A bald eagle circles overhead as Jalel Aossey makes his way through a sloping cedar grove toward the water's edge, pointing out the places where he envisions a cluster of cabins, a sandy beach and lots of kids clambering into canoes.
He describes a summer camp much like any other, with swimming and hiking, marshmallows and singing, but with one difference. Most of the kids would be Muslims.
So far, nothing exists of the Muslim Youth Camps of America except the name and some preliminary sketches of a main lodge with a domed prayer hall. Yet, the proposal to build a $2 million Islamic summer camp in Iowa has become a kind of Rorschach test -- a hazy picture in which supporters and opponents see all their hopes and fears for future generations of Muslims in the American heartland.
The camp is the brainchild of a handful of families in Cedar Rapids, home to one of the oldest mosques in the United States and a small Muslim community that dates back more than a century. They may soon gain a powerful backer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is considering whether to lease a former Girl Scout campground to the nonprofit group for $1 a year.
As the United States invades Iraq and mounts a worldwide campaign against al Qaeda terrorists, however, the Corps of Engineers has been deluged with angry letters, e-mails and phone calls. Many imagine a terrorist training camp -- on federal property in the small town of North Liberty, no less.
"The mood of the residents in this area, and the people of the U.S. in general, is not too fond of Muslims right now," one North Liberty resident said in a letter to the Corps. "Many Muslims hate us and I don't trust them to have a camp with easy access to our water supply," another wrote.
Such virulence may be familiar to new immigrants from Islamic countries, but it came as a shock to the camp's would-be founders.
Aossey, 28, is an observant Muslim who prays five times a day and does not eat pork or drink alcohol. He is also a strapping, third-generation American who played football in high school, is married to a Christian and has lived all his life in Iowa.
Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Aossey said, he and other affluent, long-established Muslims in Cedar Rapids felt so thoroughly Americanized that they feared their children might lose their ethnic and religious identity. They saw the summer camp as a way to reinforce that heritage.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, their prime concern has been fighting prejudice and educating fellow Iowans about Islam, and they increasingly see the camp as a means to that end, as well.
"Cedar Rapids is so small we knew everybody. Everybody knew us. We always felt completely comfortable there," Aossey's cousin, Jennine Seede, 22, said. Sept. 11 "kind of woke us up. . . . We became more aware of the need to protect Islam and tell people about it. Because things are getting out of hand. There's too much hate, too much finger-pointing and stereotyping going on."
The first Muslims to arrive in Cedar Rapids, beginning in the 1880s, were farmers from Lebanon and Syria. Among them was Aossey's grandfather, who worked as a hired hand on an isolated farm while he learned its owners' language. According to family lore, two years went by before he realized that the language was not English, but German.
Despite such beginnings, Muslim immigrants prospered in Iowa. In 1928, they began building the simple wooden temple that their descendants believe is the oldest mosque still in use in the nation. In 1949, they founded the country's first legally designated, independently owned Muslim cemetery.
So when a handful of Muslim engineers, teachers and small business owners began talking about a summer camp in the mid-1990s, Aossey said, the idea seemed uncontroversial. "We've been here so long; this is just the next logical step," he said.
Trying to open a Muslim camp in 2003, however, has turned out to be a much dicier proposition than building a mosque in the 1920s or a cemetery in the 1940s.
After an 18-month environmental study, the Corps last fall invited public comments on a proposal to lease the 106-acre site on Coralville Lake, a reservoir created by a dam on the Iowa River about 10 miles south of Cedar Rapids. Of the 107 comments it received, 100 were negative.
Many came from lakeside homeowners worried about traffic, noise and sewage. With strong backing from local officials, they are threatening lawsuits to block the project on environmental grounds.
Some also cite security fears. "If we're going to have hundreds of campers a week and 5,000 visitors a year, and some of them are from places where we're not looked on in the best light, we should take account of that," Bob Lisenbee, 48, said.
But their main concern is the size of the proposed development. The rustic Girl Scout shelter burned in 1990, and all that remains are rotting tent platforms. The Muslim group wants to put in a 17,500-square-foot lodge, caretaker's residence, boathouse, road, parking lot and cabins to house as many as 120 campers between the ages of 8 and 16 in the summer, and to host conferences or adult retreats in the off-season.
"You can accuse us of being NIMBY," said neighbor Al Carr, using the acronym for Not In My Back Yard. "But don't call us racist."
There is opposition -- or at least lack of enthusiasm -- in some quarters of the Muslim community, as well. It comes from those who think the camp will not have enough religious content, and it reflects the heightened anxieties of many Muslim families since Sept. 11: Do they want their children to stand out with pride, or blend in for safety? And which of those would the Muslim Youth Camps of America strive to achieve?
Organizers chose the initials MYCA to call to mind the YMCA, according to Manzoor Ali, chairman of the group's board of directors. He described the camp as a place for children of many faiths to interact with nature, and with each other.
"Ours is not a religious group," said Ali, 54, a metallurgical engineer who emigrated from Pakistan on July 4, 1976, and raised three children in Cedar Rapids. "YMCA is Christian, but it is not for Christians exclusively. Likewise with MYCA."
That's a disappointment to Nagee Igram, 64, a member of another prominent Muslim family in Cedar Rapids. "If it's a truly Muslim camp, I'd be more for it," he said. "When you mix like that too much, you water all religions down."
Like many ethnic and religious minorities, the approximately 320 Muslim families in Cedar Rapids have long felt the tension between holding onto a separate identity and fitting into American life.
Growing up in Iowa in the 1940s and '50s, Igram and his older brother, Kalil, went by the names Jim and Charlie, respectively. Their parents had come from Lebanon around 1920 and owned a small grocery. Though the Igrams did not consume pork or beer, the store sold them. At the time, religion "wasn't the front-runner. The folks were in business, and taking care of the family took priority," Igram said.
In recent years, however, Igram has become more devout. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca. He sold the grocery, in part because he was uncomfortable trading in pork and beer, and went into the carpet and furniture business. He grew a stubbly gray beard and put a prayer room in the back of his store.
Aossey belongs to a different generation and has had a much different trajectory. An athlete in high school and college, he drank beer, stopped praying regularly and thought about becoming a personal trainer. In the end, he joined his family's business, exporting meat and other food products prepared in accordance with Islamic tradition. The plant already had a prayer room. He put in a fitness center.
Yet, when he got married and began thinking about children, Aossey said, he found himself drifting back to the mosque.
"I began thinking, 'What do I want to pass on?' " he said. "I've seen some of my relatives lose not only their religion but their cultural identity. It's not so much that they've taken on another religion but that they haven't taken on anything, and that's what scares me most of all."
Aossey said he believes the camp could teach Muslim youth about their heritage while also fostering understanding with non-Muslims. His family has pledged to tap its business connections to raise some of MYCA's $2 million projected cost from wealthy donors in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries. But everything is on hold, he said, until the Corps decides whether to lease the former Girl Scout campground.
The Corps is scheduled to announce a decision by early April and appears inclined to support MYCA. Its environmental assessment, completed last fall, concluded that the camp would have "no significant impact" on the reservoir. A spokesman for the Corps, Ron Fournier, also dismissed the security issue.
"We realize there are those out there who may not want this because of the religion of the people involved, but we are looking at it strictly in terms of environmental impacts," he said. "That doesn't mean we're not concerned about terrorist activity, but we have reviewed the Muslim youth camp, and we've found no terrorist ties or associations that would prevent us from continuing with this process."