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Ground Zero Mosque Plans 'Fuelling anti-Muslim Protests Across US'
Religious leaders warn of Islamophobia surge with hate speech and opposition to new Islamic centres across America
The battle over plans to build a mosque near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York is fuelling a surge in anti-Muslim protests across the US, including opposition to new Islamic centres from California to Georgia.
Religious leaders and civil rights activists warn that a tide of Islamophobia that has swept the country since the destruction of the twin towers is being heightened by political exploitation of the New York dispute before nationwide elections and is increasingly bound up with hostility to immigrants and other forms of racism.
They say the outpouring of condemnation at the "outrage" of a mosque close to the "hallowed ground" of the World Trade Centre site also goes hand in hand with the increasing acceptability of what they describe as hate speech.
A Florida church, Dove World Outreach Centre, is planning a "burn the Qur'an" day on September 11 and has already outraged Muslims by planting a sign on its front lawn that reads: Islam is the Devil.
The church's senior pastor, Terry Jones, has said he is "exposing Islam for what it is".
"It is a violent and oppressive religion that is trying to masquerade itself as a religion of peace, seeking to deceive our society," the church said. "Islam is a lie based upon lies and deceptions and fear. In Muslim countries, if you preach the gospel or convert to Christianity – you will be killed. That is the type of religion it is."
A leading Muslim educational institution, al-Azhar's Supreme Council in Egypt, has accused the Florida church of "stirring up hate and discrimination" and called on other American churches to condemn it.
Many religious leaders have spoken out against Muslim-bashing, including rabbis in New York who have defended the plans for the mosque two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks, which would not be visible from Ground Zero.
But John Esposito, director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, said many Americans shared Jones's views. He said the dispute over the proposed mosque had given cover for more open hostility unleashed after the 9/11 attacks that was evident during the last presidential election when some of Barack Obama's opponents attempted to portray him as a Muslim.
"The World Trade Centre thing has shown that what has been up to now seen as a local issue has gone global and provided an umbrella so that suddenly people feel freer to go public with their objections to Muslims," he said.
"Historically we've had problems in Mississippi or Georgia or New York or wherever when someone wants to establish a mosque.
"The cover for opposition used to be that people will say: we're not really prejudiced but it'll affect the traffic in the area, not facing the fact that it is very common if you have a significant number of Jews or Protestants or Catholics to expect that they're going to want to have a synagogue or a church and chances are the town's going to go along with it."
But today, Americans increasingly no longer shy away from saying they oppose mosques on the grounds that Muslims are a threat or different.
In New York, a group called the American Freedom Defence Initiative is placing adverts on New York buses showing a plane flying into one of the World Trade Centre towers and what it calls a "Mega Mosque" and asking "Why There?".
Azeem Khan, of the Islamic Circle of North America, said the bus adverts promoted fear and hatred. "People want Islam and Muslims to be the bogeyman right now," he said.
The issue is increasingly being exploited by politicians in the run-up to November's mid-term elections. Opposition to a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, intensified after Republican candidates for Congress and state governor made opposition part of their campaigns.
Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate, has been a vocal opponent of the controversial New York mosque.
Other prominent politicians have cast the net wider. Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker of the House of Representatives, who is thought likely to make a run for president, has warned that Muslims are attempting to impose sharia law in the US and that it poses a "mortal threat to freedom" in America.
Gingrich said that he would push for legislation to prevent states from adopting sharia law even though none are proposing it and there is no likely prospect of it happening.
Esposito said politicians' fearmongering over Muslims was similar to exploitation of fears that the country was being swamped by a tide of illegal immigrants.
"Islamophobia is not just about religion. It's about people who are of colour and a whole set of presuppositions about these people," he said.
"You can see it not only with Muslims but with Mexicans, people who look Hispanic. Now we have hard data from Gallup and Pew that demonstrate in America how integrated the vast majority of Muslims are – economically, politically and religiously. And yet a significant number of Americans can be appealed to in what is nothing less than hate speech, the same hate speech directed against immigrants."
• Members of an evangelical church in Texas travelled to Connecticut to verbally attack worshippers leaving a mosque in Bridgeport, carrying signs reading: "Jesus hates Muslims"
• In Tennessee, Republican politicians have condemned plans to build a large Muslim centre in Murfreesboro. Hundreds of people have joined protests