August 5th, 2010
05:40 PM ET
There's been plenty of opposition to the plan to build an Islamic center near the site of ground zero in New York, but so far it has overwhelmingly come from outside the Muslim community.
Now a prominent Muslim thinker is warning that the idea is potentially dangerously misguided, and that American Muslims have failed to grasp how deeply the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, affected the country.
"I don't think the Muslim leadership has fully appreciated the impact of 9/11 on America. They assume Americans have forgotten 9/11 and even, in a profound way, forgiven 9/11, and that has not happened. The wounds remain largely open," said Akbar Ahmed, an Islamic studies professor at American University in Washington, D.C.
"And when wounds are raw, an episode like constructing a house of worship – even one protected by the Constitution, protected by law - becomes like salt in the wounds," he argued, even as he said that "blaming an entire community for 9/11 is ridiculous."
But a leading spokesman for the American Muslim community is not convinced by Ahmed's analysis.
"The Council on American-Islamic Relations feels the impact of 9/11 on a daily basis," said its communications director, Ibrahim Hooper.
"We take hundreds and hundreds of cases each year of anti-Muslim bias and hate crimes. To a large degree it's the by-product of 9/11," Hooper said.
He rejects the controversy over the planned Islamic center as "manufactured" by "bigots."
"There has been a mosque in that neighborhood for 27 years," Hooper asserted.
And he said Muslims should not back down simply because a vocal minority was complaining.
"I am not going to base my actions and my principles and my future on the ability of bigots to manufacture a controversy," he said.
The American Center for Law and Justice filed a lawsuit Wednesday, trying to throw an obstacle in the way of what has come to be known as the "ground zero mosque" - although it is two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center and backers say it will be more a community center than just a house of worship.
Ahmed and Hooper did agree, however, that the New York dispute is just an extreme example of a problem Muslims face whenever they set out to build a house of worship in the United States.
"Every time Muslims raise their head in America, these groups are going to come against Muslims," said Hooper, adding that the problem is worse now than in the immediate wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
"There was still a reservoir of good will after 9/11," Hooper said. "Now you've got people bringing dogs outside a mosque in California last week."
"The attacks on mosques are increasing in frequency and intensity," Ahmed concurred.
"You recognize a minaret, so that becomes the focus and the lightning rod of the fear and anger," said Ahmed, whose new book, "Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam" is an intensive study of Muslim communities across the country, based on a year of travel, visits, meetings and surveys.
He found that the closer you get to New York, the higher the tension is between Muslims and non-Muslims.
"Step back and put (the Cordoba Initiative project to build the New York Islamic center) in the context of American society today and then it will make perfect sense - the anger, and also the failure of the American Muslim leadership, an influential leadership, to explain to Americans that we, too, are Americans. We live here," he said.
The Cordoba Initiative did not answer CNN requests for comment.
Ahmed, who is also critical of "the American leadership" for not building bridges with Muslim America, warns that the New York project could become a dangerous flashpoint.
"Say non-Muslims go attack this mosque or attack the imam, and in response some young Muslims blow something up or blow themselves up," he warned. "That is the worst-case scenario."
"The best-case scenario is that the Muslim leadership really steps up its activity to explain themselves to the American community. We are at a crossroads," he said.
And whatever happens will resonate far beyond America's shores, he said.
"What happens in America will have an impact in the Muslim world, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan, and vice versa," he argued. "Whatever happens now becomes critical."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.