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Ground Zero Muslim Center Produces Strong Feelings

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A proposal to build a Muslim community center near the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks tested the limits of American religious tolerance this year.  Although the controversy has ebbed, it shows that the wounds of the terrorist attacks are still raw for many Americans.

It is Sunday Mass at St. Alban's.  Worshippers pray in the small parish church that lies in the shadows of Washington's National Cathedral.

Like religious Christians all over America, St. Alban's parishioners take their faith seriously.  But they are also curious about other creeds.

So after Mass, the pastor introduces a special speaker, saying, "I would like to introduce Dr. Ahmed."

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is a professor of Islamic studies at American University who recently wrote a a book about his travels around America meeting Muslims who live here.

He said the September 11 attacks put many of the country's estimated seven-million Muslims on the defensive.  And, he said, that includes those who came to live here from abroad because of America's tradition of religious freedom. "And yet, immigrant family after immigrant family told us on this journey that America is the best place to be a Muslim, the best place in the world," he said.

Ahmed's trip predated the controversy over a proposal by New York imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to build a community center two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood.

In an interview at his office, Ahmed says that controversy taught him a couple things about Islam in America.  One is that the wounds of the September 11 attacks are still raw for many Americans. "It also taught me that Muslim leaders are capable now in America of taking an action - not having thought through the consequences - and by that action creating so much controversy that it drags in the rest of the Muslim community, and the rest of America," he said.

Ahmed personally feels Rauf's center - which will include a Muslim prayer hall - should be located elsewhere.  But he praises Christians, Jews and others who stood up for the rights of Muslims to build mosques in their neighborhoods. "So from this crisis we do see some hopeful signs from people conscious that it is not just an issue of Islam that is being debated, but it is an issue of American identity.  What does it mean to be American," he said.

After listening to Ahmed's talk, St. Alban's parishioner Wayne Williams says he bears no ill feeling against Muslims. "The events of 9/11 did not change my view of Islam.  I view Muslims as peaceful people, just like Christians," he said.

But this is a church with a largely liberal congregation.  A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 45 percent of people in this country think Islam is at odds with American values.

In the midst of the controversy over the proposed Muslim center in New York, the pastor of a tiny church in Florida made worldwide headlines by threatening to burn a Quran in public.

That worried Reverend Jim Wallis, who has served on President Barack Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Wallis and some other Evangelical clerics got together to stop the Quran burning.  He recalls what they told the Florida pastor so he would consider the ramifications for Christian clergy elsewhere. "Pastor will you sit with me, and talk with the widow of a pastor who was killed because of what you are about to do?"

Wallis accuses right-wing media of whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment, and also of sowing doubts about President Barack Obama's faith as a Christian.  A survey released last summer found that 18 percent of Americans mistakenly believe Mr. Obama is a Muslim. "The conflict media is wrong, what they say is not true," he said.

Wallis says that Christians, Muslims and Jews are learning to get along in America.

The truth of that may depend on whether there is another crisis about  Islam's place in America, and perhaps more importantly - how it is handled.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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