Muslims In U.S. Face Challenges Erecting Mosques
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
It turns out that the story of a Muslim community hoping to build a mosque and running into opposition is hardly limited to Ground Zero. All across the country, there are congregations that turned old storefronts into mosques. The congregations have grown. They want to build new houses of worship. And the zoning process often attracts local opposition.
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is a professor of Islamic Studies at American University and author of "Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam." Welcome.
Professor AKBAR AHMED (Islamic Studies, American University): Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: And have I described a fairly common experience for American Muslims?
Prof. AHMED: You have, Robert. I have traveled with my research assistants for about a year in America, until last year. We visited a hundred mosques and what we found was that the attacks - and I'm not saying that they're attacks in terms of physical attacks, they may be just some pressure, they may be some phone calls, they may be some swastika kind of graffiti painted on mosques. These are, A, widespread, and B, increasing in frequency.
SIEGEL: Is somebody keeping count of incidents? Have any numbers that you know of?
Prof. AHMED: I don't think so. Muslim do circulate items. But I don't think there's any study so far as to how many mosques are under attack. We do know that there may be something like 2,000 mosques in America. Some are big structures. Some are just one or two rooms. And because we were able to go to all the different kinds of mosques, we had an idea of what's going in the mosques in America today.
SIEGEL: Well, it's commonly observed about Muslims in America, that unlike European countries, integration has been quite successful. There isn't an anger or an antagonism. Your research finds that that may be an overly pretty picture of what's happening in this country.
Prof. AHMED: It was not before 9/11. After 9/11, there are a lot of question marks about the community. Neighbors would really like to know more about the community. They do associate them with something alien, something perhaps related to terrorism. And the Muslim community and leadership really need to do a much better job of bridging this gap of misunderstanding that we found in the field.
SIEGEL: And one event that makes a community inevitably that much more visible is trying to purchase a piece of land and to build there and...
Prof. AHMED: Exactly, because a mosque becomes a very physical symbol of a different religion. And, of course, the great thing about America is that it is a country based in religious pluralism. And we found many, many Muslims on this journey still saying that America is the best place to be a Muslim.
Many Muslims told us: Our role model is Thomas Jefferson. So there is the awareness among Muslims that things may be bad but they would still be worse back home, wherever they come from.
SIEGEL: At the beginning of your book, you describe an uncomfortable visit to a mosque, a congregation in Omaha, Nebraska. And I want to ask you about a question that is put to you when you arrive with your research assistants. Who are you, are you from the FBI?
I would assume at this stage that nearly every Muslim community has been contacted extensively by law enforcement.
Prof. AHMED: It has, Robert. And we must not underestimate the sense of being under siege that Muslims are feeling. And therefore, when we turned up at these mosques asking questions, very often Muslims would ask: Are you sure you guys aren't working for the FBI? Are you sure that these papers will not end up with the FBI? And they assume that somehow that would get them in trouble.
SIEGEL: Were there any particular conflicts, say, over mosque construction that really struck you as a epitomizing that sort of conflict?
Prof. AHMED: They did. For example, in Columbia, the mosque had been attacked and burned.
SIEGEL: This is in Columbia, Tennessee.
Prof. AHMED: And the mosque had been burned down. There was graffiti, swastikas, et cetera. And there were of course very heartbreaking stories. Muslims telling us that, look, we were born here. This is our country. And now people are saying leave this place. Where do we go to?
And at the same time, what was very encouraging is the Reverend Williamson, who is the local pastor of the Presbyterian Church, gives the community - the Muslim community - the keys to the church and says: This from now on can be used as your house of worship. So in this crisis, we also see great acts of charity and courage and humanity.
SIEGEL: Apart from desecrating buildings, when there's actually a reasonably civil discussion about, you know, should the mosque be allowed to buy that piece of land and put up a building there, what sorts of things have Muslims encountered?
Mr. AHMED: We found that Muslims face a lot of resistance, for example, in Iowa, in Cedar Rapids, the mosque that has been attacked recently, a week ago, we were told by the community that people would drive around, sometimes they'd threaten, sometimes they'd yell. And the Muslims weren't complaining.
They were trying to sort of say this with a sort of soft voice. But the complaint that the neighbors would have is encroachment in terms of parking or noise or strange-looking people wandering around and creating a sense of fear and uncertainty.
SIEGEL: This is what the non-Muslim neighbors of the mosque would say about the community.
Mr. AHMED: The non-Muslim, right. Because Robert, we must recognize that a lot of Americans also have fears of the community. There is a gap between the understanding between mainstream Americans and Muslims. That gap has not decreased. The challenge still remains in understanding.
SIEGEL: Ambassador Ahmed, thank you very much.
Mr. AHMED: Thank you so much, Robert.
SIEGEL: Akbar Ahmed is a professor of Islamic studies at American University. His book is called "Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam."
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