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US Muslims reaching out ahead of 9/11 anniversary

Ad campaign aired, security being boosted

Demonstrators delivered a message during a news conference last week outside City Hall in New York, where the proposed Islamic center has stirred passions. Demonstrators delivered a message during a news conference last week outside City Hall in New York, where the proposed Islamic center has stirred passions. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)
By Rachel Zoll
Associated Press / September 6, 2010

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NEW YORK — American Muslims are boosting security at mosques, seeking help from leaders of other faiths, and airing ads underscoring their loyalty to the United States — all ahead of a 9/11 anniversary they fear could bring more trouble for their communities.

Their goal is not only to protect Muslims, but also to prevent them from retaliating if provoked. One protest scheduled for this Saturday in New York against the proposed mosque near ground zero is expected to feature Geert Wilders, the aggressively anti-Islam Dutch lawmaker. The same day in Gainesville, Fla., the Dove World Outreach Center plans to burn copies of the Koran.

“We can expect crazy people out there will do things, but we don’t want to create a hysteria’’ among Muslims, said Victor Begg of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan. “Americans, in general, they support pluralism. It’s just that there’s a lot of misinformation out there that has created confusion.’’

Tomorrow, the Islamic Society of North America is to hold a meeting of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders in Washington “to address the growing tide of fear and intolerance’’ in the furor over the planned New York mosque.

Islamic centers in many cities are intensifying surveillance and keeping closer contact with law enforcement. Adding to Muslims’ concern is a fluke of the lunar calendar: Eid al-Fitr, a joyous holiday marking the end of Ramadan, will fall around Sept. 11 this year. Muslim leaders fear that festivities, mostly slated for Thursday or Friday, could be misinterpreted as celebrating the 2001 terror strikes.

“We’re telling everyone to keep their eyes open and report anything suspicious to authorities and call us,’’ said Ramzy Kilic of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Other efforts around 9/11 aim to fight bigotry. Muslims will clean parks, feed the homeless, and give toys to sick children as part of Muslim Serve, a national campaign to demonstrate Islamic commitment to serving humanity.

Separately, groups are distributing ads to combat persistent suspicions about Islam. One spot, called “My Faith, My Voice,’’ features American Muslims saying, “I don’t want to take over this country.’’

Anniversaries of Sept. 11, 2001, have always been challenging for US Muslims, who have been under scrutiny since the attacks. This year, the commemoration follows a summer in which opposition to a planned Islamic community center near the World Trade Center site escalated into a national uproar over Islam, extremism, and religious freedom.

Islamic centers as far away as Tennessee and California faced protests and vandalism. In western New York, police said a group of teenagers recently yelled obscenities, set off a car alarm, and fired a shotgun during two nights of drive-by harassment at a small-town mosque near Lake Ontario.

Usama Shami, board chairman for the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, said a new mosque the congregation has been building for years drew little attention until recently, when some resistance emerged in the neighborhood and from some in city government. Recently, vandals broke into the new building, spilled paint on the floor, and broke expensive windows.

Shami believes the ground zero dispute is partly to blame for the trouble, along with passions unleashed by Arizona’s strict new law that would require police to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are in the country illegally.

“All of these issues came at the same time,’’ Shami said. “When things like that happen, I think they bring out the worst in some people.’’

On Saturday in Chicago, Zeenat Rahman, a 34-year-old native of the city, will visit a local nursing home with Muslim and non-Muslim friends to spend time with residents and help serve a meal.

“This is when people are going to look at our community, and when they do, what are they going to see?’’ said Rahman, a policy director for the Interfaith Youth Core, which promotes pluralism. “Sometimes, saying ‘Islam means peace’ feels a little defensive and apologetic, whereas service is really core to our faith.’’

Unity Productions Foundation, a Washington-area group that specializes in films about Islam and Muslim Americans, will hold an interfaith talk on Saturday at the Washington Jewish Community Center.

Speakers include Monem Salam, the subject of a Unity Productions film titled, “On a Wing and a Prayer: An American Muslim Learns to Fly.’’ Unity recently launched groundzerodialogue.org, where visitors can view films and use them for community discussion about Islam in the United States.

Salam, 38, of Bellingham, Wash., usually spends the Eid weekend with his wife and three young children, but said he convinced his wife he had to participate in the event.

“I have to leave them and go across the country to answer questions about Islam,’’ said Salam, a portfolio manager who was 4 years old when his family left Pakistan for the United States. “It’s unfortunate. It’s the time that we live in.’’

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