenn Beck is the conservative talk show host who organized the rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.  Although he has been sharply critical of the New York mosque, he did not mention it at the rally.  And those in the crowd who talked to VOA were not critical of Islam.

Janice Lippincot came from New Jersey to attend the rally.

"I believe most Muslims want peace," Lippincot said, "and that is what we all want as citizens of the United States.  But to build something there, in that specific spot, disturbs me."  

Americans see intolerance as alien to their culture.  And civil rights advocates say the debate over building a mosque near Ground Zero might offer Muslim citizens an opportunity to reaffirm their place in American society.