Abdullah Masma, 7, fidgets as he sits with his uncle, Ahmed M. Olia, at a Los… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Reporting from Los Angeles and New York — As anti-Islamic sentiment has grown louder in recent weeks, American Muslims have responded in a prototypically American way. They have held news conferences, produced web videos and launched community service campaigns.
The goal has been the modern media equivalent of alchemy: To turn fear and hatred into respect and tolerance.
FOR THE RECORD:
Remembering 9/11: A photo caption in the Sept. 11 Section A said that Bradley Burlingame, who was participating in a ceremony with L.A. police and firefighters to honor the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was the brother of a pilot who was on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. Burlingame's brother, Charles, was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. —
Now, nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks, some are wondering if moderate Muslims should have done more, long ago, to tell their story to non-Muslim Americans. And there are those who believe that the controversy over an Islamic center near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York City and the firestorm ignited by a once-obscure Florida preacher could be the teachable moment that American Muslims have needed.
"This is absolutely an opportunity for civic engagement, for real education," said Abdallah Adhami, a New York-based legal consultant and imam.
The opportunity comes by the oddest of routes, beginning with the uproar over the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center in Manhattan and ending, for the time being, with the on-again, off-again plans by the Rev. Terry Jones, a fundamentalist minister in Gainesville, Fla., to burn the Koran on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the World Trade Center attack.
A Texas evangelist working with Jones said Friday that the pastor had backed down, at least for now, despite the lack of response to an ultimatum he had issued regarding the New York center.
"I can tell you 100%, Pastor Jones will not burn the Koran tomorrow," evangelist Kilari Anand Paul said outside Jones' church, the Dove World Outreach Center. "I cannot speak for the future."
Paul and Jones said they had given New York Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf two hours to call and say whether he would agree to move the center from its planned location two blocks from ground zero. But Abdul Rauf had not called by the deadline at 3:20 p.m., Paul said. Jones said he remained "very, very hopeful" that the imam would meet with him.
Abdul Rauf said through a spokesman that he was "prepared to consider meeting with anyone who is seriously committed to pursuing peace" but that there was no such meeting scheduled and plans for the community center had not changed.
"With the solemn day of September 11 upon us, I encourage everyone to take time for prayer and reflection," he added.
A number of Muslim organizations have planned observances for Saturday. The Islamic Center of Southern California scheduled an interfaith peace vigil and a community health fair in Los Angeles, with free medical screening to people of all faiths. Some non-Muslim groups also scheduled events designed to show solidarity with Muslims, including a Presbyterian church in Rolling Hills Estates that planned to read from the Koran on Saturday.
The timing was significant because Friday marked the first day after the end of Ramadan, a monthlong period of fasting and prayer for observant Muslims. The holy month coincided with the height of the controversy over the Islamic center in New York and prompted soul-searching for some American Muslims.
"I think as Muslims, we need to be a little more open, more engaged, part of this society, this American fabric," said Mohammed Faqih, an imam in Anaheim with the Islamic Institute of Orange County. Such engagement with the wider culture would lead to greater understanding and reduce hate, he said.
Among those making a similar point in recent days was Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in 1913 to stop the defamation of Jews. Although the group criticizes some Muslim organizations and opposes construction of the Islamic center near ground zero, it has strongly condemned the proposed Koran-burning and other expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment.
Like Orthodox Jews and members of some other religious groups, many Muslims "have stood apart" from mainstream society, Foxman said. "They need to make greater efforts to reach out, to dialogue."
Asked what advice he would offer Muslims, based on the ADL's history of combating anti-Semitism, Foxman said: "The blueprint is patience, time and education. That's the only answer to the disease of hatred, and it is a disease."
There are those, however, within the Muslim community and outside it, who say they resent the idea that Muslims need to do a better job of telling their story to American society.