Amid threats of Koran burning and a heated dispute over a planned Muslim cultural center in New York, Muslim leaders and rights activists warn of growing anti-Muslim feeling in the US partly provoked for political reasons.
“Many people now treat Muslims as ‘the other’ — as something to vilify and to discriminate against,” Daniel Mach of the American Civil Liberties Union said.
And, he said, some people have exploited that fear in the media, “for political gain or cheap notoriety.”
The imam leading the project to build the cultural center, including a prayer room, near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said there was a rise of what he called “Islamophobia” and the debate had been radicalized by extremists.
“The radicals in the United States and the radicals in the Muslim world feed off each other and to a certain extent, the attention that they’ve been able to get by the media has even aggravated the problem,” Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said in an interview with ABC news aired on Sunday.
Rauf said he wanted to correct a misperception that Muslims in the US were under pressure and could not practice their religion freely.
“It is not the truth at all. The fact is, we are practicing. We fast, we pray, we do our prayers ... The laws protect us, our political systems protect us and we enjoy those freedoms in this country, and the Muslim world needs to recognize that,” he said.
He said the New York cultural center, a few blocks from the World Trade Center site, is meant to build bridges, but critics say it is insensitive to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Global media coverage of the issue reached fever pitch this weekend with an obscure Florida pastor threatening to burn the Koran, Muslims’ holy book, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. He subsequently dropped the threat.
US President Barack Obama on Friday tried to quell signs of anti-Muslim sentiment and appealed for religious tolerance, a founding element of US democracy.
Despite the war in Afghanistan and the campaign against Islamic extremists such as al-Qaeda, Obama stressed the US was not at war with Islam.
“We have to make sure that we don’t start turning on each other and I will do everything that I can as long as I’m president ... to remind the American people that we are one nation, under God, and we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation,” Obama told a press conference.
Some experts say the Democrat can learn from his Republican predecessor, former US president George W. Bush, who they credit with improving US attitudes to Muslims after the 2001 attacks.
Alan Cooperman of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said: “Americans’ opinions of Muslims became more positive after 9/11 than they were before 9/11.”
Pew polls from 2001 found 59 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Muslim Americans two months after the attacks compared with 45 percent in March of that year and that the biggest improvement was among conservative Republicans.
Cooperman credited the increase to Bush’s outreach to show the Muslim community as a religion of peace. On Friday, Obama himself credited Bush.
“One of the things that I most admired about president Bush was, after 9/11, him being crystal clear about the fact that we were not at war with Islam,” Obama said. “We were at war with terrorists and murderers who had perverted Islam, had stolen its banner to carry out their outrageous acts.”