NEW YORK (Reuters) - Among the most visible supporters of a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near the World Trade Center site have been the city’s Jewish mayor and a libertarian congressman from faraway Texas.
Notably absent from the controversy has been a nationally recognizable Muslim American leader in the style of the late Martin Luther King Jr. who spoke for blacks in the civil rights movement, Cesar Chavez who represented Latino migrant workers or, however briefly, Harvey Milk who stood up for gay rights.
Plans for the Islamic center have stirred deep controversy and national political debate. Critics claim the project is insensitive and provocative given its location near the site of the September 11 attacks of 2001 by al Qaeda suicide hijackers.
Muslim scholars and political groups have spoken up forcefully in defense of the proposed $100 million cultural center, saying it should be protected by basic tolerance and the constitutional right to freedom of religion.
But the Muslim statements have failed to capture national attention, much the way their repeated condemnations of terrorism and specific attacks by Islamist extremists have failed to reverberate in the American consciousness.
A unified Muslim American political movement has not emerged, although some experts see gradual progress.
“I don’t think centralized leadership is the key. What you need is greater participation at the grass-roots level all over the country,” said Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who in 2006 became the first Muslim American elected to Congress.
“The Muslim community has been creeping toward the mainstream. It’s an inch-along process, and it’s happening now. Post 9/11 is when I was elected to Congress from a district that is overwhelmingly not Muslim,” he said.
In the meantime the void has been filled in part by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has consistently defended the mosque project on the grounds of religious freedom, and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, a Republican whose libertarian views sometimes put him at odds with his party.
Paul won praise from mosque supporters for a statement that blamed much of the controversy on neoconservatives who “never miss a chance to use hatred toward Muslims to rally support for the ill conceived preventative wars.”
“Conservatives are once again, unfortunately, failing to defend private property rights, a policy we claim to cherish,” Paul said.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University, quipped that Paul was becoming one of the most forceful defenders of Muslim Americans.
“Any time Ron Paul is saying something I wish my president was saying, I really don’t know what’s going on in the world,” Harris-Lacewell said.
“I disagree with him on 85 percent of things, but on this I think Paul absolutely articulated both the danger for American foreign policy as well as the danger we pose to our own ideals of freedom of religion,” she said.
She argued that Muslims may not need their own Martin Luther King in part because in his time he was not the “unifying hero” that he has become since his death.
Muslim Americans also come from many different countries, practice different strains of Islam and may not have seen a need to unify before September 11, 2001.
One potential beacon could be President Barack Obama, the country’s first black president and the son of a Muslim father. But Obama suffers politically from the erroneous belief by some Americans that he was born outside the United States and that he, a Christian, is really a Muslim.
“The fact is, he is a leader of a party that is vulnerable in two months (in Congressional elections). It is not crazy nor is it cowardly to say as president that this is not where he needs to take his big stand,” Harris-Lacewell said.
Salam Al Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said Muslim Americans need to work to gain acceptance and should not rely on a single persona.
“I don’t think Obama should be that voice,” he said. “Martin Luther King went to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and they couldn’t be. And he went back to the community and said we have to earn it, to work for it.”
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Osterman