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A year later, exploring what it meansto be an American and to be a Muslim



The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:


"There are more American Muslims than there are American Episcopalians, Jews or Presbyterians," writes the religious scholar Diana Eck.
Nonetheless, Sept. 11 changed how some Americans think about Muslims. It also challenged how Muslims in America see themselves. A year later, many reject the spiked yoke of collective blame and explore and assert a centuries old heritage in America.

This weekly six-part series explores the state of Muslims in America, one year later.

During the past year, some Muslims have drifted away from openly practicing their religion, frightened by new stigmas and scrutiny. Some have fled the country. Others are seriously considering it, citing a lessening quality of life and incidents of biases that are uncomfortable reminders of places they abandoned.

For Muslims who've lived in this country for generations, and for those who just arrived in the past 10 years or so, the terrorist attacks were a horror. But the aftermath and its effect on Muslims in America came as no great shock. The Council on American Islamic Relations alone fielded 1,516 complaints -- a three-fold increase from the previous year -- mostly concerning "bias-motivated harassment and violence."

Many eighth-, ninth- and 10th-generation Americans who are Muslims (born, converted or reverted) understand that with the privileges of citizenship come responsibilities of pluralism and democracy. A recent CAIR poll found 70 percent of the estimated 7 million Muslims in America say they're looking forward to voting in the coming elections.

More and more, the term "American Muslim" extends far beyond making the five requisite prayers while kneeling on U.S. soil.

Recalling a Muslim hero who died at ground zero

His is the latest Muslim name written in American history. Specifically, Title 1, Section 102a, Part 6 of The Patriot Act.

It reads: "Many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have acted heroically during the attacks on the United States, including Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New Yorker of Pakistani descent, who is believed to have gone to the World Trade Center to offer rescue assistance and is now missing."

His youngest brother, with whom he shared an upstairs bedroom, would turn 18 the next day, Sept. 12. "He was waiting for his brother to come home and give him $100," his mother, Talat, said.

"I still find it very difficult to talk about him in the past tense," she said while washing dishes in her Queens, N.Y., home. This time last year, Salman, a research assistant, was on his way to work at Rockefeller University.

By the following week, the Hamdanis were hoping Salman was one of the detainees. His remains were identified March 21, 2002. Hundreds attended his funeral at an East 96th Street mosque this spring. His coffin was draped in the American flag. New York's mayor and police commissioner attended.

Zulfiqar Ali Shah, president of the New York-based Islamic Circle of North America, counted Hamdani among the 100 to 300 Muslims who died in the World Trade Center.

This first anniversary, the Hamdanis plan to visit ground zero. Later in the evening, they'll attend an interfaith vigil on the Brooklyn Promenade.

The oldest of three sons, Salman was "the foundation of the family," said Talat, who joined a group of six women affected by the terrorist attacks called 9-11 Families for a Peaceful Tomorrow. One member lost her family in Afghanistan.

Psychologically, the attacks and their aftermath have been extremely difficult for American Muslims. U.S. Public Health Service Capt. John Tuskan Jr. said the group might be facing challenges beyond the already enormous national and global effects.

In November, Tuskan's office held a "listening session" with Arabs, Muslims and mental health professionals from various backgrounds. "There was a profound sadness and a fear of blame and stigmatization," said Tuskan. "A lot of them expressed grief and fear."

High beams on low-profile community

Many here are wondering, "Can I be safe being a Muslim" in America? said Tuskan.

In the face of backlash and sweeping civil liberty changes, some born overseas are questioning: How American am I? "They felt comfortable before. Now their American-born children are afraid to go to school," he said.

"I'm apprehensive with my second one," said Hamdani. "He looks purely Mideastern."

The family made hajj last winter. "On our way back from Mecca, I made him shave his beard before we got back to America."

Today Hamdani speaks at functions about her oldest son and her religion "of peace."

"I think I felt compelled to speak out because of my faith. Because of this tragedy, terrorism and Islam has become synonymous. I had to fight that. Most of the media projections of Muslims were very negative," she said. "There should be some consequences for them trashing any religion."

Tuskan said all Muslims aren't necessarily feeling under siege. Some see profiling as an uncomfortable but necessary duty. "Many immigrants come from multiethnic, open societies," he said. Even those who don't, understand how much worse things could be.

A Muslim colleague and friend, Dr. Abdul Basit, at the University of Chicago, assured Tuskan at the conference he was doing fine. "'I'm from India. In many parts of the world, I'd be dead by now.'"

Basit, director of multicultural mental health services at the University of Chicago Center for Psychological Rehabilitation, has lived in the States since 1963. Just after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by a band of Sikhs in October 1984, thousands were burned alive in Delhi, he remembers.

Though Basit notes that there is great insecurity and anxiety because of the initial attacks and subsequent discrimination, "until terrorism subsides, it will linger," he said. With patience and diligence, it will pass, said Basit.

"We must accept that people are reacting emotionally because they have been attacked." He said America needs to be better educated about Muslims. At the same time, Muslims should use nonviolent means to resist bias and move on with their lives. And "don't forget the spiritual dimension," said Basit.

Though Tuskan says those who collectively blame all Muslims for Sept. 11 are in the minority, it is an extremely vocal, well-connected minority.

"Partly, Muslims are responsible for these attitudes," Basit said. "Some still live in their cocoons."

He criticizes Islamic schools whose faculty may know Arabic and Islamic history but don't know much about America or the rest of the world. They are not practicing Islam within the cultural context of the times, though that is exactly the challenge that the prophet Muhammad prescribed. Many times, children and teens who are born here, Basit said, feel a generational disconnection.

Catastrophy sculpts national identity

"Over the long run," said Tuskan, Muslims in the Americas are "finding a renewed identity as Muslims."

It's one that draws them much closer to that of indigenous Muslim groups who, many times, have been judged negatively for being "too American" to be authentically Muslim. Too Muslim to be authentically American.

"The biggest issue Muslims need to address is internally," said Basit. "Muslims are stuck in the past; ready to criticize. Intercultural conflicts have to be addressed among people who can't differentiate between culture and religion."

For Muslim Americans, their shared experiences this past year have opened the door to greater cross-cultural alliances. "The more profound the event, the more they can come together and have a shared identity," said Tuskan.

As many American Muslims move closer to a national identity, they may face social resistance as perpetually "marginal," even when they've been here for generations and in reality very much be a part of mainstream America.

Author and religious scholar Diana Eck says that just as racial diversity dominated 20th century discourse in this country, religious pluralism, a "Main Street phenomenon," will emerge as the bellwether of this century. This idea is something that some indigenous American Muslim leaders, like African-American Imam Warith D. Muhammad, have preached for years.

America traditionally lauds itself as being an open nation of immigrants. By comparison, Europeans tend to base their national sense of citizenship on ethnicity.

In the States, stubborn vestiges of this way of thinking become evident in some post 9-11 attitudes. There is this idea, expressed over and over in every imaginable way, that some immigrant Americans are, by nature, more representatively American based on ethnicity and, secondly, religion.

Muslims have always been here. They simply did not always openly practice their religion. By the 1900s, great waves of Muslims and Europeans arrived. And some native-born Americans were beginning to practice Islam more openly.

"My parents came then," from Croatia, said Tuskan. "There was a lot of talk about assimilation, whether you were Italian, Polish, Croatian. . . . The expectation was you'd buy into the American culture, the American dream. The payoff was your children would have better opportunities."

As the themes of diversity and multiculturalism moved to the fore, the idea emerged that it wasn't always healthy for some to give up everything about themselves, he said. In 1965, immigration laws eliminated quotas.

"If we really want to live in this country, and we do," said Basit, "we have to find out what does it mean that my neighbor is Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish. Some say they don't need to know. It goes both ways. If you want others to know Islam is peace, you have to be open to who they are. No where in the Quran does it say only Muslims are going to heaven."

The challenge, says Tuskan, is to respect the richness of cultural diversity. But still have some shared values as Americans. "'Cause if you don't, you have this balkanization of identity. From a psychological standpoint, we want to value differences. But we have to know when to come together on shared values and vision."

"Be proud to be a Muslim," said Talat Hamdani. "And if you're an American Muslim, be prouder. 'Cause you're carrying the cross right now. We will come out stronger for it."

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