Muslims fear backlash as festival falls near Sept. 11

For nearly a decade, the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno has held a carnival on the Saturday following the end of Ramadan, during a festival that has been called the Muslim equivalent of Christmas. With pony rides, carnival attractions, games and Middle Eastern food, it's a popular event for the community's children.

This year, the center's leaders had a sense of foreboding when they noticed the date on which the carnival would fall: Sept. 11.

This week, after listening to escalating rhetoric over plans for an Islamic community center within blocks of the destroyed World Trade Center site in New York, the Fresno center canceled the carnival.

"We thought it might be misunderstood and create a wave of attacks on our faith and community," said Imam Seyed Ali Ghazvini, the center's religious leader. "It's really just a community celebration that happened to occur on 9/11. …The way some local media outlets are attacking our faith and community created a serious fear among members of this community."

Muslims around the country are expressing similar concerns about the timing of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day festival that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan and is marked by celebration and gift-giving.

"There's … the Islamophobia machine around the country, which would take hold of it and make it look like Muslims are celebrating on that date, when it's purely a coincidence," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based civil rights group.

Hooper said many Muslim groups are having second thoughts about holding public celebrations on the 11th. Although he was not aware of other cancellations, he said the Islamic Circle of North America had changed the date of its annual Muslim Family Day at Six Flags amusement parks in response to the concerns.

Eid al-Fitr begins at the first sighting of a new moon after Ramadan, during which observant Muslims fast during daylight hours.

Although there is some variation in timing, depending on whether a community relies on a visual sighting or astronomical calculations, most American Muslims expect to begin the celebration on the evening of Sept. 9. A congregational prayer marking the holiday would be held the following day, Sept. 10. But many Muslims celebrate the festival for three days, and since Sept. 11 is a Saturday, it would ordinarily be a day of festivity in many Muslim communities.

"People start visiting and exchanging gifts, families get together and so on," said Dr. Maher Hathout, a physician who is a senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "You hope you have pleased God during this crash course in self-restraint and charity."

Hathout spoke outside the Islamic Center of Southern California on Friday, following a multifaith news conference to express support for construction of the Islamic center in New York. About 30 leaders from various faiths and Christian denominations turned out to show support for the building plans and to denounce those who oppose them.

"This is un-American, what we are feeling and seeing today," said Stephen Rohde of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, referring to anti-Muslim sentiment. "It must be rejected by people of reason; it must be rejected by people of faith."

The New York community center has been dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque," although it is not on the World Trade Center site and is intended to be more a social center than a site of worship. A majority of Americans oppose construction of the community center, according to a Time magazine poll released on Thursday. Many of those opposed, including some relatives of those slain on Sept. 11, 2001, believe it is inappropriate to build an Islamic institution so close to the site of the attack by Muslim extremists.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has compared the plans for the center to Japan erecting a building next to Pearl Harbor.

The controversy has contributed to what some Muslims and others say is a recent upsurge of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country. There have been demonstrations against a number of plans to expand or build mosques, including one in Temecula; and a Florida church has declared Sept. 11 to be "International Burn a Koran Day."

The debate has entered political contests around the country, and some Muslim leaders contend there has been an orchestrated campaign to motivate conservative voters through anti-Islamic fervor. "It has a lot to do with the ramp-up of the election cycle," said Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs of the Islamic Center of Southern California.

Many Republican politicians, especially those affiliated with the "tea party" movement, have attacked the plans for the Islamic community center in Manhattan. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is among those who have defended the right of Muslims to build on the site. President Obama has both defended that right and denied that he supported the particular project.

In Fresno, a local talk radio station, KMJ-580 FM, on Monday broadcast what it called a "Crash Course in Islam," featuring a self-described expert who compared the Koran to Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf," and said that Islam was "a road map to world domination" and that it was not a religion "as we would define it in the West."

Ghazvini called the show "an assault on our faith and our community," and suggested that it might have played a role in the decision to cancel the carnival. At the same time, he said, "We want to be considerate and not offend anyone, and not create misinterpretations about how we celebrate and practice our faith."

Ghazvini said he has repeatedly denounced extremism and terrorism. He expressed frustration over what he saw as a deliberate campaign to stereotype and tarnish American Muslims.

"They do not distinguish between a very small group of Muslim extremists, which we also fight, and the mainstream Islam and the mainstream Muslims," he said. "This is not only un-useful, it is dangerous, it will harm our country and the name of our country and it will make us fail in the war against terrorism."

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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