Being Muslim in Post-9/11 New York

Rabbi Bob Kaplan, Imam Shamsi Ali and Fatima Shama (l to r) (Photo by Jiwon Choi/Voices of NY)

Rabbi Bob Kaplan, Imam Shamsi Ali and Fatima Shama (left to right) (Photo by Jiwon Choi/Voices of NY)

Fatima Shama only “came out” about her faith after September 11.

Shama, a practicing Muslim, felt troubled that her friends and colleagues began to treat her differently after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. Some of the same friends who had attended her wedding in the summer of 2001 – a traditional American wedding, albeit with a Muslim ceremony – began sending her articles railing against Islam in the wake of the attacks.

Shama described her experience in a panel discussion on Muslim life in New York City after September 11, held April 10 at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

“I ‘came out,’ which is a word people in this city use for different things,” Shama said. “But as a New Yorker and an American I wanted to answer the questions my friends and colleagues had about Islam.”

Shama said she spoke more openly about her faith and became active in Muslim organizations around the city. She continued to be outspoken about her faith when she was appointed commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in 2009.

“I realized I couldn’t be afraid of who I am and what Islam is.”

In the panel discussion, Shama and two other speakers, Rabbi Bob Kaplan and Imam Shamsi Ali, each underlined the prejudiced attitudes that September 11 set off among some New Yorkers. They agreed that fostering interfaith conversation is the most important way to combat bigotry in a city as ethnically and culturally diverse as New York.

In attendance at the panel, co-sponsored by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the East-West Center in Honolulu, were a select group of NYC-based Pakistani journalists, as well as a group of 12 journalists visiting the U.S. from Pakistan as part of East-West’s journalist exchange program.

Audience at Panel DiscussionImam Ali, chairman of the Al-Hikmah Mosque in Astoria and director of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, said that most misunderstandings and prejudice arise from lack of interaction and dialogue between different groups.

In the years following September 11, Ali worked especially hard to back programs that promoted exchange between Muslims and Jewish people, two groups with a notoriously tense relationship. He lectured in churches and synagogues and helped to organize the Weekend of Twinning, an annual exchange between rabbis and imams.

“Fortunately here in New York City we can work together despite those different backgrounds,” said Ali.

Ali was one of a handful of religious leaders who met with George W. Bush at ground zero following the September 11 attacks, and participated in Prayer for America at Yankee Stadium.

Rabbi Kaplan, like Ali, is active in New York’s interfaith community. After September 11, Kaplan co-founded a project called We Are All Brooklyn, a coalition of more than 50 diverse community and faith-based organizations in the borough. Kaplan said that he and co-founder Mohammed “Mo” Razvi were alarmed that the number of unreported hate crimes against Muslims in New York was skyrocketing in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

“We needed to make sure that people living in our community were not going to be the subject of a war,”said Kaplan.

Kaplan said that in times of crisis, lashing out and pointing fingers can be a counter-productive knee-jerk reaction.

“You can always blame the other for what happened, but that doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “What we have to ask is, how do we fix our society so that this doesn’t happen again?”

Antonia Massa is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. Pingback: Being Muslim in Post-9/11 New York – Voices of NY | Pakistan-United States Journalists Exchange

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