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Stopping US Muslim backlash

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By John Terrett

Religious leaders - Muslim, Jewish, and Christian - met in Washington, DC, on Tuesday to denounce anti-Muslim bigotry. I took the Al Jazeera cameras to the National Press Club here in Washington to see more than 30 religious leaders in one room - with one aim: how to stop a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment that has already had violent consequences.

There was the attack on a Muslim taxi driver in New York city; an arson attack on a mosque under construction in Tennessee; Florida Pastor Terry Jones' plans to burn copies of the Quran this weekend, which prompted a wave of angry protests in Afghanistan and Indonesia and, of course, protests against the building of an Islamic cultural centre - including a mosque - near Ground Zero in New York.

The city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said on Tuesday that the hate is connected to upcoming national congressional elections.

"A lot of people are using this as a political gambit. I find it disgraceful, but it is their right to do it."

Election wedge issue

In Washington, the interfaith delegates also talked about the anti-Muslim backlash being a wedge issue in the forthcoming elections - particularly fears about the weak economy and high unemployment whipped up by extremists.

Dr Sayyid M Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America said: "Together we have said that we have a stake in this country. We have worked together and built trust, confidence understanding and goodwill. We will not let these fringe groups go ahead and destroy that."

Delegates agreed to turn to the numerous interfaith coalitions and councils that exist in almost every town in America as a way of calming anti-Muslim feelings across the country.

Rabbi David Saperstein, from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism told me: "We want to strengthen them, be sure Muslims are brought fully into those interfaith coalitions and ask them to speak out and educate their people about Islam and about the importance of indivisible religious liberty in America and throughout the world."

All this happened on the same day that the state department held its annual iftar for Muslim leaders. The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, joined in the condemnation of the Florida group's plans to burn the Quran.  In comments that received widespread coverage on US TV and radio she said:

"I am heartened by the clear unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful disgraceful act that has come from American religious leaders of all faiths."
 
Many delegates attending the interfaith meeting in central DC went on later in the afternoon to discuss anti-Muslim bigotry with the US attorney-general, Eric Holder, at the department of justice.
 
Holder announced a federal investigation into four alleged incidents against Muslim Americans - including the attack on the New York taxi driver.
 
Muslims in the US might be nervous right now, but the interfaith summit was an attempt to reassure them - sending a clear message - in the future, other faiths will speak out against anti-Muslim discrimination - much more than they have in the past.

Another interfaith meeting - only bigger - is slated before the end of the year.

John Terrett is a Washington-based correspondent for Al Jazeera English.

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