What It's Like Being Muslim In America Now

American Muslims observed Ramadan over these last 30 days in an atmosphere of some anxiety. There's been vocal opposition to the Muslim cultural center planned near New York's Ground Zero; the stabbing of a New York City cab driver who is Muslim; and of course, the threat of a Florida pastor to burn copies of the Quran. Host Scott Simon talks with Eboo Patel, founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core, about what it's like to be a Muslim in America.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

As we've just heard, American Muslims observe Ramadan over these last 30 days in an atmosphere of some anxiety, between all of the opposition at a Muslim cultural center planned near New York's Ground Zero, the stabbing of a New York City cab driver who is Muslim, and of course this week the threat of a Florida pastor to burn copies of the Quran.

How does this affect being a Muslim in America? Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit organization that promotes interfaith cooperation. He joins us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio, and thanks for being with us.

Mr. EBOO PATEL (Interfaith Youth Core): Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And you, you have said in interviews that you are - if I might quote -more scared now as an American Muslim than you were in the days right after 9/11. Why?

Mr. PATEL: Well, Scott, I am more scared, but I'm also more hopeful. We just had Eid. The conversation amongst a lot of the congregation was, how are your kids? Because Muslim kids are being bullied at schools because of their names. I know kids are asking their dads, you know, do you feel safe at work, because a Muslim cab driver in New York got stabbed because he was Muslim. That's scary. It feels scary to be Muslim in America right now.

But there's a lot of hope also, because so many Americans of good faith -rabbis and pastors and priests and others - are coming out and saying we know Muslims are full Americans also. When the Reverend Richard Cizik, an important evangelical leader, says shame on anybody who would think that burning the holy book of another religion is what Jesus would do, those are signs that say to Muslim Americans that we are full Americans like everybody else and we will participate in the promise of this great nation.

SIMON: And yet you still think it's perhaps worse today than it was nine years ago.

Mr. PATEL: You know, I've been thinking a lot also about the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and one of his lines was even when the night is darkest, that's when the stars are brightest. And one of the things I'm focusing on as the president of the Interfaith Youth Core and as an American Muslim, is all of these better angels of America's unity and cooperation that are coming out. I think of this great event that's happening in New York City, led by Joshua Stanton, who is a rabbinical student, and Frankie Fredericks, who is a born-again Christian - it's an interfaith rally for unity, and I love that. And I think to myself, that's what America is about.

SIMON: Mr. Patel, recognizing it's not your decision to make, but what do you say to Americans who say of course Muslims have a right to build a study center wherever they choose, but maybe they ought to reconsider that site?

Mr. PATEL: You know, because it's not my decision to make, the question that I'm asking myself is what can I do that's positive as the people who are involved in those decisions are involved in engagement and consultation around that? And here's what I feel like I can do that's positive: I can start an interfaith service project. I can start an interfaith council. I can articulate how my religion of Islam talks about mercy and cooperation. I think that's what we ought to be focusing on right now.

SIMON: Recognizing that people of good will can ask some na�ve questions that sometimes turn out offensive - I mean members of the Jewish side of my family have been asked, why did you guys kill Jesus and that sort of thing. What sort of misconceptions would you like to clear up with this chance today?

Mr. PATEL: Well, you know, one of the things that a lot of Muslims have been emphasizing is that this guy in Florida who's talked about burning Qurans, he doesn't stand for all Christians. You know, we're telling Muslims all over the world this. And one of the things I'd like to make sure that everybody knows is that the terrorists who twist Islam, they don't stand for Islam.

You know, I learned Islam from my grandmother. And the way I learned it is by watching her take women into her home, women who are experiencing difficulty or hardships, sometimes abuse in their own homes, women who are Hindu or Muslim or Christian - this is in India - and nursing those women back to health, getting them an education, helping them get back on their feet.

When I asked my grandmother, why do you do this, she said because I'm a Muslim. This idea of mercy is so powerful for Muslims.

SIMON: Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago and author of the recently rereleased book "Acts of Faith." Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. PATEL: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

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