NEW YORK (Reuters) - The furor over plans to build a Muslim cultural center near the World Trade Center site shows nine years of efforts to separate Islam from association with terrorism have largely failed, experts say.
“I’d take it one step further. I’d say that it’s far, far worse today than it was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11,” said Reza Aslan, a writer and scholar on religion, using the shorthand for the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Public opinion polls show more than 60 percent of Americans oppose building the proposed Muslim cultural center and mosque two blocks from the site known as “Ground Zero.”
Former U.S. President George W. Bush repeatedly sought to separate Islam from the al Qaeda hijackers who carried out the attacks there and on the Pentagon, and all major American Muslim organizations have issued repeated statements condemning violence in the name of Islam.
But that message has been overpowered by news coverage of the seemingly endless attacks on civilians often claimed by al Qaeda, the Taliban and other Islamist extremists in the Muslim world, in addition to images of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then there are cases closer to home.
In February, an Afghan immigrant pleaded guilty to plotting a suicide bomb attack on New York City subways after al Qaeda training.
In June a Pakistani-born American citizen pleaded guilty to attempting to set off a car bomb in Times Square, saying Islamist extremists would continue to attack the United States.
Receiving far less attention are regular statements from the Islamic Society of North America, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations strongly condemning any violence perpetrated in the name of Islam.
“The Fiqh Council of North America wishes to reaffirm Islam’s condemnation of terrorism and religious extremism,” the council said in a 2008 fatwa, or religious ruling.
“Islam strictly condemns religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives. There is no justification in Islam for extremism or terrorism.”
Both Muslim and non-Muslim religious scholars generally support that view of the faith’s mainstream, but for many Americans extremist actions have had more resonance than the moderate majority’s words and practices.
The Times Square bomb case played out just as the Cordoba Initiative was seeking permission from local authorities to build its 13-story, $100 million Muslim center and mosque near the World Trade Center site where 2,750 people were killed on September 11, 2001.
Republicans have seized on the controversy over the plan ahead of midterm elections where Democrats are fighting to retain control of Congress amid difficult economic conditions.
Newt Gingrich, a leading Republican and possible presidential candidate, has called the proposal an “assertion of Islamist triumphalism.”
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said it was “creating more division, more anger, more hatred.” Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin called it “a stab in the heart of ... Americans who still have that lingering pain from 9/11.”
“Republicans are reading the American population on this better than the Democrats in the sense that the American population is fearful,” said William Swatos of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Galva, Illinois, agreeing that efforts to separate Islam from terrorism in the public mind have failed.
Religious scholar Aslan blames “Islamophobia” that he said was being whipped by the Republican Party establishment.
“They are making religious bigotry -- just as they made anti-immigrant sentiment -- part of their political platform,” Aslan said. “Democrats in the most cowardly fashion have completely caved in to this challenge.”
While some Democrats have joined Obama in defending the plan for the New York Muslim center, others, like some Republican critics, have suggested it be built at a location more distant from Ground Zero.
The politician offering the most forceful defense of the mosque is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a political independent not seeking re-election.
Opponents of the mosque site contend allegations of bigotry are unfair, saying the plan’s supporters ignore the pain of 9/11 survivors.
“If one victim doesn’t like it, we don’t need the mosque,” said Thane Rosenbaum, director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at New York’s Fordham University.
“We’re being told religious tolerance goes one way” and that “Americans must tolerate that the mosque needs to be there.”
Editing by Mark Egan and Jerry Norton