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Coming to terms with Islam in America Add to ...

There is an upside to the apparent surge in Islamophobia in America, or at least the U.S. media's recent saturation coverage of it. Any American who does not now know that there are Muslims - plenty of them, in fact - living in Gainesville, Fla., or Murfreesboro, Tenn., or Temecula, Calif., would have to have spent the last month blacked out.

"They're going to school with our kids. They're our neighbours. They're our friends. They're our co-workers," President Barack Obama reminded Americans on Friday, on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

They are also wearing the U.S. uniform in Afghanistan. "Honouring their service is making sure they understand that we don't differentiate between 'them' and 'us,' " Mr. Obama stressed. "It's just 'us.' "

So much has changed since the United States last marked the anniversary of 9/11. In the years immediately following the attack, it was much easier for Americans to conceive of Islamic terrorism as an external threat, and even of Islam itself as external to America. Neither is possible now.

How Americans reconcile themselves to this - rooting out the would-be terrorists growing up within their borders without descending into anti-Islamic sectarianism - will be every bit as important to the decimation of al-Qaeda as building bridges to the global Muslim community.

It is now clear that both the leadership of al-Qaeda and its recruits are becoming increasingly Americanized. That, in fact, is the central conclusion of the National Security Preparedness Group, which on Friday released its assessment of the terrorist threat in the United States.

"This past year was a watershed in terrorist attacks and plots in the United States - 10 jihad attacks, jihad-inspired plots or efforts by Americans to travel overseas to obtain terrorist training," noted Lee Hamilton, the group's co-chairman and former vice-chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

Major Nidal Hasan, who shot 13 people dead at Fort Hood, Tex., last November, was born and raised in Virginia. Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to blow up his car in Times Square in May, is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Top al-Qaeda's operatives Adnan Shukrijumah, Anwar al-Awlaki and Omar Hammami are all U.S. born.

At a time when almost one-third of Americans believe that mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims, the proliferation of homegrown terrorists inevitably raises the risk that some people will paint all American Muslims with the same brush.

So far, there is little evidence that the opposition to the construction of mosques in Manhattan, Murfreesboro or Temecula has been motivated by fears of terrorism. Nor, for that matter, has Rev. Terry Jones focused on Islamic terrorism in threatening to torch Korans - a threat the Gainesville pastor has not entirely repudiated.

Rather, except for those who oppose the ground zero mosque based solely on the sensitive nature of that location, much of the uproar over Islam's place in America stems from a fundamental tension inherent in the American psyche, one that has grown stronger in the past year.

This tension places America's conception of itself as a republic founded on the principle of religious freedom in opposition to the idea of the United States as a Christian nation. Why this cleavage has become more pronounced recently may have something to do with the state of the economy.

"At a time when the country is anxious generally and going through a tough time, then, you know, fears cans surface, suspicions, divisions can surface in a society," Mr. Obama said during his first full White House press conference since May. "It is absolutely important now for the overwhelming majority of the American people to hang onto that thing that is best in us: a belief in religious tolerance."

Yet, the President, almost reflexively, referred to himself in the next breath as "somebody who, you know, relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job." It seemed to suggest that both he and his handlers continue to fret about the rise in the proportion of Americans - more than one-third - who think Mr. Obama is a either Muslim or a non-Christian.

This is where the politics of Islamophobia comes into play. Fox News host Glenn Beck, whose massive Restoring Honour rally last month in Washington established him as the de facto leader of the Christian right, has devoted entire episodes of his show to discussing America's identity as a Christian nation, tracing it right back to the Founding Fathers. Republican heavyweight Sarah Palin, meanwhile, lashed out at critics in April, saying it is "mind-boggling to suggest that America is not a Christian nation."

Ms. Palin and Mr. Beck are both hell bent on removing Mr. Obama from the White House in 2012. Propagating doubts about the President's own faith while fanning the flames of intolerance are arrows in their quiver.

It follows, however, that anyone who buys into the Beck/Palin Christian-nation thesis will have a hard time accepting Islam as part of the fabric of American society. Yet, increasingly, it is.

It is not that the United States has experienced a surge in its Muslim population. The latter has been rising, but not dramatically, and currently stands at somewhere between five and 10 million, including about 2.5 million who attend mosques. Rather, Islam's presence in America has penetrated the national consciousness to such an extent that it has become impossible to ignore. As Mr. Obama pointed out: Now, it's just 'us.'

Some Americans, such as Rev. Jones, have a hard time accepting this. But they are probably proportionally fewer than their anti-Muslim counterparts in Europe. And growing up Muslim appears to be an infinitely more agreeable, and acceptable, experience in America than in France.

"I never really met any discrimination, to be honest with you," Khaled Abdelghany told me over the phone from Gainesville, where he studies criminology at the University of Florida.

Mr. Abdelghany, 19, arrived in the United States with his Qatari parents when he was two. He spent his childhood three hours away from Gainesville in the even smaller community of Panama City, Fla. (pop. 37,000). He is now the treasurer of Islam on Campus, which represents the 600 Muslims who attend the central Florida school.

"I was raised as an American and the ideals of America - the Constitution, the culture - are embedded in me. And I find them compatible with my religion," he explained.

It seems fitting, with all that has gone on the past month, that this 9/11 anniversary happens to coincide with Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer. What could have been a clash of civilizations - one is a religious celebration, the other a day of solemn remembrance - is instead a chance for Americans to recognize Islam's role in their experience.

"Personally, I'm happy Terry Jones did this," Mr. Abdelghany confided. "This is an opportunity for us as Muslims to engage with people who are curious. It has triggered a very good response from the Gainesville community. They all reached out to us."

If some good has come of 9/11, this is surely it.

 

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