Merlene Davis: A conversation with Ihsan Bagby, Islamic studies expert

Protestors in Florence are trying to stop construction of a proposed mosque in Northern Kentucky. Controversy has erupted over plans to build an Islamic cultural center two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

They are two of several protests brewing throughout the nation as sentiment against Muslims seems to be growing. But in Lexington and several other Kentucky cities, the climate is much less turbulent.

"The community has not been under any real threat here and has not experienced any violence," said Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky who has become a sought-after national expert since plans for the Cordoba House in New York were announced. "So overall I think the experience of Muslims in Kentucky has been very good."

Bagby, a husband, father and Muslim, has worked at UK since 2002. Born in Cleveland, Bagby, 61, is an African-American who converted to Islam in 1969. He has centered his academic research in the area of mosques in America.

A study he conducted in 2000, The Mosque in America: A National Portrait, has helped him become a national voice on the subject.

I talked to him about what it means to be Muslim, what Islam is, and why the proposed cultural center near Ground Zero and the Islamic Center of Northern Kentucky are so controversial.

Question: What is your background? You were born in Cleveland, right?

Answer: I am African-American. I grew up in the hood. I got my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. I am a Muslim and became Muslim in 1969. That was my motivation for studying Arabic and studying Islam. I've been a researcher on mosques and the American Muslim community for over 10 years now.

Q: We see evidence of a similar distaste bubbling up in Florence, as in New York, against the building of mosques.

A: The reality is that for the most part in America, mosques have gone up, mosques have purchased property, mosques have expanded without a lot of problems. We have mosques in Prestonsburg, a wonderful, nice mosque in Somerset, and E-town (Elizabethtown). You know you have Muslims in Bowling Green. So they are all over. Harlan. They are all over. There was no significant problems in putting that mosque, built from the ground up, in Prestonsburg and other places. Louisville. Not a lot of problems.

And the opposition was typical opposition of neighbors to increased traffic and noise and things like that. If there was opposition, that was the type of opposition, which all churches and synagogues go through.

But it is only in the last few years that opposition has now become an opposition to the faith itself. That is what has changed significantly. The rhetoric and the heat have gone up significantly in the past few years.

Q: So you think the reaction in New York or the reaction in Florence is overblown?

A: There is no question that the response to the planned mosque in New York and Florence and other cases is totally unreasonable. In fact, for those who are less educated about Muslims, it is ignorance, and for those who understand Islam, it is bigotry.

I grew up in the '60s and am well aware of racist attitudes, and I really feel this is a replay of a deep-seated racism against anybody who doesn't exactly look like us, and now it's pointed at Muslims.

But actually I really feel this rise in temperature against Muslims is somehow tied to the discomfort of segments of our country with (President Barack) Obama. Feeling that something has gone wrong, that at least 50 percent of the country voted for this black man.

There are significant pockets that are very uncomfortable with that. And I think that they can't whip on African-Americans. That is no longer tolerated. You can do it privately, but they can't get away with it publicly.

But you can get away with bashing Muslims and you can get away with bigotry towards Muslims. I almost feel like Muslims are a scapegoat here.

Mosques in America, my research shows this, are actually a positive vehicle for integration of the Muslim community. They are a bulwark against radicalism and extremism.

Q: But we hear some of the recruitment of terrorists occurred in mosques in Europe.

A: The European Muslim is different than the American Muslim experience. Here, the radicals are not recruited at a mosque.

I was just reading something just a second ago where the so-called ring leader of the 9/11 terrorists attacks (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) told the people who were sent over here to do training: "Do not tell any American Muslim about what you are doing; have no contact with American Muslims." Because he knew that the American Muslim community, and institutions in particular, would not tolerate them and would in fact report them if they knew what was going on.

Q: So what is your reaction to the message coming out of the White House?

A: That was great. Muslims and any fair-minded people were very gratified that President Obama stood up and defended the American ideal of equal rights. Discrimination is not applying rules equally to everybody. President Obama basically said this is not acceptable in America.

Q: What are the similarities between Islam and Christianity?

A: The similarities are so much more than the differences. The basic world view of Christianity is exactly the same as Islam, the same as the Jewish faith. All of the values that Christians hold dear have strong echoes, parallels in the Muslim faith. Those values include values of compassion for others, love for others, respect for people. They include values of morality, leading a moral life.

Islamic morality is much more conservative than, say, the average Christian, but would, maybe, be comparable to the conservative Christians: no sex before marriage; no alcohol; of course, no drugs — that type of thing. Very strong condemnation of adultery and things like that.

The real difference is a theological difference such as the person of Jesus. Muslims believe in Jesus, believe that he is the Christ, but do not believe he is God, that he shares in the God-head.

Q: Do you believe Jesus will return?

A: Yes, because he is the Messiah. Muslims do believe he is the Messiah and will return and lead to an establishment of a kingdom of peace for sometime. In the Muslim faith, he is the herald of the Last Days.

Q: Can you say something to the American people that might persuade them to meet and talk with Muslims, to do something to help find out what exactly is Islam?

A: I think more Americans are becoming aware of Muslims and Islam, but not enough. It is a slow process.

One message is the fact that Muslims lost their lives in 9/11 also. Thirty-two Muslims were killed in the 9/11 attacks, 29 of them in the World Trade Center. A few of them were clear heroes.

They are in a very real sense like other Americans: hardworking, interested in advancement and sharing certain values that underpin this country.

The problem with what's going on in New York is people look at that mosque and think al-Qaida. They look at that imam in New York (Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf) and see Osama bin Laden. But that is not the truth. That mosque is not al-Qaida. In fact, they are the opposite. They speak out against al-Qaida.

Q: How do you counter the bias against Muslims?

A: By doing outreach, to become more involved in society.

Q: I don't see that happening in Lexington.

B: There have been efforts. Not too long ago there was sensitivity training, education about Islam, conducted with all the police officers in Lexington-Fayette County.

And there are different interfaith groups that Muslims are active with.

We just had a meeting that kind of launched a new organization that is going to focus on community activism. It is called SHARE Lexington: Services for Human Advancement and Resource Enhancement.

It is a part of the maturing of the Muslim community in that it started its mosque, it started its school, and now it is starting to do more outreach things both in terms of education, but also in terms of community service.