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Muslim in America

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 2002

"This is the challenge in front of us - to become part of mainstream American institutions."

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- Aly Abuzaakouk, American Muslim Council

"The Koran is very clear: Your neighbors are those where you live. America is our neighborhood, so we have to be loyal to America."

- Muqtedar Khan, Adrian College

For Muslim Americans, the months since Sept. 11 have been a wrenching experience that has brought both the best of times and the worst of times - opening the door to broader acceptance in US society, but then in effect slamming it on their fingers at a time when they might be able to make a valuable contribution.

For most immigrants among them, the attacks sharply clarified that America is their home and the place where their primary interests lie, many Muslims say. The attacks also awoke the moderate Muslim mainstream to its responsibility to actively counter extremism - even in the form of rhetoric.

But for those who have eagerly been working in recent years to move Muslims from the margins to the mainstream of American society, the events threatened a horrendous setback. And subsequent weeks have brought a mix of public support and disheartening treatment.

"The community is confused, scared, not certain of the directions," says Akbar Ahmed, professor of international relations at American University in Washington.

Some Muslim American leaders have worked to educate a somewhat isolationist community about civic responsibilities and rights and to nudge it into US public life. These democrats have had an impact. A recent poll of Muslims (right) shows that 96 percent embrace involvement in civic life, and are active on a wide range of concerns.

Certain aftereffects of Sept. 11 have further encouraged that stance. Never has the Muslim community had more public visibility and official recognition, more access to the news media, more of their neighbors rushing to buy the Koran or interested in learning about Islam.

Ready to serve the country

Yet this emerging and highly educated minority sees itself as an asset the US is failing to take advantage of. "Rather than treating American Muslims as assets - using their knowledge of the Muslim world for diplomacy and even for intelligence - the government is treating them as suspects," Muqtedar Khan, associate professor of political science at Adrian College, in Michigan, said in a recent panel discussion.

America's new vulnerability afflicts them more intensely than others, since the fears of further terrorist acts are compounded by the suspicion now clouding many of their lives. The domestic antiterrorism campaign that reassures the majority of Americans is having the opposite effect on Muslims. While they recognize it as aimed at criminals, many experience it as overreaching.

It's a shock for those born and raised in the US, who have never considered themselves anything but "normal Americans." "Who has the most to lose from a terrorist act?" asks Mustafa, an affable young businessman. "It's Muslim Americans. So we are probably more interested than anyone in ending terrorist activity in the world."

A second-generation American long active in US politics - helping elect the mayor of his large city and attending national party conventions - Mustafa suddenly worries about giving his full name to the press. He sees many examples of the government's campaign going far afield in ways that send a chilling message and disrupt crucial aspects of Muslim life.