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Image of Muslim Americans Complicated, Uncertain

In the United States, a country founded on religious freedom, Islam thrives. With more than five million members, it is the fastest-growing religion in the country. Its members trace their roots to Asia, the Middle East and Africa, a microcosm of the Islamic world.

But after Islamist terrorists turned planes into weapons four years ago, Muslim Americans have seen their religion severely criticized, with some outspoken critics describing Islam as a terrorist organization. Rabiah Ahmed, a spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says Islamist terrorists are not true Muslims.

"These extremist views -- who are actually acting outside the fold of Islam -- use our religion, manipulate it to promote their political agenda,” she said. “And unfortunately a couple of people who are acting outside the fold of Islam -- like these terrorists -- will get more headline coverage than thousands of Muslims who condemn terrorism."

There is an intellectual and religious struggle within Islam itself, between moderates and radicals who want to impose their extreme religious beliefs. That war of ideas is being waged in many mosques and Islamic centers in the United States

A recent study by the Center for Religious Freedom looked at hundreds of books and pamphlets collected at Mosques and Islamic centers in the U.S. The literature, published by the Saudi government, promotes the extreme form of Wahhabi Islam found in Saudi Arabia.

Nina Shea authored the report. “Well they said, for instance, be disassociated from the infidels; it's your religious obligation to hate the Christian and the Jew; to hate America. Never help the infidel, never help Americans.”

Islamic leaders say this literature is not representative of the views held by most Muslim Americans. Nonetheless, Zahid Bukhari, of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, says the events of the past four years have caused many Muslim Americans do some soul searching.

"They were living here physically. Mentally and spiritually, they use to live back home, back home societies. But now they are trying to live both spiritually and mentally in this land," he said.

Because, as Rabiah Ahmed says, Islam is their religion, but the United States is their home. "This is home and we have to stay and we have to represent our faith properly and accurately and we have to fight for the civil liberties guaranteed to us by the constitution."

They also have to fight the discrimination resulting from acts by extremists. After homegrown Islamist terrorists attacked London in July, Islamic leaders in the United States took the unprecedented step of issuing a religious edict, known as a Fatwa, condemning religious extremism and calling suicide bombers "criminals, not martyrs."

"There is no justification in Islam for extremism or terrorism." said Muzammil Siddiqui, Director of the Fiqh Council of North America, in July.

The edict forbids Muslims from committing terrorism or helping terror groups and says it is a religious duty to cooperate with law enforcement. Rabiah Ahmed says it also served another purpose.

"It also sends a message to people of other faiths who are kind of confused on where Islam stands on the issue of terrorism."

Working at the grassroots level, Muslim Americans are reaching across religious lines to help others better understand their religion. Rabiah Ahmed hopes by changing attitudes and stereotypes, it will become easier for future generations of Muslims in this country to be seen as truly American.