Muslim in America

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

- 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."

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- 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.

"My aunt gave a $150 contribution to her local mosque, and the FBI called her up and questioned her at length as to why," he says. "She was stunned. She answered all their questions, but it makes her think twice about making contributions in the future."

More important, the closing down of Muslim charities during Ramadan affected thousands of families, creating consternation over whether they have fulfilled one of the essential obligations of the faith - annually donating 2.5 percent of their net worth to the needy. Many had just made donations days before the government froze all assets.

"This is an intrusion on our religious exercise - our donations should not be frozen but given to the relief objectives," says Aly Abuzaakouk, executive director of the American Muslim Council. "We seem to be in an environment in which people are presumed guilty until proven innocent."

"The US spends half a billion dollars in a PR campaign to woo Muslims," Mustafa notes, "and at the same time shuts down charities right at the wrong time - that's not smart." This is directly felt by Muslims in the US and around the world, he adds.

Many are not convinced the charities have terrorist links and say the government should take them to court. No evidence of a link has been disclosed. Muslims seek disclosure and due process, to end rumors both about the charities and the hundreds of what they term secret detentions. Groups like American Muslim Alliance are providing details on the Patriot Act to help Muslims deal with experiences they may face.

Brian Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman, says some concerns are based on misinformation. "Nobody is being secretly detained." Those held under immigration procedures can contact lawyers and make their names known, and "we've released lists and documents on the 160-plus people being criminally charged."

Still, David Cole, professor of law at Georgetown University, says the government's approach has "sacrificed the liberty of immigrants in general, and Arabs and Muslims in particular." This is wrong, he says, "but also counterproductive, because it leads to over-inclusive law-enforcement measures, which are unlikely to identify actual perpetrators and certain to alienate the very communities we need to be working with to identify true perpetrators."

Liberty and security

Even as they seek to protect civil liberties, Muslims share the desire to keep neighborhoods and streets secure, says Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). They are working to build ties with the Department of Justice and local police departments and sheriffs. "And we are grateful that they foiled the plot of the Jewish Defense League to bomb our office and other Muslim institutions," he says. JDL members were charged last month with conspiracy to bomb the MPAC, a mosque, and the office of a US congressman of Arab descent.

Meanwhile, as the US seeks to change perspectives in the Islamic world, Muslims say, it is overlooking what their community represents: family and friends in many countries, a grasp of both cultures, familiarity with thinking on the streets. They could both inform US policymaking and be a credible voice to ordinary Muslims.

Mohiaddin Mesbahi came to the US from Iran and teaches at Florida International University. "When I go back to Iran and talk about this country, people are amazed," he explains. "The whole image of the US being oppressive against Islam and of the clash of civilizations will fall apart if Muslims are able to speak out without losing their credibility." They will be credible as long as they can also freely critique US policy, he says.

"But the domestic context of civil liberties and the Constitution is critical," he adds. "Muslims first have to feel confident that they are accepted as Americans."

Some are finding, however, that since the war in Afghanistan began, it is difficult to criticize US policy in the region without being considered a potential traitor.

At the same time, many Muslim Americans are critiquing perspectives in the Islamic world. On a website (ijtihad.org) visited by Muslims in dozens of countries, Dr. Khan calls for delegitimizing extremist voices. Muslims must directly confront the issue of how Islam has become a danger to humanity, he says, when the Koran says it was sent as a mercy to humanity.

Such efforts can have costs. One of the most outspoken critics of intolerant strains of Islam, UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, has received death threats, his books have been banned in Saudi Arabia, and he's been denied a visa by Egypt, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Still, it's now clear to American Muslims that "we need to identify, isolate, and weed out fringe elements," says Arsalan Iftikhar, Midwest representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Mr. Marayati says the Muslim mainstream has been too silent, too long, and on Dec. 29, MPAC focused its national convention on the theme, "The Rising Voice of Moderate Muslims."

Many are gratified by President Bush's consistent support of the Muslim community and by the accessibility of other government officials. "The symbolic recognition is very much appreciated," says Mr. Abuzaakouk, "but this can't be a substitute for our increased participation. The challenge in front of us is to become a part of mainstream American institutions."

Who are America's Muslims?

A snapshot from a poll of US Muslims in November by Zogby International

50% earn more than $50,000 annually.

58% are college graduates.

69% are married.

36% were born in the US; the rest come from 80 other countries

32% are South Asian, 26% Arab, 20% African-American, 7% African, and 14% are 'other.'

One-fifth are converts to Islam.

Politics:

79% are registered to vote.

40% are Democrats, 23% Republicans, and 28% Independents.

36% are moderate, 27% are liberal, and 21% are conservative.

They are liberal on some issues - 93% favor both universal healthcare and more generous government assistance to the poor - and conservative on many social issues: They support the death penalty (68%); oppose physician-assisted suicide (61%); support a ban on pornography (65%); and favor making abortions harder to obtain (57%).

They support prayer (53%) and the display of the Ten Commandments in schools (59%), and favor vouchers for private schools (68%).

Participation in American Life:

They support donations to non-Muslim social service programs (96%); getting more involved in civic organizations (96%); and participation in the political process (93%).

They take part in groups helping the poor, sick, elderly, or homeless (77%).

They take part in school or youth programs (69%).

IMPACT OF SEPT. 11:

58% approve President Bush's handling of terrorist attacks.

66% agree the war is being fought against terrorism, not Islam.

68% say the military effort could lead to a more unstable Middle East.

51% support the military action.

67% say a change in US Middle East policy is the best way to wage war against terrorism.

61% say the US should reduce its support of undemocratic regimes in the Muslim world.

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