Ground Zero mosque controversy clouds this year’s Ramadan

Lane Lambert

Muslims begin Ramadan observances this week under the darkest cloud of controversy since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A plan to build a $100 million Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from the World Trade Center towers site in New York City has provoked intense protests from some who see the project as an affront to the victims of the attack.

One imam said that hostility hasn’t touched his Muslim community, and won’t dampen the monthlong season of prayer and fasting.

“We watch the news like everyone,” said Imam Khalid Nasr, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of New England. “It’s not good to see, but it’s not going to weigh on us for Ramadan.”

While anti-Muslim protests have taken place as nearby as Bridgeport, Conn., Imam Nasr said the Islamic Center’s Quincy and Sharon mosques haven’t gotten any harassing calls related to the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”

“People who don’t know Islam are the ones doing this,” the imam said of protests in New York, Tennessee and elsewhere.

The Quincy mosque got a few threatening calls immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. In 1990, the building was firebombed – possibly by an extremist Islamic group.

Islam’s holiest days began at sundown Tuesday and will end at sundown Sept. 9.

In addition to fasting from dawn to dusk, devout Muslims use the season to read the entire Quran, Islam’s holy book, and practice extra alms giving for the needy.

The Islamic Center will hold nightly iftar dinners in Quincy and Sharon to break the fast. Imam Nasr will also lead tarawih, Ramadan’s special night prayers.

Imam Nasr downplayed the scattering of anti-Muslim protests at other planned mosque projects around the country. He said those are “not significant” in number, compared with the hundreds of mosques that have been peacefully built.

But nationally known Islamic scholar Ihsan Bagby of the University of Kentucky is more alarmed.

“The rhetoric and (negative) images that have emerged in the last year have reached unprecedented levels,” he said. “It’s something Muslims are more worried about than ever.”

Bagby, an Islamic studies professor, noted that Muslims died in the towers, too, and that Muslim prayers for the dead were offered at the site.

Even so, he said opposition to the nearby Islamic project from right-wing talk radio shows and Republicans like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich “has given a green light to all types of prejudices” against Muslims.

“You would hope that the greater diversity of places like Massachusetts would make a difference (in attitudes), but you find these pockets (of hostility) everywhere,” Bagby said.

Patriot Ledger writer Lane Lambert may be reached at llambert@ledger.com.