(RNS) Hartford, Conn., is the newest flashpoint in a culture war pitting Muslims’ First Amendment rights against opponents who say displays of the Muslim faith around 9/11 disrespect the victims of the 2001 attacks.
Hartford City Council President rJo Winch on Friday (Sept. 10) disinvited two Muslim imams who were scheduled to open council meetings with prayer this month, opting instead for an interfaith moment of silence after some residents complained.

Local Muslim leaders called the decision a “slap in the face,” while the local chapter of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations wants to meet with Winch in hopes of having the imams reinstated.

Religious leaders regularly open Hartford City Council meetings. The council had originally scheduled two Christian clergymen to open the September meetings, but Councilman Luis Cotto asked to invite two imams instead as a gesture of support during a time of increased Islamophobia.

When the Muslim prayers were announced, council members said they were deluged with e-mails and phone calls, many of them hateful and racist, demanding that the imams be dropped. Winch obliged, citing “all the controversy and sensitivity around the month of September.” Muslims would be welcome to open meetings in other months, she said.

Critics accused Winch of caving to bigotry, and said her decision implied that all Muslims are to blame for 9/11. Winch said she was only trying to represent her constituents, no matter how distasteful their views might be.

“I can agree or not agree with what people are feeling. But because what they’re feeling is real to them, I can’t ignore it,” said Winch.

Mongi Dhaouadi, president of CAIR’s Hartford chapter, said he was perplexed.

“On the one hand she says she’s disturbed by all the hate mail, but on the other hand, she does what the bigots tell her to do,” he said.

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