NEW YORK (AP), Dec. 11, 2001 -- For Muslims, it's supposed to be a wonderful time of the year.

The Eid al-Fitr, or ``Feast of the End of Fasting,'' marks the conclusion of the self-denying month of Ramadan, which began Nov. 16. It's one of Islam's two major holidays - roughly equivalent in importance to Christmas or Easter - a moment when believers gather for community prayers, visit loved ones, make special dinners and exchange gifts.

But in America of 2001, Muslims' traditional upbeat mood has been dampened in the atmosphere of anxiety brought on by the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent war on terrorism.

``They are saddened, and they feel depressed,'' said Abdul Hameed Dogar, director of the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park, Illinois, when asked about the mood in his flock of more then 6,000 believers.

``The leadership is in disarray,'' observed Akbar Ahmed of American University in Washington. ``The community is confused.''

Indeed, it's been a wrenching season for American Muslims.

Beyond their simple anger at the Sept. 11 attacks, and grief for the lives lost in Afghanistan and in the Palestinian territories, the war on terrorism has drawn much more attention to deeper, divisive questions for U.S. Muslims, like whether Islam is compatible with democracy and how American Muslims should participate in the nation's political life.

Hanging over the whole picture is Muslims' sense that they are under suspicion from the government, media and even Christian leaders.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, for instance, remarked in an interview with NBC News last month that Islam ``is a very evil and wicked religion.''

In a column for The Wall Street Journal last week, Graham tried to clarify his views, writing that he does not believe Muslims ``are evil people because of their faith. But I decry the evil that has been done in the name of Islam, or any other faith - including Christianity.''

Muslims also feel the government's anti-terror tactics, such as the initial roundup of aliens from Muslim nations and current interviews with hundreds of foreign men, are ``based on a presumption of collective guilt,'' says Mohamed Nimer, research director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Aminah McCloud, of DePaul University in Chicago, charges that ``we're becoming a police state, like those nations we claim to abhor.''

Complicating matters further, U.S. Muslims have been outspoken against the Sept. 11 attacks, but are at odds with many fellow citizens over foreign policy, especially the Palestine-Israel conflict.

The United States gives Israel ``uncritical and unlimited support,'' said a typical complaint last February, sent to President Bush by the American Muslim Council and Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

The groups' letter also raised another issue, that in the Mideast the United States protects ``some of the least democratic countries in the world.''

``The Muslim peoples are increasingly alienated from their own governments, many of which are highly ineffective, corrupt and authoritarian,'' the letter said.

As those words indicate, American believers are enmeshed in what Georgetown University's John Esposito sees as a complex worldwide ``struggle for the soul of Islam.''

Esposito thinks the weakening authority of traditional religious scholars has created a vacuum that is being filled by Muslim rulers and Islamic political activists, with both groups employing religion to their own ends. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban represent the extreme.

``Bin Laden hijacks Islam, and at times regimes hijack Islam, using the religious establishment to legitimate their own forms of authoritarian rule,'' says Esposito, who directs the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

But American Muslims seem anxious to distance themselves from extremism. An upcoming Muslim Public Affairs Council symposium in Los Angeles, for example, is titled ``Rising Moderate Voices of American Muslims: Silent Majority No More.''

U.S. Muslim intellectuals, meanwhile, are joining in the related debate over whether Islam can be compatible with democracy and religious pluralism at all - a hot topic amid complaints about persecution of Christian minorities living in Muslim areas.

Even some Muslims acknowlege that religious thinkers have yet to agree on any convincing case from Islamic teaching for embracing democracy.

But Muqtedar Khan of Adrian College, in Michigan, believes American Muslims can have a strong influence in the effort to spread democracy, because they have far more freedom to speak than intellectuals in most Islamic lands.

He calls this ``a watershed moment, not only for America but for Muslims everywhere.''

Ahmed is doubtful. ``I don't really think American Muslims have much impact outside a westernized, English-speaking elite in the Muslim world,'' he said during a panel discussion on a new Carnegie Corporation report, ``Muslims in America.''

Adding to the improbability, U.S. Muslims number only several million amid 1.2 billion believers. By contrast, the United States has the world's biggest Protestant and Jewish populations and the third largest Roman Catholic contingent. American influence, funding and personnel are pervasive in those faiths.

Ingrid Mattson, a convert to Islam teaching at Hartford (Connecticut) Seminary, also thinks Islamic tradition provides little guidance for the situation facing modern-day Muslims in America.

It was only last year that a fatwa, or religious ruling, commissioned by the American Muslim Council, rebutted traditionalists' contention that participating in western democracies involves forbidden secularism - and complicity with non-Muslims.

In his ruling, Taha Jaber al-Alwani, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America (fiqh is Islamic jurisprudence), said those in Muslim nations must uphold Islamic law, but that doesn't apply in the West where Muslims are a minority group.

Another issue taking on new importance post-Sept. 11 is how to build a united Islamic community in America from such a wide variety of nationalities.

Mahmoud M. Ayoub of Temple University observes that some Islamic nations have tried to put their own stamp on the faith. Saudi Arabia has sought to impose ``a conservative, exclusive Islam that does not tolerate Shias and others,'' he says. (Shias form the smaller of Islam's two main branches, alongside the Sunnis.)

``That won't work in America. I am looking to the American community to find its own American feet.''

Also, black American Muslims - estimated at 30 percent of mosque participants - feel overshadowed by the better-funded immigrant majority, McCloud says.

Nimer says U.S. Muslims have only begun to establish organizations and effectively deal with American society.

But he predicts this period of turmoil will end with Muslims becoming more organized and vocal. ``A lot of people are realizing that if we remain isolated and invisible, we all lose,'' he said.

Whatever their travails, participants in this year's eid celebration can take a philosophical view because of their belief in a future paradise, says Villa Park's Dogar.

``This life is not the only life,'' he explains. ``This a temporary life, and our difficulties are also of a temporary nature.''

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