To experience what it feels like to be a Muslim in America today, walk in the shoes of Dr. Mansoor Mirza of Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. It's a February evening, and you're at a meeting of the planning commission of Wilson (pop. 3,200), which is considering your application to open a mosque in the nearby village of Oostburg. You're not expecting much opposition: you already own the property, and having worked in the nearby Manitowoc hospital for the past five years, you're hardly a stranger to the town. Indeed, some of the people at the meetings are like most of your patients white Americans who don't seem to care about their doctors' race or creed when they talk to them about their illnesses.
But when the floor is opened to discussion, you hear things they would never say to you even in the privacy of an examination room. One after another, they pour scorn and hostility on your proposal, and most of the objections have nothing to do with zoning regulations. It's about your faith. Islam is a religion of hate, they say. Muslims are out to wipe out Christianity. There are 20 jihadi training camps hidden across rural America, busy even now producing the next wave of terrorists. Muslims murder their children. Christian kids have enough problems with drugs, alcohol and pornography and should not have to worry about Islam too. "I don't want it in my backyard," says one. Another says, "I just think it's not America."
Looking back, Mirza recalls that a couple of speakers tried to steer the conversation into calmer territory. "I don't think that we should be making broad, sweeping generalizations," said one, according to minutes of the meeting obtained by TIME. But such words barely gave pause to the blunt expressions of suspicion and hostility toward Islam and Muslims. When it came Mirza's turn to speak, his shock and hurt were palpable. "If we are praying there, we don't stink. We don't make noise. We just come, pray and leave," he said. He kept calm when a commissioner asked if there would be any weapons or military training at the mosque. But afterward, Pakistani-born Mirza, 38, was shaken. "I never expected that the same people who came to me at the hospital and treated me with respect would talk to me like this." His lawyer had to take him to a nearby café to help him calm down.
Some of Mirza's roughly 100 fellow Muslims in Sheboygan County would say he was naive. The majority are Bosnians and Albanians who fled to the U.S. to escape persecution by Serbs after the collapse of Yugoslavia. Scarred by their experiences back home, some chose to keep their faith under wraps. They feared that plans to build a mosque would draw too much attention to their community. They were not entirely wrong. After the meeting, pastors in Oostburg began a campaign against the project. "The political objective of Islam is to dominate the world with its teachings ... and to have domination of all other religions militarily," said the Rev. Wayne DeVrou, a pastor at the First Reformed Church in Oostburg.
The battle in Wilson received little national attention until this month, when a much larger and noisier uproar erupted in New York City over plans to build a Muslim cultural center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. Park51, as the project is called, is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, American Muslims well known for promoting interfaith dialogue. Their plan has been approved by city authorities and has the backing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but it has ignited a nationwide firestorm of protest.
Some opponents are genuinely concerned that an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero would offend the families of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. Paul Walier, a Buffalo, N.Y., lawyer whose sister Margaret died in the towers, acknowledges that Rauf and Khan are within their constitutional rights but adds, "I just don't think it's the appropriate thing to do." You don't have to be prejudiced against Islam to believe, as many Americans do, that the area around Ground Zero is sacred. But sadly, in an election season, such sentiments have been stoked into a volatile political issue by Republican leaders like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. As the debate has grown more heated, the project has become a litmus test for everything from private-property rights to religious tolerance. But as in Wisconsin, some of Park51's opponents are motivated by a troubling Islamophobia.
Islam Meets America
The proposed site of Park51 is close not just to Ground Zero; it's also a stone's throw from strip clubs, liquor stores and other establishments typical of lower Manhattan. Local Muslims have been praying in the building for nearly a year, a fact that has been lost in the noise of the anti-mosque protests. But since early August, the site has been the scene of frequent demonstrations in which protesters carry signs saying such things as "All I Need to Know About Islam, I Learned on 9/11." Like Mirza, Rauf and Khan seem stunned into paralysis. While opponents have cast them as extremists sympathetic to al-Qaeda, they themselves have given very few interviews. Rauf has been abroad for much of the time, but pressure is mounting on the couple to move their center to a less polarizing location.