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American Muslim

The Providence Journal - February 19, 2004

In post-9/11 America, tolerance takes on a special value
That freedom is firmly rooted in Rhode Island, a state founded
by Roger Williams on the principle of religious tolerance.


Freedom of religion -- one of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment -- is a valuable right for all Americans but especially for Muslims, who have faced suspicion and, in some cases, harassment after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The First Amendment is very valuable, particularly for those considered a religious minority," said Imam Farid Ansari, of the Muslim American Dawah Center of Rhode Island. "This is one of the beauties of America. If ever there was a point of light, that is it: freedom of religion."

It is a freedom firmly rooted in Rhode Island, a state founded by Roger Williams on the principle of religious tolerance. The concept is literally carved in stone -- above the south entrance to the State House: "To hold forth a lively experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments."

"That is a very comforting thought," Ansari said of the inscription. "It's something I cherish as a Muslim-American and as a citizen of Rhode Island."

But America became a very uncomfortable place for many Muslims after the terrorist attacks. Ansari calls it "Islamaphobia." He noted, for example, that the son of the Rev. Billy Graham -- the Rev. Franklin Graham -- called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion."

And closer to home, authorities swarmed the Providence train station one day after the attacks to arrest a man wearing a turban and a Sikh ceremonial dagger. Charges were later dropped. "He wasn't Muslim," Ansari said. "That's an excellent example of a stereotypical response and a complete lack of knowledge of what a Muslim even appears to be."

Nasser Zawia, a board member of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement and a University of Rhode Island professor, said most Americans are not affected by the federal government's Patriot Act. "They don't have FBI or Homeland Security agents visiting their homes, but our community has felt it. For Muslim-Americans it's been a nightmare."