Tolerance toward Islam seems stronger here

Ramadan prayers are said at Philadelphia's Al-Asqa mosque. (AP)
Ramadan prayers are said at Philadelphia's Al-Asqa mosque. (AP)
Posted: September 07, 2010

HE WAS A 25-year-old South Asian Muslim working in a pharmacy in the Philadelphia suburbs with vivid memories of getting pushed around and even bullied in high school after the 9/11 attacks - but he thought that era was all in the past.

That thought changed one afternoon in summer 2009, when he was working a long line at the pharmacy counter and two middle-aged white women accused him of being too slow - then told his manager to "watch this kid, otherwise he's going to blow up the store."

Stunned, the man - who spoke about the incident on condition he remain anonymous - said he asked the woman why she would make such a comment, only to hear back: "Yeah, whatever . . . terrorist."

The man said he walked off the job and then was forced by his bosses to quit; he filed a case with the Philadelphia Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, which tried unsuccessfully to win his job back.

Today, local Muslim leaders point to incidents like this as a sign that lingering anti-Islam prejudice never vanished after the 2001 attacks. They are alarmed at signs from coast to coast that a renewed wave of so-called "Islamophobia" is suddenly and almost inexplicably taking a turn for the much worse.

While the debate over opening an Islamic community center and mosque roughly two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan churns nonstop in the spin cycle of 24/7 cable news, there's also been an alarming national rise in vandalism and violence toward Muslims and their holy places.

Last month's headline-grabbing incident was the bizarre slashing of a cabdriver in Manhattan by a drunken college student after he asked the driver if he was a Muslim, but officials are also probing a recent run of possible hate crimes elsewhere. These include the burning of construction vehicles at a proposed mosque site in Tennessee, which federal authorities ruled an arson this weekend, and a case in which a group of teenagers in a small upstate New York town was arrested for harassing mosque-goers at evening prayers for the Ramadan holiday.

Here in Philadelphia and the suburbs, Islamic leaders acknowledge that this region has so far been spared major incidents like the others, and they say that the overall climate for Muslims here has not been as negative as elsewhere. That may be because the Islamic community has deeper roots - there are roughly 50 mosques in Philadelphia alone, including some tracing their neighborhood roots more than a half-century - and because of strong efforts in some suburbs at building interfaith ties.

One evening last week, shoes and sandals were already starting to pile up in the narrow foyer of the United Muslim Masjid mosque on 15th Street near Bainbridge in South Philadelphia. Although formal evening prayers for Ramadan were more than an hour away, a half-dozen local Muslims were already there, kneeling in meditation or holding a Quran. Qasim Rashad, of Mount Airy, who owns a small information technology company and is the leader of the Masjid board, was walking through, posting a weekly newsletter.

"Muslims have been here in Philadelphia since the 1930s," said Rashad, who said he believed the city has established itself as "an anchor hub" for Islam in America. He was optimistic that that position would help spare this region from some of the uglier types of incidents elsewhere.

In particular, Rashad and others pointed out the unusual diversity of Philadelphia's Islamic community. There is a sizable population of African-American Muslims, from both the initial pre-World War II era and more recent converts through movements like the Nation of Islam. More recently, this group has been bolstered by a rise in U.S. immigration from Arab nations as well as predominantly Muslim regions of South Asia, which has brought Muslim growth increasingly to the suburbs.

Despite the optimistic tone of local leaders, Moein Khawaja, the executive director of CAIR's Philadelphia office, says that his office has been seeing a gradual increase over the last year or two in its formal caseload of incidents like the one involving the suburban pharmacy worker.

The cases typically involve workplace harassment or school bullying, which CAIR believes is the result of anti-Muslim sentiment. He said the Islamic advocacy group takes on roughly one such case every week.

Perhaps because of his work with those cases and with CAIR - whose national office last week took the extraordinary step of releasing a public-service TV ad seeking to fight back against anti-Muslim sentiment by noting Muslim firefighters and others who died in the 2001 attacks - Khawaja is somewhat more pessimistic. "The backlash is more organized now," he said of political opposition on issues relating to Islam in America.

Why now, with the attacks by al Qaeda terrorists on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon nearing their ninth anniversary on Saturday? Some Muslim leaders and other experts note that in the years after the attacks, an infrastructure of organized groups that crusade against what they perceive as a growth here of radical Islam has taken root. The most prominent of these is Stop Islamization of America, the group founded by the conservative Long Island blogger Pamela Geller that was the driving force in making political hay this summer about the Lower Manhattan mosque proposal.

But added fuel in 2010 is clearly coming from the political climate, in a nation frustrated by high unemployment lingering close to the 10 percent mark, with an increasingly angry electorate looking for scapegoats and with some political leaders eager to exploit those sentiments in ways not seen immediately after 9/11.

Two of the most vocal high-profile critics of the Lower Manhattan Islamic center/mosque site are seen as 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls: former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has used crude comparisons with Nazi Germany and Pearl Harbor, and Alaska's Sarah Palin, who on her Twitter feed begged "peaceful Muslims" to a oppose the mosque with a now-celebrated malapropism, "Pls refudiate."

"I think things are worse than right after 9/11," said David Schanzer, who is the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke and the University of North Carolina. He pointed in part to the political backdrop. "After 9/11, some leaders" - most notably then-President George W. Bush - "did speak out against some hate crimes and then things leveled out - although at a higher level" for anti-Muslim incidents and harassment, Schanzer said.

Increasingly, political experts also wonder whether there's a link between broad anti-Muslim sentiment, political opposition to President Obama and surveys showing that a rising number of Americans falsely believe the president is "a secret Muslim."

Indeed, other surveys over the last two years from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press and from Time/CNN have both shown anti-Islamic opinions rising in America over the last five years or so. The June 2009 Time/CNN survey found 46 percent of Americans "believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers."

"For decades, it's been unacceptable in mainstream American public discourse to condemn any particular religion or cultural group; we've learned that no group should be made to answer for the sins of its individual members," said Bruce Whitehouse, of Lehigh University's Center for Global Islamic Studies. "Yet since 9/11, this distinction has fallen away where Muslims are concerned."

Indeed, some Muslim communities across the United States are canceling banquets or other celebrations that mark the end of Ramadan because they would fall on or near Sept. 11. In Newark, Del., Masjid Ibrahim canceled its annual feast because it was to take place on Sept. 12.

Yet there are still strong pockets of religious tolerance. While the mosque controversies rage in New York and elsewhere around the country, a striking new Islamic community center called Anjuman-E-Fakhri is nearing completion in Cherry Hill. At the 2007 groundbreaking, then-Mayor Bernie Platt noted his own Jewish heritage and then declared: "Thank God, we're going to have a mosque!"

Quresh Dahodwala, the leader of the mosque effort in Cherry Hill, credited a strong interfaith alliance of leading Jewish, Catholic and Muslim clergy in South Jersey, saying that "since 9/11 we have been working for harmony and to foster good relations between the communities and try to promote good understanding."

That South Jersey effort was born out of necessity, however. In the early 2000s, there was neighborhood opposition to a proposed mosque in nearby Voorhees, an effort that included anonymous fliers and accusations that an Islamic center could harbor "terrorists." Dahodwala and other South Jersey Muslims spent several years building broad political support for the Voorhees center, which overcame that initial opposition and opened in 2006.

Today, like many of his counterparts, Dahodwala is trying to remain upbeat about Muslim-American relations in the region even as he looks to the events in Tennessee and elsewhere with a jaundiced eye.

"We have educated people here and people know about community relations" in Cherry Hill and nearby, he said. "It's the fringes. The people on the fringes are not well informed."

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