It was in many ways a typical day at a New Jersey soup kitchen.
Members of a suburban religious congregation arrived one morning last month in cars and SUVs, entered the church hall through the back door as if they were humble kitchen help and set to work preparing lunch for dozens of poor, hungry people.
Except that these volunteers weren’t the usual Catholics, Protestants or Jews.
They were Muslims, the first Islamic group to join the rotation of interfaith volunteers at the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown.
And it wasn’t typical soup-kitchen fare either. The volunteers from mosques in three New Jersey counties served the South Asian staples of tandoori chicken and basmati rice to a crowd of immigrant day laborers, recovering addicts and destitute seniors.
They said they had come to fulfill Islam’s injunction to help the poor.
But their presence also signaled a new priority for America’s close-knit and frequently insular Muslim community: showing a humane, caring side of Islam to a public that, since 9/11, is increasingly likely to view Muslims as potential terrorists. . .
Meanwhile, a pervasive anti-Islam campaign is thriving on the Internet, in think tanks and in some conservative evangelical Protestant ministries.
“America has its own ‘Islamic fascists’ right here at home,” columnist Paul Sperry wrote last month in the online political journal Frontpagemag.com, quoting a phrase sometimes used by President Bush. “Once they amass the numbers, they secretly plan to ify our Bill of Rights and religious freedoms and create their own Muslim state ruled by Islamic law. They’ve got a 100-year plan, but they’re already making inroads.”
Such statements were rarely expressed publicly before 9/11, Muslim-American leaders say. Now they’re commonplace.
“There has been a hardening of feelings toward Islam in a significant minority of America,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American Islamic Relations. “The polling consistently shows between one in five and one in four Americans have hostility — and that’s disturbing.”