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America remembers 9/11 amid souring community relations

When official commemorations are over, rallies will begin both for and against the proposed Islamic

America is preparing to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre.

Sadly, this year, the commemoration will be marred by a significant step back in community relations.

At an official ceremony in New York, the names of all the people who died at the World Trade Centre in 2001 -- nearly 3000 -- will be read out. US Vice-President Joe Biden will attend. President Barack Obama will attend a ceremony at the Pentagon, while his wife Michelle and former first lady Laura Bush will be at an event in Pennsylvania, where the fourth plane crashed. Across the country, houses of worship will toll their bells at 8.46am (1.46pm GMT), the moment that the first plane hit the North Tower.

However, when these commemorations are over, rallies are set to begin both for and against the proposed Islamic community centre and mosque near Ground Zero, with both sides keen to use the emotional impact of the day to add weight to their cause. In a clear sign of how low the debate has sunk, the virulently anti-Islam Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, is to speak at a rally opposing the cultural centre.

Over the last week, the news has been dominated by Terry Jones, the crackpot pastor threatening to burn Qurans (more on this from Mehdi Hasan and Patrick Osgood). While he is clearly on the lunatic, fundamentalist fringe, and as such was undeserving of such international attention, Jones is part of a wider trend of Islamaphobia sweeping the US.

A recent survey showed that one in five Americans believe that their president is secretly a Muslim -- as though it were a sinister agenda, antithetical to America, rather than a religion. Attacks on mosques are still unusual, but not unheard of.

Speaking last night, Obama mounted an impassioned defence of religious freedom:

We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other. We are one nation under God and we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation.

This sad anniversary should be a chance for Americans to stand together -- regardless of their beliefs -- and defend the principles of religious freedom and tolerance that their nation is supposedly built upon.

In 2007, the Pew Research Centre found that American Muslims were:

largely integrated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.

It would be a tragedy to undo this further.