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September 11
A Year Later

American Muslims are determined not to let hostility win


The Muslim journalism student from Missouri was in New York, attending a conference of the College Media Association. It was March, and the young woman was walking with a female friend, another conference participant, in Central Park. The Muslim woman follows the practice of hijab, or wearing a headscarf, as part of her religious practice. The rest of her clothing was contemporary Western dress, just like that of her non-Muslim friend.

“While we were walking I noticed a police car driving back and forth, very slowly. I felt relieved, thinking the officer was keeping an eye on us, two young women alone, and maybe also in a protective way on me. Wearing hijab, I know I stand out, and sometimes my scarf invites some negative comments from people. So it was kind of good to see the police around.”

But her illusions of safety were shattered when the squad car pulled up alongside her. The police officer rolled down his window and yelled out “You (expletive) American Taliban. Go back where you came from!”

But where Dana Marie Fecho-Al Hilali came from is Wichita, Kan., the heartland of America. The U.S.-born young woman “wasn’t really raised anything” in terms of religion, she said in an interview with NCR. Drawn by the religion’s moral code and the importance it gives to prayer, she converted to Islam almost eight years ago, and opted for the more traditional practice of wearing a head covering two years ago. “It was totally my own decision,” she said. “I felt it was a way of publicly affirming my faith.”

But in Central Park she learned that for a Muslim, especially after Sept. 11, publicly affirming one’s faith can be a risky, even dangerous action.

The incident in New York jolted Fecho-Al Hilali. “It pretty much turned my sense of security upside down,” she said. “Here I was, an American, and I had always trusted the police to protect me. I thought I could always go to them if there was a problem. And now here was a New York City policeman calling me a terrorist, and telling me to get out of my own country.”

Unfortunately, Fecho-Al Hilali’s experience is not an isolated one. A poll published Aug. 21 by CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations based in Washington, shows that more than half of America’s seven million Muslims -- 57 percent -- say they experienced bias or discrimination since the Sept. 11 attacks, and a majority of the 945 respondents (87 percent), said they know of a fellow Muslim who has experienced discrimination.

Other survey results showed that:

48 percent of respondents said their lives changed for the worse in the year following the attacks; and

the most frequent forms of bias reported were verbal abuse, religious or ethnic profiling and workplace discrimination.

On the upside, the same poll indicates that more than three in four American Muslims, 79 percent, also experienced special kindness or support from friends or colleagues of other faiths. That kindness often took the form of verbal assurances, support during the anti-Muslim backlash following the attacks and even offers to help guard local mosques and Islamic schools.

Muslims are worried

But as the nation heads into the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Muslims are worried.

“The most disturbing aspect of the upcoming anniversary is that we’re seeing an increasing level of anti-Muslim bigotry,” Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s communications director, told NCR in a phone interview. Hooper said reports of discrimination and harassment had spiked after Sept. 11, but then waned in the late fall through the winter. But lately, they’re on the rise again.

Hooper is concerned that without a strong statement from President Bush, it’s going to get worse. “He needs to come out forcefully,” in a message to the American people and, “clearly state that Islam is not the enemy of America.”

“Once you start attacking Islam as a ‘religion of evil’ as [some politicians and religious leaders have], you’re setting yourself up for unending civilizational conflict that no one wants to see,” he said.

“Once that spiral starts, it’s hard to stop. Once you start demonizing the other, it reaches its only conclusions. We’ve seen this before, in Nazi Germany, in Bosnia, in too many other countries. We know what happens when one group of people decides that the other is intrinsically evil or not worthy of life. Once you say that, then what? Like the Nazis do you start firing up the ovens?”

The mix of politics and religion makes for some strange bedfellows, and Hooper also worried aloud at the best-seller popularity of the Left Behind book series. Many in the Christian right are fiercely aligned with Israel against Islam, for example, actively seeking the end times. “When you have people who are hoping for the end of the world, it’s frightening to imagine what they’ll be doing,” Hooper said.

‘So totally American’

Even people who aren’t aiming for Armageddon have been making life difficult for their Muslim neighbors, sometimes in the name of “Homeland Security.” (See related stories on Page 8.) An 18-year-old American Muslim youth from Toledo, Ohio, was pulled off a Delta Airlines flight from Detroit to New York earlier this summer after the pilot walked down the aisle and asked him to leave the plane, reportedly because he didn’t like the young Lebanese-American man’s looks, and said “I’m not comfortable with you on this flight.”

“The thing is,” the youth’s relative, a Toledo restaurant owner, told NCR, “this kid is so totally American. He was born here. He’s never been in trouble. He’s was an honor student. He doesn’t even speak good Arabic. We tease him that he just knows enough to say his prayers, and that not even too well.”

Terrorism suspects on the government’s radar screen tend to be Arabs. But American Muslims report that ethnicity doesn’t matter. “Just having a Muslim name like Omar or Ali raises suspicions,” said Shaheen Ahmed, a Leawood, Kan., pathologist who was born in India.

Ahmed should know. Last Thanksgiving she was awaiting the arrival of her oldest son, Farooq, 27, from New York when she received a phone call. “At first I thought it was my son, telling us he was arriving. But instead it was an FBI agent.”

The agent wanted to know how she knew Farooq and why he was traveling from New York to Kansas City. “He seemed surprised when I said, ‘Why for Thanksgiving of course! My children all come home for the holidays.’ ”

Ahmed and her husband, Iftekhar, a neurologist, later had a visit from the FBI and were required to produce Farooq’s birth certificate. Like other Muslim Americans, the young man had been forced to get off the plane and was detained and interrogated because his name is similar to that of a terrorist on the government’s no-flight list (see related story on Page 8). The Ahmeds later learned that the FBI had visited Farooq at his New York apartment on several occasions to question him.

The profiling appears to be a family affair. The Ahmeds’ younger son, Sameer, 22, is a college student. Earlier this year, while working in an internship program for Secretary of State Colin Powell, Sameer was also asked to leave a plane because his name was on a no-flight list. He was interrogated for 45 minutes -- despite showing official State Department identification.

The Ahmeds have been in the United States 30 years and their three children were all born here. “People ask my kids, ‘Where are you from?’ and they say ‘Leawood, Kansas.’ This is the only country and the only home they know,” Shaheen Ahmed said. “How do you think this makes them feel?”

Because of the profiling and examples of bigotry, American Muslims “are living a double terror,” Shaheen Ahmed said. “We have the terror of the 9/11 attacks that all Americans lived through, and then we have the terror within: What will happen next? Will my sons, my daughter be harmed? Imprisoned? Everything has turned upside down for us.”

But despite the stress and humiliation of profiling, bigotry and surveillance, many American Muslims said the backlash from Sept. 11 has made them even more determined to show the authentic face of Islam and to demonstrate that Muslims are loyal, productive citizens who love the United States.

For Manaz Shabbir, the terrorist attacks made her resolve to do something positive. The Philadelphia-born wife and mother of four boys is of Indian descent. Shabbir is vice president for strategic planning and business development for Carondelet Health System in Kansas City, Mo., a Roman Catholic health care system with two area hospitals.

“We can’t control what happens in other parts of the world, but we can control the approach we’re going to take,” Shabbir told NCR.

Controlling her approach led Shabbir to launch two Web sites: americanmuslimwoman.com and communitypeace.com The Web sites are only her latest form of positive outreach: She is vice president of the Crescent Peace Society, which aims to raise awareness of Muslim cultures and foster interfaith understanding.

“I was very sad when [Wall Street Journal reporter] Daniel Pearl was killed, and that’s what led me to start community peace.com,” she said. She also coordinated interfaith events in March for the six-month anniversary of Sept. 11, and was master of ceremonies last week at another interfaith gathering in preparation for the first anniversary.

While Shabbir said she has not personally had any negative experiences as a Muslim post-9/11, her children have, and the realization of that kind of a world saddens her.

State of paranoia

“The country is really in a state of paranoia,” she said, “and that makes people do uncharacteristic things.” Shabbir is also concerned about the loss of constitutional liberties and the government’s expanded powers in the name of security.

“I have writing and speaking ability, I realized, and I decided I might as well use these skills in a way that can benefit the community, the total community.” Her skills are being put to good use: She’s been on numerous radio shows and has been on the speaking circuit at hospitals, churches and synagogues since last fall.

“My main message is that being a Muslim is not equivalent to terrorism,” she said, adding that she has received wonderful support and interest from the non-Muslim faith communities she has visited, as well as from her colleagues at work, where she is the only Muslim woman in a management position.

Abdul Hammuda agrees with Shabbir that the Muslim community needs to be proactive and focus on the positive. The Libyan-born owner of Toledo, Ohio’s, Tiger Bakery was the co-founder of Masjid Saad foundation and mosque and Toledo Islamic Academy, the masjid’s elementary and high school.

Hammuda, who emigrated to the United States in 1974, said he hasn’t personally experienced any negative incidents, although he knows some who have. “On the contrary, there’s a little more positive things happening, and that’s good. I think we’ve got this message across, that Islam is not to blame [for Sept. 11], and Muslims are as American as anybody else. Our lives are here. Our kids were born here. And we’re as vulnerable as anyone else when some terrorist wants to do something.”

Hammuda says Americans have to stand up to bigotry and reject it. “America is a wonderful place, and we can’t allow bin Laden or his guys to change this. We can’t fall in the pit he wants us to. If we hate one another, we lose and he wins.”

Young people speak out

Muslim Americans fear more repercussions as the 9/11 anniversary nears. But increasingly their young people are convinced that speaking out, witnessing to authentic Islam as a religion of peace and justice, will turn the tide of bigotry they’ve experienced in the past year.

Milia Islam, 23, grew up in the only Muslim family in the small Missouri town of Fulton, population 10,000. Today she’s a master’s degree candidate in theological studies at Harvard, majoring in world religions.

Islam, who came to the United States from Bangladesh at age 7, said she believes it’s up to young Muslims to make a difference. Like many immigrant groups, Muslims from various countries were previously reluctant to stand out. “The message was blend in, don’t be noticed. Don’t let them see you’re different,” she told NCR.

“But young people today have a very important role to play. How we deal with the current situation will be pivotal. What’s important is that there be a lot of integration rather than isolation.”

Young American Muslims, she said, “aren’t from somewhere else. We grew up here. We know this society, how it works. We understand the media, how to use it, how to organize for good, for understanding. We need to show the true face of Islam, and never to let the negative things bring us down.”

That invitation comes right from the pages of Islam’s scripture. At the Muslims for Peace and Justice conference held in Kansas City earlier this summer, participants were welcomed with a large banner displaying a well-known quote from the Quran:

“O you who have believed,” it proclaimed, “stand firm for Allah as witnesses in justice, and never let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just! For that is … righteousness.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002