Tensions Mount as 9/11 Anniversary Approaches

Protests, passions and politics collide in lead up to Sep. 11.

August 13, 2010, 6:03 PM

Aug. 16, 2010— -- On Sept. 11, the ninth anniversary of the deadly terror attacks, as family members of those killed in the World Trade Center gather in New York City to read names of their loved ones, a Florida minister and his congregation will stand outside their church and mark the solemn occasion in another way.

Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Church in Gainesville, Fla., will build a bonfire of Korans and set the books ablaze, a statement he says sends a clear and indisputable message.

"We declared 9/11 International Burn a Koran Day," Jones told ABCNews.com. "The reason is to send a warning to Islam, that Sharia law that is not welcome in America. We started this a year ago, when we put a sign outside the church, 'Islam is of the Devil.'"

Jones said more than 100 people will meet at the church to "burn several hundred Korans" and many others around the country will burn the Muslim holy book on their own.

Passion and politics are inseparable from 9/11, but despite the passage of time, the lead up to this year's anniversary has been marked by a volatility and tension unseen since 2001, including protests of planned mosques, threats against Muslims and arsons at mosques.

A perfect storm of emotions may be brewing on the issue. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan ends on the sacred day of Eid, which is dictated by the arrival of a full moon. This year it is scheduled to arrive on or close to 9/11. The simmering tensions have Muslims asking for police protection at their mosques in some cities

Even in the months and years immediately after the 9/11 horror when the outrage and heartbreak were still fresh, the fury directed at Muslims and their institutions did not reach the intensity that has marked community protests and politicians statements this year.

The growing anger is likely stoked by the dragging wars in Iraq and particularly Afghanistan, along with fresh acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, including the foiled Christmas Day and Time Square bomb plots and the massacre of unarmed soldiers at Ft. Hood.

Anti-Muslim feelings were exacerbated when a Muslim group sought permission to build a community center within a block of Ground Zero.

For some, the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric is tied to a general sense of uneasiness about the economy and those concerns have found voice in an increasingly vocal right wing movement.

Others argue that the increase in venom towards Muslims has also been abetted by what has been missing. While the nation was still in the throes of grief after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush spoke forcefully to nation defending Muslims and warning Americans not to blame the religion or all Muslims, said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Those calls for caution and tolerance have been replaced by much harsher rhetoric. One example was given last month when Tennessee lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey told a rally, "Now, you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, cult whatever you want to call it."

Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, both potential Republican presidential candidates in 2012, joined the uproar over what critics call the Ground Zero mosque, arguing that it would be an insult to the victims' families and should not be allowed to be built.

"There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia," Gingrich said.

The Anti-Defamation League which initially supported the center's construction later condemned it, raising the ire of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who called the construction of the mosque "none of the government's business " and the ADL's position "totally out of character with its stated mission."

The planned Cordoba House would seem an exceptional case given its proximity to Ground Zero. But it is actually one of at least eight planned mosques around the country. In California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and elsewhere in New York, proposed houses of worship have been met with protest and picketing from non-Muslims living in those communities this year.

At a White House dinner honoring the Muslim holy month of Ramadan last Friday, President Obama said Muslims had a right to build a mosque near Ground Zero.

"As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."

Over the weekend, however, he sought to clarify those comments, questioning questioned the wisdom of building so close to Ground Zero.

Muslims have also been threatened at their places of worship. In Bridgeport, Conn. Local Muslims asked for a police to be present after a Christian group protested outside their mosque and shouted "Jesus hates Muslims" and "murders" as the observant entered the mosque to pray.

Real violence against Muslims has remained steady since 2002. Less 150 hate crimes have been committed against Muslims in any year between 2002 and 2008, the last year for which totals have been calculated.

In 2008 some 129 Muslims were victims of hate crimes, a mere fraction of the 1,145 attacks against Jews.

Even in 2007, the deadliest year for U.S. soldiers in Iraq, there were just 141 anti-Muslim hate crimes.

But according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, anecdotal evidence from the first seven months of the year indicates that hate crimes are on the rise.

For some observers, the grassroots displays of volatility are dictated from the top down, not just from politicians like Gingrich and Palin, but smaller players whose words are less closely monitored.

"This is all being fueled by conservative political groups. It's really more of wider phenomenon, beating up on the president, forecasting doom and gloom," said Safaa Zarzour, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America. "It's the same groups out there trying to find a new avenue to express hatred."

While the media is focusing on these groups and what they are saying, most Muslim Americans remain untouched, according to Zarzour.

"In some areas of the country where there aren't many Muslims, where small groups are trying to build a mosque there has been some opposition," Zarzour said. "But in almost all those cases someone connected to fringe groups like Stop Islamization of America is involved. If not for the media attention, they wouldn't have any traction. They want this to be a grassroots movement but it's not."

Pamela Geller, founder of Stop Islamization of America, however, objects to that characterization. Her group, which recently purchased New York City bus advertisement protesting the Cordoba House, complete with images of planes striking the World Trade Center has created its own controversy.

For Geller, Islam is fundamentally at odds with American democracy and is not simply a religion but a political ideology, with a system of laws that threaten the United States.

Given what she says is a pattern of trying to implement Sharia religious law on U.S. society, including restricting the behavior of non-Muslims in the workplace, Americans like herself are compelled to act.

"I have no problem with Muslims, but there's a problem with the way they want to impose their religion and Sharia law," she said. "The [Cordoba House] mega mosque is such an insult, an offense and humiliation to all Americans. All Americans were attacked on 9/11. The people who died were the ones who took the hit for all of us."

Herbert Ouida and his son Todd both worked at the World Trade Center. Herbert survived the attack, but Todd did not. Today he supports building a mosque near Ground Zero.

"Sept. 11 is so personal for me," said Ouida. "But there is a silver lining. We're the greatest country in the world. Given all the hatred, we'll come out O.K."

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