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Amid dark year for American Muslims, deeper signs of 'hope'

From the massacre of three Muslims in North Carolina to harsh rhetoric in the presidential campaign, American Muslims say this has been a tough time. 

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    Protesters gather outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix in this May file photo. About 500 protesters gathered outside the Phoenix mosque on Friday as police kept two groups sparring about Islam far apart from each other.
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For many American Muslims, the past year has been one of the most difficult in recent memory. Some have even compared the current climate to the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

It’s certainly been the most difficult for Farris Barakat, who has turned to his faith as he grieves after the murder of his brother, his brother’s wife, and her sister in a February attack in North Carolina that many Muslims point to as the most extreme example of anti-Muslim violence this year.

“I do think it’s become a very monumental time for the Muslim American narrative,” Mr. Barakat says in a phone interview. “But the enemy is not the individuals, the enemy is ignorance.”

For a significant number of Americans, Islam in general is perceived as a dangerous foreign other, closely associated with the medieval theologies of Islamic State and Al Qaeda, or the terror attacks carried out by extremists, from the devastations of 9/11 to the massacre this January in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. 

These, coupled with the political intensity of a presidential election season, advocates say, have contributed to an unprecedented climate of overt prejudice and a steady uptick of incidents in some corners of the country. 

“I can say I’ve been working at this organization for over three years, and the number of instances, and the general atmosphere in the country, it’s more than I’ve ever seen,” says Madihha Ahussain, staff attorney with Muslim Advocates in Oakland, Calif., who tracks anti-Muslim incidents and acts of violence and intimidation. “And a lot of people who’ve done this a long time – there’s talk about how it seems even worse than after 9/11.”

GOP presidential primary front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson have spoken out against the Muslim faith, with Mr. Carson saying that he would never vote for a Muslim president, unless he or she was willing to “reject the tenets of Islam.” In September, a Texas teen, Ahmed Mohamed, was handcuffed and arrested after bringing a handmade clock to school. 

Last week, a loose-knit coalition of anti-Muslim protesters calling themselves the “Global Rally for Humanity” attempted to organize a nationwide series of armed, “open carry” protests in front of mosques and Islamic centers across the United States. In May, a similar event in Phoenix drew hundreds of armed protesters in front of an Islamic center.

“It’s actually a very scary time to be Muslim in America,” says Glenn Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates in Oakland, Calif. “I think that it maybe more true now than any time before.”

Yet, even amid this most difficult year, Mr. Katon sees “kernels of hope” that suggest that, beneath the rancor, Muslims are being accepted as an integral part of the American experience.

Last week, for instance, most of the anti-Muslim rallies fizzled, he says, inspiring instead counter rallies of interfaith groups that met to support the mosques being protested. Other protests in Oregon, Florida, and Michigan, also were sparsely attended, outnumbered by those who came in solidarity.

Others glimmers include the groundswell of support for Ahmed, the teenage clockmaker, which included everyone from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to President Obama. And this week, an appeals court decided to reinstate a case brought by Muslim groups against the New York Police Department’s surveillance program instituted after 9/11. The program specifically infiltrated mosques, student groups, and Muslim businesses in New Jersey on the basis of religion. 

The case had been dismissed in early 2014, but this week an appeals panel allowed the case to proceed, saying the NYPD could not target groups simply on the basis of religion or ethnicity. 

"What occurs here in one guise is not new. We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind," the appellate panel said. "We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight – that loyalty is a matter of the heart and mind, not race, creed, or color."

“I don’t know how it’s going to compare with the reverberations of Donald Trump and Ben Carson and the mosque protesters,” says Katon, “but it is shining a light on these government practices and policies against Muslims. This is not who we’re supposed to be as Americans, and when we’ve fallen short of this in our past, it becomes a stain on American history.”

Baseball caps and headscarves

For Nicol Ghazi, an administrator at the Muslim Family Services of Ohio, based in Columbus, and a suburban mother of three, the rhythms of her life have been what some may call “typically American.” 

Ethnically white and native born, like her parents, she is more likely to wear a baseball cap than a headscarf when she goes about her day, she says – but not because she’s worried about how she’ll be perceived. And when she does wear hijab, she’s sometimes amused by the startled looks she gets by those who expect to hear a foreign accent. 

“On a local level, we live in a wonderful community,” says Ms. Ghazi, who is married to a London-born Pakistani physician, and volunteers her time to work on the interfaith efforts of the Noor Islamic Cultural Center in Columbus. And while her high-school aged children do experience some comments now and then about their faith, she attributes this to teenage immaturity. “We don’t see a lot of local hatred or anger – though I know the climate is very different in other cities.”

“So there is a sense of vulnerability, a vulnerability that people are singling out the faith we love, and there is an instinct to protect our families and those in our communities,” she continues.

Those American Muslim communities, however, defy easy categories. There are an estimated 2.75 million Muslims living in the United States, but unlike communities in most any other part the world, American Muslims comprise an ethnic and socioeconomic mosaic. There are Arab immigrants in poor urban enclaves, life-long South Asian residents in sprawling suburban towns, as well as African Americans, converts whose families have been in the country for generations.

And like panoplies of religious sensibilities that define American Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, Muslims in the US live out their faiths in ways beyond easy categorization. 

“We’re a very diverse lot,” says Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program at the New York University School of Law in Manhattan. “You don’t have one particular ethnicity ... there is this incredible diversity of perspectives, diversity of languages. There’s no common cultural heritage. 

Catherine Orsborn, director of the Shoulder to Shoulder interfaith campaign, formed in 2010 to battle anti-Muslim bigotry, was one of the leaders who attended a counter rally at the Masjid Muhammad in Washington. As it turned out, no anti-Muslim protesters showed up. 

“But this is an issue for all of us as Americans,” Ms. Orsborn says. “It has to do with our American identity, this idea about who’s in, or who’s out.”   

And at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center, where Ghazi volunteers, a group of Muslims greeted a lone protester who arrived with anti-Muslim signs. A video that has gone viral showed members of the Center engaging the Global Rally for humanity protester, hugging her and inviting her in for conversation. 

Finding peace in N.C.

For many Muslims, the execution-style killing of Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, who wore hijab, remain like the shootings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. – the most extreme example of anti-Muslim violence this year. The murders ostensibly occurred over a parking space dispute, but the Justice Department is still weighing whether to bring hate crime charges against the alleged killer.

“I’m trying to make sure that people know what Muslims are all about,” Mr. Barakat says. “If there was anything I could have done differently, to get to Craig Hicks [the man charged with his brother's murder], or anybody who has these threatening or completely angry responses to us – I don’t know, in some sense, they’re victims, too, themselves.”

Barakat’s brother’s name, Deah, means “light” in Arabic, and Barakat has started an organization called “Light House,” which seeks to inform people about Islam and the community in Raleigh and other areas of the state.

Barakat, who travelled to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage with his mother after his brother’s death this year, was moved by many expressions of interfaith support. Habitat for Humanity, a predominantly Christian organization, he notes, built a house in honor of his family.   

“In a very strange sense, this has been a rewarding journey as well,” he says, “knowing all the wonderful things about Deah and Yusor and what they lived for, and that they very well could have died at the best part of their lives, and that this is what God chose for them.”

“So it’s not about living in a victimized state,” he continues. “We should just take a moment to celebrate the good and appreciate those who stand up to say, ‘This shouldn’t be how we live.’ ”

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