NEW YORK -- Adnan Zulfiqar, a graduate student, former U.S. Senate aide and American-born son of Pakistani immigrants, will soon give the first khutbah, or sermon, of the fall semester at the University of Pennsylvania. His topic has presented itself in the daily headlines and blog posts over the disputed mosque near ground zero.
What else could he choose, he says, after a summer remembered not for its reasoned debate, but for epithets, smears, even violence?
As he writes, Zulfiqar frets over the potential fallout and what he and other Muslim leaders can do about it. Will young Muslims conclude they are second-class citizens in the United States now and always?
"They're already struggling to balance, 'I'm American, I'm Muslim,' and their ethnic heritage. It's very disconcerting," said Zulfiqar, 32, who worked for former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, and now serves Penn's campus ministry. "A controversy like this can make them radical or become more conservative in how they look at things or how they fit into the American picture."
Whatever the outcome, the uproar over a planned Islamic center near the World Trade Center site is shaping up as a signal event in the story of American Islam.
Strong voices have emerged from outside the Muslim community. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been steadfast in his support for the project. Jon Stewart nightly mocks the bigotry that the protest unleashed.
"The sentiment, say, five years ago among many Muslims, especially among many young Muslims, was that, 'We're in this all by ourselves,' " said Omer Mozaffar, a university lecturer in Chicago who leads Quran study groups as a buffer between young people and the extremist preachers on YouTube. "That has changed significantly. There have been a lot of people speaking out on behalf of Muslims."
Eboo Patel, an American Muslim leader and founder of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago nonprofit that promotes community service and religious pluralism, said Muslims are unfortunately experiencing what all immigrant groups endured in the U.S. before they were fully accepted as American.
Brandeis University historian Jonathan D. Sarna has noted that Jews faced a similar backlash into the 1800s when they tried to build synagogues, which were once banned in New York.
Patel believes American Muslims are on the same difficult but inevitable path toward integration.
"I'm not saying this is going to be happy," Patel said. "But I'm extremely optimistic."
Yet, the overwhelming feeling is that the controversy has caused widespread damage that will linger for years.
American Muslim leaders say the furor has emboldened opposition groups to resist new mosques around the country, at a time when there aren't enough mosques or Islamic schools to serve the community.
Rhetoric from some politicians that lumps all Muslims with terrorists will depress the Muslim vote, analysts say.