'Don't Panic, I'm a Muslim'

The last decade has been marked by soul-searching and conciliatory moves on the part of America's Muslims; still, today, a majority feels that life has become more difficult and that the community is being singled out by government anti-terror policies.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Hundreds of Muslim communities around the United States will be staging memorial ceremonies this weekend for the victims of the 9/11 attacks a decade ago. The events will include "mosque without walls" encounters aimed at non-Muslim visitors, blood-donation drives and symposia featuring the participation of U.S. law-enforcement officers. For his part, for example, Feisal Abdul Rauf - a Sufi imam, author and activist - will conduct an event in New York whose invitees include the families of Jewish, Christian and Muslim victims of 9/11.

muslim - Getty Images - September 9 2011
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A survey conducted last spring by the Pew Research Center shows that 55 percent of American Muslims believe that their lives became more difficult after that traumatic day a decade ago; 28 percent report being looked upon with suspicion; 22 percent say they have been called offensive names; 21 percent claim they have been singled out by airport security and 52 percent say government anti-terrorism policies single out Muslims in the U.S. for increased surveillance.

Apparently as a rather brash challenge to such trends, some Muslim youths have begun wearing T-shirts proclaiming, "Don't Panic, I'm a Muslim!"

Imam Rauf promoted the project to establish an Islamic center in Manhattan - the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. According to a Pew poll, the controversy provoked by this plan made 35 percent of American Muslims view the proposed center as a bad idea.

Rauf, who is no longer associated with the project, though it is still going ahead, says in a phone interview from New York: "This has always been my dream, for the last 15-20 years, I wanted to establish such a community center, but I was not able to do it and raise the finances. But I still have a dream and I feel very confident that it will happen one day, in that location, or somewhere else."

After 9/11, he continues, "the [U.S. Muslim] community felt it was under a magnifying glass. We were seen as a potential fifth column and there was great concern among the community - and there were things that happened and continue to happen that have troubled the community, such as profiling and so forth, and people being pulled out of airport [lines] because they are Muslim. And [there's a] perception that Islam is against America or that Islam is the enemy of America - these are things that have concerned the community and continue to concern the community. However, we have dealt with these things. We feel free as Muslims in America; we feel happy in America, most of us do not leave America. We feel America is our home, and we have made it our home, for ourselves and our families and our children. We feel optimistic that our future in America is assured for the long term. We are happy with the protections that we have under the law, and the protections that have been granted to us under the law."

Asked whether he regrets promoting the Islamic center, the Kuwaiti-born imam adds: "No. I have lived in this country for 46 years, and I have seen that our journey as American Muslims, in many ways, follows the path of the one taken by the Jewish community in this country. When Jews first came here, they were looked at negatively by the mainstream community, and they were marginalized, but they developed their American bearings, their American-Jewish identity. And so we, too, have to develop an American-Islamic identity.

"The proposed objective of such a center has to do with the programmatic goals that I believe we as American Muslims have to achieve in this country, in order to be where we want to be: accepted and respected and recognized by society at large. The intention of our 9/11 memorial events should be seen in this light as well: This is our attempt to commemorate the event, and to honor those who have been victims of terrorism and the family members of the 9/11 community, and to condemn terrorism, and to put forth the notion that we as Muslims are part of this narrative, that 9/11 was very much something that impacted us in our community. We need a process of national healing around 9/11. And, as Muslims, we are part of the discourse and conversation on the healing of our country."

rauf - News Agencies - September 9 2011
News Agencies

'Triple trauma'

Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America and a resident of Virginia, says that the 9/11 attacks delivered a triple trauma to his community.

"Those criminals hurt us as Americans," he notes in an interview with Haaretz. "We have people in our community who lost their loved ones. I have a man in the community who lost his daughter. And performing this crime in the name of Islam - someone just hijacked the religion and corrupted its beautiful name. And there was a backlash felt by the Muslim community. Muslim Americans, especially those who immigrated from the Middle East, were going about their lives, like anyone else - and someone just hijacked their lives and their religion, and put them in a situation where they have had to answer for actions of the extremist groups."

Magid continues: "Today, if you have a Muslim name, you have a lot of problems. But I believe we are on the road to becoming more engaged in public life, we are more in the front line, fighting extremism and radicalization. The attack also made Muslims aware of the importance of the fight against extremism, which is the real threat against our religion. Muslims became more engaged in interfaith work, in outreach to others."

Along with Reform Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, formerly of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, Magid was recognized by the Washingtonian magazine in 2009 as a "Washingtonian of the year," for his work building bridges between religious communities. The rabbi and imam facilitated dialogues between their Muslim and Jewish congregants, and helped create a place for Muslim worshipers in Nosanchuk's Reston, Virginia, synagogue.

"When the news came out that we share prayer space with a synagogue, over a hundred news outlets reported about it. I received many letters from Muslims all over the world asking if the reports were true, and saying that the reports made them more optimistic," says Magid. "That's the good thing that resulted from 9/11. Al-Qaida wanted to divide the world into 'us versus them' - but I think bin Laden is not resting in his grave, because the attacks did the opposite. We have many people who became united, Jewish and Christian Americans who expressed solidarity with Muslim Americans."

Last week police in the United States, mostly in New York, were put on a high state of alert, due to the fear of attacks timed to the 10th anniversary events of 9/11. Responding to reports about such scenarios, Magid says: "We are concerned as Americans about the security of the country. We work closely with law-enforcement officials. But today we are more mature as Americans, we have a better understanding about the necessity of separating Islam and Muslims from these kind of attackers. Look at what happened in Norway. The person who took life there is not Muslim. Hate has no religion or values."

magid - News Agencies - September 9 2011
News Agencies

I remind him of several incidents in recent years in the United States, such as the vociferous opposition to the establishment of mosques, the burning of a Koran at a church in Florida, arrests of Muslims on suspicion of terror involvement, and the move to ban sharia law.

"Yes, there is definitely an increase in the anti-Muslim sentiments in America," he admits. "You had this pastor burning the Koran, and you have a politician who said he would never hire Muslims in his cabinet should he become president [referring to Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain]. [He] came to us and I spoke with him for two hours and 15 minutes. He apologized afterward, and we got to understand one another. There is a lot of negative feeling about sharia - there are about 20 states debating the banning of sharia. This is a kind of tactic of fear; people want to create a solution for a problem that does not exist.

"Muslims in America number about 5 million, and there are about 300 million people in America. Democracy is rooted for centuries in America, and people think that overnight someone is going to impose Muslim law in America? It seems to me people have been wasting resources and time, trying to create an anti-Muslim agenda where there is no threat. We have a lot to offer to this society. We are the No. 2 educated group, behind the Jewish community; in terms of income levels Muslim Americans do well, better than others; we also rank after the Jewish community in this respect. That's why I am very optimistic. This community has a lot to offer."

Some of the most stridently anti-Muslim declarations have come from the conservative Tea Party movement. Have you tried to initiate a dialogue with any of their groups?

Magid: "I had the opportunity to meet with some Tea Party members just last Wednesday. They asked me about sharia, and I answered all their questions. I think there is a lack of dialogue and understanding between people, and some of this was created by the people who have become professionals in propagating negativity and misinformation about Islam and Muslims. It reminds me of my visit to Germany and Poland, of the literature of hate disseminated in Germany during Hitler's time. There is an industry of creating Muslim hate literature."

Asked about the campaign initiated by the Department of Homeland Security, under the slogan, "If you see something, say something," the imam says: "I was a member of the advisory group to the secretary of homeland security, and we said very clearly that we need to train people to watch for actions, not persons. The suspect could be white, black, Arab - but it is what he or she does, not who he is. If done right, this sort of training will diminish racial profiling; we can tell them not to look for the person who looks like an Arab, or the person in a turban.

"Instead, the point is to examine behavior. If someone leaves a suitcase and walks away from it, that's something that we need to think about. We are concerned about radicalization and we created a think tank [the Islamic Society of North America] that specializes in radicalization in America. And we are building programs that are deconstructing stereotypes about radical groups by creating what we call a meta-narrative, which is the narrative of the real Islam. And we as Muslim scholars speak about Islam and record video messages. We are currently addressing the issue of radicalization on the Internet."

Like officials in Barack Obama's administration, Magid is aware that the president's efforts to develop a dialogue with the Muslim world have done little to improve America's negative image in the Middle East.

"I always tell people at the State Department, and at the law-enforcement agencies: 'The world is looking at you, at how you treat Muslim Americans. You can make 10 speeches in Cairo, but for the Muslims, they will first look at how you treat your fellow citizens. If you are mistreating them in America - it's a bad message for the Muslim world.'"

Magid did not want to voice his opinion about U.S. government opposition to the Palestinian Authority's move to win UN recognition for a state later this month: "We support the two-state solution," he explains, "and we believe that Middle Eastern issues have to be resolved by dialogue between the two peoples, and that the people in the Middle East have to take responsibility for their lives, and to create a safe, secure environment for both Israelis and the Palestinians. I believe that the United States should facilitate and help secure a dialogue that will manifest itself in a two-state solution and provide the mechanism for both sides to overcome major obstacles to peace."

As to whether Muslim leaders in the United States are satisfied with the Obama administration's responses to recent mass revolts in the Arab world, Magid states: "I think the government is moving slowly, but is taking the necessary steps. We need to see more action, because honestly, with every day that passes by, the regime in Syria takes more innocent people's lives. There has to be a very strong message telling that regime to stop the bloodshed."