The Muslim perspective, post-Sept. 11 Two enormous movie screens at the front of the auditorium show the collapse of the World Trade Center, the shocked, dusty New Yorkers fleeing debris and the aftermath of steel supports standing naked in the ruin. It"s the same footage we"ve all seen over and over on television in the past year, but tonight I have a different perspective because I"m watching the film with several thousand Muslims.
Ingrid Mattson, the first-ever female vice president of the ISNA.
We talk a lot about the victims of Sept. 11, and it"s true that those who lost or heroically gave their lives on that day deserve our primary focus while we remember the event on its first anniversary. But when we refer to the victims of Sept. 11, we must also consider 7 million Americans whose pain has largely been overlooked. According to a recent poll conducted by a national civil rights group, 48 percent of Muslims living in the United States said their lives have changed for the worse since Sept. 11. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has compiled to date a record of 1,717 hate crimes against Muslims. There have been 11 murders and 56 death threats, but the most frequent forms of hostility include public harassment, hate mail, physical assault and property damage. Muslim women have had their veils forcibly removed, mosques have been damaged and even people who are not Muslim, but only resemble them - Sikhs or Hindus - have been harassed. Ashraf Khan, a graduate student at IUPUI, told me he has not been able to visit his family in Morocco since Sept. 11 for fear that he will not be allowed back into the country to complete his degree. One Muslim woman I talked to in Chicago told me that another customer approached her while she was browsing in a bookstore, leaned close to her ear and whispered, "You are the most disgusting thing I have ever seen in my life." A call for peace and justice I"m one of 32,000 attendees at "Islam: A Call for Peace and Justice," the 39th national convention for American Muslims held in Washington, D.C. Typically, these conventions address issues of general interest to Muslims living in the United States; charitable organizations set up booths in the lobby, community leaders gather to organize and network and speakers hold workshops on parenting or give advice on how to manage finances. The program for this year"s convention, however, is dominated by Sept. 11. Out of 90 sessions, 20 deal with various aspects of the tragedy and its impact on the Muslim community, and many others relate to Sept. 11 in a less direct way. I"m crouching between the podium and the audience, trying to take notes and snap photographs at the same time. I"m not sure which direction to point my camera, because the audience is just as interesting as the speakers. There are people from all over the world here: Pakistanis, Iraqis, Nigerians, Moroccans, Palestinians and Indonesians, just to name a few of the nationalities represented. I see men in turbans with long beards seated between clean-shaven yuppies. I see women in elaborate, embroidered veils and their daughters in clothes I recognize from The Gap. Listening to people talking before the program started, I heard French, Arabic, Urdu and a couple of teen-age girls rapidly conversing in English peppered with slang that evidently has changed a lot even since I was in high school. The diverse audience reminds me of how democracy ought to be, especially since I"m feeling pretty patriotic anyway in the nation"s capitol. At the podium, I recognize Dr. Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and moderator of tonight"s session. He"s a slim, tidy, genteel man with a close-cut beard and sparkling eyes. He grew up in Kashmir, but he came to Indiana to earn his doctorate in socio-linguistics. Since then, he has remained in Indiana and taken an important role of leadership for American Muslims. Much of Syeed"s work in the past year has been an effort to explain Islam to an American public that, in light of Sept. 11, has begun to regard Muslims with even more suspicion than usual. Within moments of the first plane"s impact, he grabbed a telephone and set to work compiling signatures from the nation"s Muslim leaders for a statement that condemned the attack and offered condolences to families of the victims. "It only took two hours," he told me. "It did not take much time to condemn this act." He has been invited to appear on NBC, CBS, CBN and ABC. He has been a guest on The News Hour With Jim Lehrer, the Today Show and Crossfire, and even the White House has been in touch with him. When I went to see him in his office, he first asked me several questions about myself. He wanted to know what I studied when I was in school, where I worked now, what I wanted to do in the future and whether or not I had brothers and sisters. I told him I was the last of three daughters, and he said, "Ah! You know, you should tell your father that we say a man with three daughters is guaranteed a place in Paradise!" I asked Syeed about his memories of Sept. 11, but he closed his eyes in a gesture of patience and said, "Let me take you farther back than that." Community level transformation First, Syeed told me about why ISNA had chosen Plainfield as the site for its headquarters. He told me that the location suited everyone because it was equally accessible for most of ISNA"s members. They were not prepared, however, for the reception they would get in Plainfield. "We found out soon," he told me, "that the community here had never had any experience with anyone of some other color or other religion. Almost every other day, our signs outside were broken and vandalized." The harassment was so bad that ISNA considered moving their headquarters to another location. In the end, however, they decided to remain. After all, they might face the same problem in another place. So they continued their work in Plainfield, trying to develop a better relationship with the local community. "We decided the best thing was to persist, interact with people, let them know who we are," Syeed remarked. "All this vandalism and negative reaction was because people didn"t know us." Syeed"s observation reminded me of my own experience with Islam. Just after high school, I was fascinated with Zionism and decided to spend three weeks as a volunteer for the Israeli army. I paid $2,000 so that I, along with a bunch of other bickering volunteers, could scour Uzis and M-16s with some harsh chemical that left our arms disturbingly tingly even hours later. That was my first experience in Israel, and I remember at that time I knew virtually nothing about Palestinians except that they caused a lot of trouble for Israelis. When I saw Arabic writing I felt vaguely afraid, and the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem seemed like a place for pickpockets and violence. Only after repeated visits to Israel, a great deal of hospitality and patience on the part of Muslim individuals and a few months living in the West Bank on the other side of the guns was I able to see that I was quite wrong in my former assumptions about Palestinians in particular and Islam in general. Listening to Syeed, it sounded like Plainfield has undergone a similar transformation on a community level. He told me about a difficult period in 1995. By coincidence, ISNA had held a conference in Oklahoma City just before the bombing of the Federal Building there, and the media and several politicians quickly accused ISNA of providing a cover for the attacks. While the nation responded with a rash of hate crimes, it was a different story in Plainfield. "We had people coming from churches in Indianapolis to express their solidarity, to tell us that they had known us for 20 years, and that they knew it could not be done by a true Muslim. The 20 years we spent here had not been lost. They had recognized that the Muslim is just as peaceful, as noble as any people of any other religion." Part of America"s suspicion of Islam results from lack of exposure to Muslim individuals and a general ignorance about how the religion is practiced, but many Muslims I"ve encountered also point to the media"s depiction of Islam as a cause for harmful misconceptions. A couple of weeks ago, I spent an afternoon talking with Dr. Anas Malik, a political scientist at DePauw University. He referred to coverage of the Andrea Yates case as an example of how the media"s treatment of Christianity differs from its treatment of Islam. Although Yates had close ties to Christianity, journalists often hastened to explain that the primary reason she decided to drown her five children was not because of her religion but because of her unstable mental condition. In contrast, reports of unethical acts involving individuals with ties to Islam often are not explained with such detail, leading readers to presume that there is a link between Islam and violence. "It really bothers me when they will show the Taliban on television, and in the background it"s Muslims praying," Syeed"s wife, Rafia, told me. "That doesn"t go together." Something like Stalin? Besides mainstream America"s perception of Islam, another major issue related to Sept. 11 that came up at the convention involved United States foreign policy - hence the title of the convention, "Islam: A Call for Peace and Justice." Whenever speakers mentioned the behavior of the United States abroad, I noticed a strong crowd response. It was understandable that many people in the audience were concerned about foreign policy, considering that approximately two-thirds of American Muslims are immigrants and the children of immigrants, and many still have family members back in their native countries. One recurring theme at the convention was the concept of "two Americas," the idea that although the United States champions democracy and grants enormous freedoms within its own borders, it turns a very different face to the rest of the world. Dr. Louay Safi, chairman of the Center for Advanced Development in Virginia and a speaker at the convention, discussed three "cardinal principles" guiding United States foreign policy. Although the first is to promote democracy in the rest of the world, this is subordinate to the second principle, which is to serve national interests. The third principle, selective engagement, allows for a compromise of the other two in such a way that the United States is able to pick and choose the battles it will fight. Thus, the United States protects democracy, or claims to, when it suits national interests. On the other hand, if an atrocity or an authoritarian regime does not interfere with the interests of the United States, America no longer needs to protect democracy. "We move from mistake to mistake," Safi said, "and we do it because we are not true to our own values." At one session, a young Iraqi American woman sat next to me, and I asked her about her family back in Iraq. She said her grandparents were still living there, and that life is very hard under Saddam Hussein"s rule. "He kills people if they say anything against him. He kills people if they do not go into the streets to support him." She told me that when she was there, she saw some of the prisons where people were tortured. "Is he something like Stalin?" I asked. "Yes. He is like Stalin." I asked her if she supported America going to war with Iraq, and she said that she did. "They say that many civilians could die if there is a war, but Saddam Hussein is killing people every day. So it"s better just to do it and get it over with then to let it continue." A bridge of understanding When I talked with Dr. Malik, he made a comment that, paired with the short conversation I had with the Iraqi American woman, illustrates the frustration I perceived at the convention. "In many countries in the rest of the world," he said, "there"s a sense of outrage over the sanctions in Iraq, that they"re genocidal, that they"re collective punishment, that children are affected, that a semi-industrial society has been ravaged and that disease and malnutrition and environmentally-related health conditions are just proliferating." It"s a complex issue, American foreign policy, but the general feeling I gathered from the convention is that Muslim Americans feel frustrated that the United States doesn"t apply pressure when it should, does apply pressure when it shouldn"t and innocent civilians pay the price every time. In two of the sessions I attended, this question arose from the audience: "If we pray for the victims of Sept. 11, shouldn"t we also pray for the civilians killed in the war against terrorism?" Dr. Akbar Ahmed, another speaker at the convention, addressed the role of American Muslims in matters of United States foreign policy. He described them as "a link between what is happening in America and what is happening abroad." In this way, they could serve in the "development and sustenance of democracy in the Muslim world," and as "a bridge of understanding between the East and the West." Immediately after the attacks and for much of the past year, Americans have expressed a renewed sense of national pride and patriotism. Although the Muslim experience draws attention to certain elements of American foreign policy that invite closer analysis, their stories often exemplify many of the values Americans cite when they talk about patriotism. Since many Muslim Americans are immigrants, they"re living the American dream in a way a native born citizen can only imagine. Like Malik and Syeed, a large number of Muslim scholars come to the United States at least in part because here they enjoy greater academic freedom than they could find in their native countries. Similarly, those who turned to the United States as a refuge from political oppression often express a vast appreciation for the American system and the freedoms it offers. The story of Syeed and his wife coming to live in the United States resembles tales Americans have in mind when fondly describing the United States as a nation of immigrants. When I spoke with Rafia Syeed, the first thing she told me about was her start in the United States. "Back at home," she said, "I was a professor in Kashmir. When I came here, it was totally two different worlds. So I came, it was empty. Just a room, a stupid room - no furniture, nothing. That is how I started my life in this country." Today, the success of Syeed and his wife is a testament to the success of the American system. In his 2002 State of the State address, Gov. Frank O"Bannon thanked Syeed for his leadership in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Rafia Syeed is the founder of an interfaith network called Bridging the Gap. Marvelous character There have been times in the past year that I"ve been worried Sept. 11 destroyed, in one fell swoop, all the struggle that has taken place in the United States to become more tolerant. I wondered if we would cast aside the civil rights movement; forget the "tossed salad" view of America. Sometimes, I was afraid that people would refer to Sept. 11 and say, "Look. This is what happens when you have such an open society as ours. People just take advantage of it," and, in fact, I did hear that viewpoint expressed on television and from several individuals. But while I conducted my research for this article, I found out that most Americans held true to the values of diversity, even in a time of great insecurity. Every Muslim person I talked to had many more stories about people who supported them after Sept. 11 than they had stories about harassment. Malik said, "Within three hours of the attacks, I had several calls from colleagues and friends in town here asking me if I wanted to come stay with them. It was very heartwarming, and I think everyone realized the potential for an immediate backlash of some kind." Syeed said, "We got reports from Islamic centers all over the nation of the marvelous character that common people showed at the grass-roots level." He went on to tell me about how several thousand people in Toledo, Ohio, formed a circle around a mosque to protect it after someone had done damage to it. In Evansville, a truck driver drove into a mosque, and a few contractors got together to repair it free of charge. In addition, many Muslims say that since Sept. 11, they"ve felt a stronger urge to get involved in the fabric of the United States. Many people I talked to at the convention handed me brochures describing the grass-roots organizations they started in an effort to develop understanding about Islam in their communities. "Sept. 11 gave American Muslims an extra push towards getting involved in the American system," Syeed told me. "So 9/11 had a positive impact in that sense. It pushed Muslims more toward understanding America, acting in a positive way, getting involved in interfaith dialogues and America"s political and social systems. "It"s not an angelic society," Syeed remarked. "Blacks still have problems. Catholics still are not feeling that kind of oneness with the mainstream. Jews may still be experiencing anti-Semitism. But all these different ethnic and religious groups have succeeded in integrating and strengthening American society, and making their best contributions. I don"t think that Muslims will ultimately be excluded from that. Muslims have the same contribution. There"s no reason why they shouldn"t climb the same ladder, rung by rung."