Alienated and impoverished young African Americans are being recruited to radical Islam, and could yet produce black America’s version of 9/11, a Christian Community leader has warned.

“I’m telling you, it’s a ticking bomb,” the Rev. Eugene Rivers, pastor of the Azusa Christian Community, told a conference on Race, Religion and Reason at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School on Wednesday.

But alarmist headlines aside, there were more subtle and reasoned points made at this year’s Vineyard forum, organized annually by Prof. Charles Ogletree and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.

For while the Reverend Rivers’s thundering sermon was the easy news bite from the event, the fact is that no one else of the eight senior academics on the panel with him painted such an apocalyptic picture. Several specifically disagreed. The most polite was a practicing Muslim and the most devastating was a woman who undercut the social precepts of his argument.

Indeed, even Reverend Rivers himself was making a rather more different point than the few quotable incendiary paragraphs would indicate.

He was not being anti-Islam, for a start.

The current wave of Islamophobia sweeping the country, he suggested, is politically inspired by conservatives, mostly aligned with the Republican Party, using fear to undermine their opposition and particularly to a black President.

Or, as he put it: “The Republicans are brain dead. This is just cheap-shot stuff because you ain’t got a brain. So let’s just howl about Muslims.”

He continued: “But related to that are some genuine fears that cannot be dismissed by elites who hold conversations high up in the clouds above rank-and-file people.

“We now have some 10 to 15 million very poor black people locked in some cages called inner cities, and they’re bleeding . . . .

“If black political leadership and in particular the black church continue to let the institutional class inequality among blacks, which is growing at a rate that exceeds the economic inequality between blacks and whites . . . if we continue to let an entire generation of young men drown in their own blood, we’re providing the ideological, political, moral and cultural context for certain forms of terror to become viable . . .options.”

In other words, the problem is not Islam, per se, but a culture of poverty and violence which could mutate in some way, he said.

But how realistic is the suggestion that there are millions of potential al Qaeda converts out there?

Not very, said Prof. James Jones of Manhattanville College, a practicing Muslim.

He knew the people Reverend Rivers was speaking of, he said, because he had worked as a prison chaplain since 1980.

He repeated what he said in a Fox television interview a few years ago, that there is no empirical evidence to support the notion that al Qaeda was recruiting from the black underclass.

“Al Qaeda is more likely to recruit on college campuses than in prison,” he said. “Most of them don’t even know where Saudi Arabia is.”

The most trenchant critique, though, came from Prof. Melissa Harris-Lacewell of Princeton, who commented upon the fact that immediately after the 9/11 attacks on America, the usual attitudinal differences between black and white Americans decreased for a time, making blacks more prone to support profiling of potential threats to the nation.

Immediately after the attack, she said, the reaction of the government was to profile, to try to work out where the Arabs lived.

The census data was of no help, though, because Arabs were categorized as white.

“So the proxy for Arab becomes Muslim,” she said, adding: “Even Arab would have been a very troubling category to profile, but it removes into a religious profiling because we literally don’t have the data. Because Arabs are white.”

She noted the “very mixed relationship” between Islam and black America. “As much as jazz music is an American art form, American Islam is in many ways a unique contribution to world religious thought, coming out of the black American experience,” she said. “On the other hand we know black folks truly love Jesus.”

Ms. Harris-Lacewell was even more savagely critical of the politics of the current upsurge of anti-Muslim sentiment. “The question is solely, completely and only about politics. And it is only about the GOP, devoid of ideas, devoid of policy and most important even devoid of quality candidates in most competitive races, looking for a way to redefine Barack Obama, the Obama administration and everyone who supports any element of the Obama administration with the anti-American brush,” she declared. “And at this moment the easiest way to say anti-American is not to say black . . . [but] to say Muslim.”

She dismissed as “wildly false” the pastor’s claim of a widening gap between the black elite and poor African Americans, and spoke of personal experience.

“My sister is a poor person, my brother is in prison as of right now,” she said. She said there is great wealth redistribution from black people who had “made it” to those who had not. And, she said, the black middle class remains “incredibly vulnerable” within the modern American state.

The American state, conversely, is well protected from black terrorism. She suggested homegrown American terrorism is going to come from “white folks who are angry,” pointing to a historical record that includes the Ku Klux Klan and the Oklahoma City bombing.

Judging from the reaction of the large crowd, Professor Harris-Lacewell was the hit of the forum. And she was tough. When the pastor tried to interrupt her at one point, she silenced him with sarcasm: “I am a woman and yet I am speaking.”

Other panelists also had provocative insights.

Prof. Stephen L. Carter of Yale Law School brought some historical perspective to the current debate about freedom of religion and the construction of an Islamic center in Manhattan. He noted that the push to adopt the first amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing religious freedom, had relied heavily on a sly argument that freedom would apply only to “free religions” — not, for, example, Catholics.

Prof. J. Bryan Hehir of Harvard’s Kennedy School said he sensed more of a problem with religious tolerance now than immediately after 9/11. He pointed out that America had been swept by such intolerance before against various religious groups. And ethnic groups, too, such as German-Americans during World War I And Japanese Americans during World War II.

Prof. J. Kameron Carter of the Duke Divinity School went further, suggesting that race and religion had been twinned since whites first settled this continent, to the great cost of the indigenous inhabitants and later the African American population.

Jesus, he said, had been “mobilized for domination,” under the assumption that one race represented “the peak of humanity” and their faith represented “the peak of religion.” Faith had been used as a “weapon for global domination,” and the latest controversy about Islam in America was but another “ripple in that pond.”

Thus, he said, black Christians need to think “very carefully and deeply about how they inhabit their Christianity,” lest they become part what he called the “othering mechanisms” by which Christianity had maintained racial dominance.