News / Middle East

Muslims Wearied, Offended, by Islamic Center Controversy



The opposition to a proposed Islamic Center near the site of the 2001 terror attacks in New York has offended many Muslims both in America and abroad.  Some people are truly tired of having Islam equated with terrorism.

Nine years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, and a massive effort by clergy and secular groups to promote interfaith dialogue, some observers find the demonization of Islam has not diminished.

Said Sadek is a professor of politics at the American University in Cairo.  He says he is shocked by what he sees as the racism unleashed by discussion over the Islamic Center.

"As if 9/11 was committed by Islam in the name of Islam by the representatives of Islam: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahari," he said. "Ayman al Zawahari, Osama bin Laden and al Qaida are not Islam.  You cannot blame 1.5 billion Muslims and try to insult them by refusing an Islamic cultural center nearby, saying that 'we cannot tolerate seeing that.'"

Some in the Egyptian capital are more sanguine about the issue, resigned to what they see as the ignorance of others.  Hossam, a 29 year old telecommunications worker, points out that certain stereotypes about Muslims actually cross religious boundaries, to include conservative Christians and Jews.

"When you see a man with a big beard, people are saying, 'he's a terrorist.' On the other hand, this girl with the hijab [headcovering], she could be a nun. This guy with a big beard, he also could be a priest.  It's just people are jumping to conclusions because they have this prefixed picture of Muslims and how they look like.   Maybe that's because Osama bin Laden has a big beard and so they tend to see all people with big beards [that way].  I'm Egyptian and I don't have that beard.  I'm okay," he said.  

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is leading the project to build the Islamic center, and whose beard, incidentally, is neatly trimmed, is one of those who has spent years promoting interfaith understanding.  He is currently in the Middle East, carrying the message of moderation at the behest of the U.S. government.  

During a speech in Bahrain this week, Rauf once again tried to drive home the point that Islam is a religion of peace.

"This principle which defined terrorism is strictly forbidden in Islam,"  he said. "It falls under the category of what Muslim jurists have called "Herabah" because "Herabah" destroys the structures, the binding structures of human society.   Our faith is a religion not only of spirituality, of ethics and of morality, but also a religion of law and the rule of law."

Rauf was tapped as a moderate face of Islam by the previous U.S. administration of George W. Bush.   Professor Sadek notes that President Barack Obama has himself reached out to Muslims, most famously in a speech in Cairo last year.  But Sadek says he should have spent more time dealing with the image of Muslims in America.

"Summarizing the whole controversy into whether this Imam is moderate or not moderate is again escaping from the real issue," he said. "The real issue is do we accept Islam as part of American culture or not?"

Back on the streets of Cairo, restaurant worker Mohammad is one of many who hopes, eventually, there will be room for more understanding.

Mohammad says the Islamic center is a beautiful thing.  It's for everybody, he says.   He notes that everyone has a religion dear to them.  He says Muslims are proud of their faith and he hopes it spreads throughout the world.

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