Muslims observe anniversary with anxiety and hope

Linda “iLham” Barto was working on a project in her art studio on the morning of September 11, 2001, when her 16-year-old daughter came running downstairs to tell her she was watching the attack on television.

“It took me a few minutes to realize that what I was seeing was news, not a movie. It seemed too horrific to be real,” recalls Barto, who had converted to Islam in 1999. Nineteen terrorists, 600 miles away from her Maiden, NC, home, had slaughtered 2,976 innocent people from 90 nations in just 102 minutes that morning.

The pictures of people jumping from the Twin Towers  “stick in my mind as symbols of the horror of that day,” said Barto. “All the 9/11 images are burned into the minds of all those alive on that day. They shout of violence and cruelty and represent the worst of humanity.”

A decorated Air Force veteran who fought in two wars and served in the North Carolina Air National Guard, Barto, 62, is the author of four books on Islam and interfaith understanding.  She is part of America’s Muslim population that will observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with mixed feelings of anguish, anxiety and hope.

Since the terrorist attacks, in which at least, 31 Muslims, including at least six women, died, the Muslim community endured public backlash, at times violent, discrimination and government surveillance.

Several recent surveys have reported almost identical findings: on one hand, increased Islamophobia, growing opposition to the construction of new mosques across the country and increased police attention to Muslim Americans; on the other, no signs of rising alienation or anger among Muslim Americans and a marked increase in the community’s confidence about its future in America.

The Pew Research Center, which released an exhaustive survey on Aug. 30, found 82 percent of Muslim Americans are satisfied with their personal lives and 79 percent with their communities. Two-thirds said they have a better quality of life in the U.S. than they would in Muslim-majority countries.

Dr. Zahid Bukahri, president of one of the largest American Muslim community organizations, agrees with the survey findings. “Muslims not only have a future in America, but also Muslims have a lot to contribute to America,” he says.

Bukhari heads the New York-based Islamic Circle of North America, which has over 388 chapters nationwide. He also serves as executive director of the Center for Islam and Public Policy (CIPP) and director of the American Muslim Studies Program at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

Abu Taher, executive editor of Bangla Patrika one of largest weekly publications serving the Bangladeshi community in New York, is also upbeat about Muslims’ future. “This year and every year, we should always contemplate the impact of 9/11 and draw lessons,” he said, adding every community in America must contemplate on how such terrorism can be prevented in the future.

Yet the Muslim community’s growing optimism about its future is accompanied by a wave of Islampohobia. At least 13 states have either passed or are considering “anti-Shariah” legislation. The Council on American-Islamic Relations and the University of California, Berkley, said in report in June that anti-Muslim rhetoric and incidents were on the rise. A survey by Ohio State University in July also showed perceptions of Muslims worsened following Osama bin Laden’s death.

Abu Taher blames some legislators, sections of the mainstream media and certain conservative groups for stoking anti-Muslim sentiment. Bukhari agrees that Islamophobia has “definitely increased,” but believes it has reached its peak and will decline.

He says a quiet decade-long outreach effort by Muslim organizations and a new generation of U.S.-born Muslims have helped stem the tide.

Barto blames the terrorists who commit senseless crimes in the name of Islam for the negative perception about Muslims. “They are promoting a lie about Islam, about God, and about the Prophet,” she said.  She also blames the media, saying, “The only ‘Muslims’ about which most people hear are the alleged Muslims that make the news because of their violent and hateful acts.”

Dr. Nurah-Rosalie Amat’ullah, executive director of Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development, does not agree that anti-Muslim fervor has grown. “The level of ignorance among the general population about Islam has become public. That does not make it Islamophobia,” she says.

Amat’ullah’s faith-based community service organization in the Bronx has been working for hunger relief, public health education and interfaith initiatives and to help new immigrants since 1997.  She says the number of people who slander Islam and Muslims is small, and she is not sure if their number has grown in the last few years or if they have simply received more media attention.

“If we really look at them strictly in the context of United States, we realize that these are the same people who are racists, homophobic and bigoted. They have no care for people of color,” she says.

Amat’ullah believes Muslims should not focus on Islamophobia, “because the real work ahead of us is civic participation and to be good citizens in the United States.”

A Hijab-wearing Muslim of African descent, Amat’ullah is also an ardent champion of an intra-Muslim dialog over race and ethnicity, saying, “There needs to be within the Muslim community some difficult conversation around our own diversity.”

She says African American, African and Latino Muslims are victims of Muslim racism. “I say this from personal experience as a woman of African descent. This is the reality that I live in.”

Amat’ullah’s organization started New York’s first Halal food pantry. Currently, it feeds 10,000 people of all faiths every month from its two locations in the Bronx.

“If the Muslim population acted in Islamic way by caring for the humanity, we would be much more civically engaged in the United States,” Amat’ullah says.

Bukhari, too, believes the best way to mark 9/11 is to work for the betterment of communities across the nation. Through its charity arm ICNA Relief,  the Islamic Circle has partnered with FEMA, American Red Cross and several other relief agencies over the past few years.  ICNA Relief is currently running a national drive to distribute school supplies to needy children irrespective of community, color or belief.

Despite stereotyping, the Muslim community seems determined to integrate into the American mainstream. The Pew survey says 56 percent of Muslims are eager to assimilate. Bukhari sees that integration in a new generation of Muslim professionals. He says this generation has started asserting itself socially and politically.

Amat’ullah agrees, but says “We have gone about it reversely. “We have pushed for political engagement and we don’t want to do the messy hard work of civic participation.”

5 Comments

  1. Arshad Haroon says:

    Jehangir has done a thorough research and have brought forward new insights into the ethno religious American mix with respect to Muslims their perceptions, their optimism in America. Good work keep it up.

  2. Durre Shahwar says:

    A very neutral and objective analysis of the Muslim Americans. I think, they also need to play a role in the media to work against Islamophobia and I think this article is a very good effort of Jehangir Khattak.

  3. Mr. Khattak’s article is concise and covers a range of perspectives within the Muslimg community. The title is apt. in capturing the true feelings of the Muslim community as it looks forward to the future while the 10th anniversary of September 11th is on its way.

  4. Alamgir Khan says:

    Jehangir has been very objective and dispassionate in his analysis about Isalmophobia among the US public. It is very well researched piece. We must remember that to reach any meaningful solution to the problems confronting the Muslim communities’ around the globe, we have to learn to be objective in our approach. Any debate sans objectivity is a mere point scoring game in which substance gets dissolved in rhetoric—end product of such debates more confusion and heartburns. Ironically we keep castigating others for misinterpreting (by design or default) our religion but what we do in Muslim countries to our fellow Muslims? What is that? The suggestion of a difficult intra Muslim debate given by a lady of African origin is really the need of the hour.

  5. s. mudassir ali shah says:

    I’m pleased to note that my longtime colleague Jehangir Khattak has carved out a niche for himself as a journalist in the US. His analysis of the situation is indubitably incisive and insightful.

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