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Fort Worth Weekly Online -- fwweekly.com | news
 

By Naureen Shah
FW Weekly.com

For most of my life, my voice has cleared up any misconceptions. All-American, with accents only of Texas and lately a hint of Chicago, my voice has always been my "get out of ethnicity free" card, whether I've known it or not. If my teachers threw me glowering glances on the first day of school, I hastily raised my hand to clarify that, though different-looking, I was same-sounding. I thought that for the wayward traveler who happened to my family's door to sell Girl Scout cookies or collect a bill, my bland, American English might be a welcome respite from my mother's at-first-bewildering accent. And this thing, this sound I had that was genuinely common and regular, worked as a talisman against the evils that befall people who are thought of as different and therefore scary.

One day in eighth grade my talisman stopped working, at least for a few minutes. It was the day after the Oklahoma City bombing, and we had been herded to the front of the school under the pretense of a routine fire drill. Actually, the rumor went, a bomb threat had been phoned in. Those same "Moslems" who blew up Oklahoma City are trying to blow us up. Those Moslems suck. Someone must have realized that Those Moslems included me, and when they turned to glare, my voice got me nowhere. Before things could escalate, a teacher came around to maintain the lie that this was only a fire drill. It's only a drill, she said, it's not the Real Thing. Everything is OK.

Between then and last September, I was subjected to only a few rather routine reality checks. The name-calling was at first more startling than offensive, and later more farcical than fear-inducing. Really, how seriously can you take the threats of someone who can't discern the Middle East from South Asia and calls you a camel-jockey instead of a coolie?

 

The Denton mosque was one of those attacked after Sept. 11.
 

You can take them pretty seriously, now that all the drills are over and the Real Thing, Sept. 11, has happened. At the reports of Muslims or Muslim look-alikes (Sikhs, Arab Christians, and others who have been mistaken for the evil ones) being harassed, cornered, or even killed, you can shrug your shoulders or shake your head. It doesn't matter what your reaction is because if you voice it, you won't be heard in the same way you were heard before. Your voice no longer overwhelms your color, your features, your look. The Real Thing has happened, and, finally, you are being perceived as what you always have been -- different.

Many Americans, without doubt, feel differently today than they did on Sept. 10, 2001. But perhaps no group has been affected more in terms of political and social life than Muslims. For every four Muslims I spoke with in the course of writing this article, three recalled thinking "Oh God, let it not be Muslims. Please, don't make it be us," while watching the constant replays of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. They feared that if Muslims were held responsible, their own lives would be changed profoundly. They wondered how coldly they would be received in the political arena, how everyday people would react to them, and even how safe they'd be in a place they'd become accustomed to calling home. The firebombing of mosques, attacks on individuals, and FBI and INS dragnets that landed thousands of recent Muslim immigrants in jail without access to attorneys -- these incidents justified the fears of many Muslim Americans.

Today, some continue to live with that fear. The specter of internment camps drives them to send money to Switzerland or their countries of origin, a hedge against the hoped-against future date when they might no longer feel safe here. They resist inclinations to donate to Muslim causes and charities that could later be designated "terrorist," though zakah (aid to the poor) is a core part of their faith. Some have begun to examine their culture and their beliefs to find out how compatible they are with an increasingly curious and sometimes hostile American culture. Muslims in 2002 are asking themselves questions they did not have or avoided before -- can I assimilate, or does assimilation destroy what it is to be Muslim? Will my community support the War on Terrorism, or is the War on Terrorism being waged against my community? Do I belong here now, or did I ever?

At a wedding celebration at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dallas, to speak of 9/11 is almost a faux pas. As more than 500 Muslims overtake the buffet tables and alcohol-empty bars, a feeling of wealth and health abounds. Friends gush, college plans are announced, and any worries for the future are purely of a matrimonial nature -- every wedding means one less good catch in the pool for anxious mothers to reel in.

In the post-9/11 world, but specifically in the rich elite world of some Metroplex Muslims, the ones suspiciously eyed by the Four Seasons security crew are the ones who aren't in Muslim garb. In this insular setting, ordinary non-Muslim white people -- who easily enter and leave the metal detectors everywhere else -- are the outsiders who don't share the manner of dress, speech and looks that is "normal." Maybe the bizarre security management goes unnoticed because most of the people partying hard this evening are used to high-class treatment -- they are doctors, engineers, and successful entrepreneurs. Perhaps the arrests, detentions, and harassment by law enforcement aren't happening to them so much as they are to recent, less affluent immigrants. There is no way to be sure, because the INS no longer releases the names of those whom it has held or still holds in custody. And even if only a minority of Muslims are being arrested or attacked, the majority sometimes acts as if detentions are an epidemic instead of rare occurrences. The rumor mill churns. Did you hear? They have started going to the houses of Muslims who've donated to Islamic charities and demanding that they pay an equal sum to the Red Cross. If you don't have the money, They'll throw you in jail. And if you "go back" to see your parents in Pakistan, Egypt, or wherever, you will be suspected of aiding and abetting the terrorists. If you buy a Qu'ran at the bookstore, They might tap your phones.

The rumors may be outlandish, but at least some of the fears are grounded in the reality of backlash against Muslims. Three North Texas mosques -- in Carrollton, Denton, and Irving -- were attacked after Sept. 11, one by a Molotov cocktail. The Muslim political response has varied -- some have reacted angrily to the violence while others, it seems, quietly struggle to accept it.

Maryam Khan clearly remembers driving to school on one of those mornings soon after Sept. 11 and hearing a comedic bit on 102.1, The Edge. According to Maryam, Edge announcers explained they had a Muslim woman in the studio who wore hijab, or religious covering of the body. As they explained that the woman was being stripped to nakedness, they played a tape of a screaming female voice.

Talking about the jokes made about Muslims after Sept. 11 is emotional for Maryam, a 17-year-old who recently graduated from Dallas' prestigious Hockaday School, but she keeps her reactions subdued. She seems to mute her disgust, only saying that the The Edge joke made her think people needed to be more educated about Islam. (The Edge did not reply to requests for comment.)

"I've felt paranoid, but [the hate] is always happening to some population group, and it's been a lot worse for other people," she said.

Perhaps Maryam learned that control from her mother, who has been a leader in the Dallas-based American Muslim Caucus since its inception in 1990. Yasmin Khan is a Pakistan-born physician and single mother who came to the United States in 1977. She intersperses distinctly American phrases like "standing on your head" and "wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole" in her conversation as naturally as most Muslim Americans use "In'shallah" (God willing) and "Allahuakbar" (God is great).

Yasmin displayed no anger as she sipped tea and explained that -- despite the money and votes the American Muslim Caucus and other Muslim groups gathered for Republican candidates during the 1990s and the most recent presidential election -- the Republican Party has virtually ignored the concerns of Muslims victimized by the post-9/11 crackdown on civil liberties. She takes the desertion in stride, admitting that Muslim political organizations have little to offer Republicans who are afraid of the negative associations.

"All Muslim organizations have raised their voice against the injustice of painting all Muslims with the same brush. But [we're] in the infancy stage -- we have no money, no political organization, and no political clout," she said.

Still, Khan and other groups like CAIR and the American Muslim Council managed to organize the Arab and Muslim Ballot Box Barbeque at Texas Stadium this June and invited dozens of local and state politicians to attend. Rick Perry, who has attended Muslim political fundraisers before and benefited from them, sent his regrets. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, sent his wife. But Khan said the barbecue was a success -- turnout was estimated at more than 7,000, and the event was covered by major newspapers. She described it as a bold step in grassroots organizing but added that most Muslims are not politically active or informed enough for such organization to overcome the prejudice created by 9/11. Activism around international conflict issues like Palestine, Kashmir, and Chechnya must come second to efforts to build an America-oriented Muslim political presence, she said.

"Your luxury of being an observer [in politics] has been taken away by 9/11," she said. "You have to go out there and work to re-establish that American Muslims are a great asset to the U.S. And [you] have to decide that the reason to be part of any political party is the betterment of this country -- first, second, and last."

 


Parker: 'It's our mistake that we didn't deliver the message a long time ago.'

 

But it is unclear what influences most Muslim Americans' foreign policy opinions. Their views differ from those of other Americans, sometimes substantially. More Muslim Americans (78 percent) believe that American foreign policy in the Middle East led to the Sept. 11 attacks than other Americans (58 percent), according to a Zogby International poll released in July and an L.A. Times poll done last September, respectively. Zogby reports that 58 percent of Muslim Americans approved of the way President Bush handled the attacks, compared to 85 percent nationally. And almost two-thirds of Muslim Americans believe that the military effort in Afghanistan could lead to further attacks, compared to 50 percent of all Americans, according to an October 2001 ABC/Washington Post poll.

At another wedding party, the setting is distinctly less opulent and less formal. It is a Sunday night, and the small number of people in attendance creates a more relaxed and intimate mood. Women sport silk instead of cotton because they are attending an evening party, but necks, wrists, and fingers are not weighed down by the diamonds and gold that most society weddings demand. Again, families exchange news of matrimony, graduation, and accreditation. But, perhaps due to the casual nature of the night, they share more. They speak of their children not just in terms of achievement, but also in terms of hope -- and fear.

Pakistani-American Naeem (not his real name) hopes that his only daughter will become a broadcast journalist. He wants her to be one of those specialists CNN brings in to talk about the Middle East and Islam. He wants her to define jihad, hijab, fatwa, and those other Arabic words that have been tossed around newsrooms mostly by non-Muslim journalists. He wants her to speak up about being Muslim, to let people know what's really going on in the Muslim-American mind.

But, for the first time in his life, Naeem, 51, an established cardiologist and family man, is afraid to speak up himself. Before Sept. 11, he would have given his name freely. He has always been interested in politics and world affairs, but now he finds himself holding back his opinions in discussions. He restrains himself from commenting on viciously racist comments in AOL chat rooms. He's cautious even when speaking to his patients, many of whom expressed concern for his safety after Sept. 11.

It's not that he fears his patients. "But you always wonder, how far can this conversation go?" he said. "It's almost like the old Soviet Union now; you worry about who will report you. It's the norm for me not to speak my mind on this particular issue."

Naeem's primary fear is not of being arrested by the government, although the Patriot Act (a federal act that allows the government to monitor internet chat conversations, among other things) and Operation TIPS (a volunteerism initiative being pursued by the Justice Department that would recruit civilians like postal workers and truck drivers to report "suspicious activities") show that such a fear is well-founded. Instead, Naeem, a wealthy homeowner who arrived in the United States in 1976, fears most for his and his family's physical safety.

"If my wife and I go to the beach for a vacation, we won't walk to a place isolated or secluded. We will not walk on the beach alone without fear -- never again will we walk alone," he said.

Naeem's daughter, the one he hopes will be a broadcast journalist some day, is only 14 now, so she doesn't know exactly what she wants to do. As Naeem thought of her uncertain future, he sighed. "Now I wonder for the first time if I will be able to stay here for the rest of my life," he said. "Ask around here. Everyone does."

Perhaps if Muslims were like the rest of America, they'd angrily march to city council demanding a response to terrorist attacks on their communities -- the mosque bombings, physical harassment, and verbal abuse. They'd write to the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram demanding that the terror stop, and maybe they'd even start putting crescent-star stickers on their cars as a sign of Muslim solidarity.

Certainly not all of them quietly accepted the backlash against Muslims. The Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported that, after the mosque attacks, area imams, or religious leaders, did approach CAIR for help and legal advice. But few individual Muslims have contacted CAIR, said Tamir Ayad, the organization's secretary. Since Sept. 11, Ayad has gone to area mosques to ask individuals to report discrimination or abuse and to become involved politically.

The majority of his audience, he said, realizes that political involvement is now more necessary than ever, but a small minority that includes both white Muslim Americans and recent immigrants hesitate to become involved with CAIR. "Some people are just afraid -- they come from dictatorships in which [activism] is taboo," Ayad said. "Others feel that, from a religious standpoint, they can't give their allegiance to something or someone that is non-Muslim [because] they'd be committing anti-Islamic behavior." Some Muslims consider a vote or campaign donation so serious and personal an action that giving that kind of support to a non-Muslim would be a religious infraction they are not willing to incur.

Many mosques took an interest in political issues such as U.S. aid to Israel and involvement in Bosnia before Sept. 11, usually through raising money for war victims and refugees; some mosques have raised money for charitable groups that have been accused of supporting terrorism. But since then, groups like CAIR have pushed mainstream political participation as an answer to both foreign policy and domestic concerns. Responses have been mixed.

"When we started to bring politics into the mosque it was a polarizing issue," Ayad said. "The biggest ideological difference in Muslims is between those who believe we need to become part of the fabric of the United States and those who believe that the United States has to change [for Islam]."

The latter, explained Ayad, are a tiny minority of Muslims, wide-ranging in ages and ethnicity, who oppose participation in mainstream politics. They believe the United States will have to transform to accommodate their version of Islam, which is wholly unlike mainstream religions such as Christianity. That transformation would involve improving the morals of society and creating a state that accommodates Islamic law. Such Muslims are not interested in changing the United States through the political system, Ayad said, but are also wholly opposed to the violent methods of so-called Islamic extremists, including those who participated in the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead, they are isolationists who avoid contact with the non-Muslim world.

 

Feryal Subhani's students had questions about jihad
 

"They don't want to go to social activities or change their way of life and their religion, and they're not into building relationships [with outsiders]," Ayad said. "They talk to people in one-on-one conversations and try to convince them to change the value system, improve their morals. They have a different plan."

If a few Muslim Americans side with -- or at least understand -- the emotions that produced the al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, they're not likely to say so publicly. But the confusion of children whose parents are virulently anti-American makes clear that people with al Qaeda sympathies do exist in the Muslim community, said Feryal Subhani. She has taught teenagers in a local Islamic Sunday school program for the past seven years. After 9/11, she made time for students to ask about concepts like jihad and terrorism. "A lot of kids had questions about jihad because their parents were pro-jihad and had agreed with the attacks. [The teens] talked about Gandhi and Martin Luther King and didn't understand why we had to go to war to get [Islam's] message across," she said. Younger kids asked her questions like "Are we like them [al Qaeda]?" and "Do we really believe that?" and "Do I have to go fight [for Islam]?" The questions didn't surprise Subhani.

Subhani said the differences she has observed in her students' opinions and knowledge of the War on Terrorism fall along socio-economic lines, as much else does in the school's primarily Pakistani community. The kids who were unsure of where Muslims stand on terrorism, she said, are the ones whose parents are recent immigrants or from lower-income backgrounds. Like other Muslims I spoke with, she said the difference in views owes to differences in education. "In Pakistan, there is no public education. So [the parents] went to religious schools where they're brainwashed and they blame all their problems on developed countries. They come [to the United States] with tunnel vision."

Subhani fielded her Muslim students' questions easily, explaining in perfect English that jihad was a personal, spiritual struggle, not war. She has lived in the United States for 17 years, more than half of her life, and has a deep sense of commitment to both the Muslim community and the broader American community. So when, as a public-school substitute teacher in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, she was confronted by Bible-thumping students saying, "You are the Taliban," and reciting passages from the Bible, her response was frustration, not anger. She blames the ignorance of her American students about Islam first on the isolation of the Muslim community, which has its own social gatherings about every weekend, and second on the Western-oriented social studies curriculum.

At one school, she witnessed discrimination against a Palestinian boy who was having difficulty with English. The boy told her that teachers hated him, that she was the only person who could help him. But she blames his frustration partly on cultural differences, on the fact that he comes from a patriarchal society and so did not respect his female teachers. The key, Subhani said, is for Muslims to join the American community and clear up misconceptions about Islam. But she admits it's tough to balance assimilation into American culture with the maintenance of a Pakistani and Muslim culture that underplays American values like independence in favor of family and community. "Our society emphasizes community, but our kids want to have the independence they see in school," she said. "It's a daily struggle."

Some Muslim American children do not face the culture clash in school because they attend Islamic schools that are perhaps even more conservative or religious than the private secular or Christian missionary schools their parents attended. Brighter Horizons Academy in Garland is large for a Muslim-run school and is connected with an equally large mosque -- the Richardson-based Dallas Central Mosque.

When Suzanne Hitto, a fourth-grade teacher at Brighter Horizons, described the post-Sept. 11 backlash, she used words that might describe an unruly student. Bomb threats must be a lot more routine at Brighter Horizons than they were at my middle school back during the Oklahoma City bombing aftermath -- I remember getting to go home for the day, but Brighter Horizons simply brought in a psychiatrist to speak with the kids and held school forums to discuss the 9/11 attacks.

Not many of Hitto's students opted to speak with the school-provided psychiatrist, but she did notice changes in their behavior. "There's a lot of stress simply [because] a lot of them have family overseas. Families sit and watch satellite news and it affects them."

The kids asked -- "Why are they doing that to those innocent people?"

At Brighter Horizons, "that" usually meant the bombing of Afghanistan or slaying of Palestinians and "those innocent people" were Muslims who are collateral damage in the War on Terrorism. In Subhani's public-school class the same question may have been posed with quite different sympathies -- "that" would have been the attacks in New York and D.C., and "those innocent people," would, of course, be Americans.

Humdan Durrani, 22, was confident the day he drove to Crawford with some Richland College buddies. For a while, his mother had been anxious about his safety, but he wasn't. He'd helped organize open-house events at the Dallas Central Mosque and been pleasantly surprised by the country he'd immigrated to as a 2-year-old. Despite the persistence of scandal surrounding some Richardson Muslims allegedly linked to terrorism, it seemed to him that people genuinely wanted to understand Islam.

So he was optimistic as he began driving to George W. Bush's ranch to protest U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine in the good old-fashioned American way -- with grins and gumption. Then, in the middle of nowhere, he got lost. Eventually, Durrani and his friends stopped in a small town they still don't know the name of.

Hesitantly stepping into a little antique shop to ask for directions, they received the kind of stares that scruffy and scary barflies give to strangers on Gunsmoke. Durrani's earlier optimism was replaced by alarm. He was half-Afghani and half-Pakistani -- was it obvious? He had a goatee, his friend a beard, and all the friends shared a suspicious tan.

One of the glaring men finally asked -- "Are you Palestinian?" Durrani answered honestly and prepared himself for the fall-out. But he was once again surprised. "They said we had their support. Then they told us not to go through another town because there were racists [there]," Durrani said. "We went in thinking these people would be hateful, but it turned out the opposite -- we were the ones with the prejudices."

The irony wasn't lost on Durrani, who has been active in his college's Muslim Students Association. "It's unfortunate that it was September 11 that had to bring out these [issues], but now there's a lot more understanding and respect," he said. "You yourself have questions -- what does Islam say about this? [Now] I understand myself and my religion more, I'm more confident in my beliefs."

fter the windows were smashed at Khurram Tareen's dry-cleaning business in Arlington a few days after Sept. 11, he put up American flags everywhere. He and his family took down the suras, or Quranic verses, hanging from their cars' rearview mirrors. Together the family, which has lived in the Metroplex for more than 10 years, removed their Pakistani flags from their key rings. The $1,000 worth of damage to their store didn't make the Tareen family very angry, but it made them cautious. Amber, their 21-year-old daughter, was asked not to go out too much with her friends. After all, how would Americans feel watching brown people laugh and have fun after such a tragedy? They might blow up. There's no point in adding to the tension, Amber was told.

After 9/11, Amber was not hassled walking to and from classes at UT-Arlington. Though she has friends who were called names and told to "go back," she never experienced such racism herself. Still, Amber takes little at face value. "I think about my teachers, and it's always in the back of my mind: Are they judging me as Desi [of Pakistani or Indian descent]?" she said. "Now, I think twice about what I do or say. But you're brown no matter what you say. You're always going to be walking on eggshells."

Amber's younger cousin, Hina Tareen, is a 14-year-old entering her first year at Colleyville Heritage High School. Unlike Amber, she doesn't think twice about what she says, but she admits that since the attacks, things have become confusing. "All of a sudden, the whole news [report] is talking about Muslims, and most of the stuff isn't true." Hina said she doesn't really think about the attacks or how her life has changed since them. But when prodded, she makes a prediction that echoes her cousin's -- a prediction about what it now means to be "brown," or Pakistani. "Now when I'm looking for a job they might not give it to me. This is another thing against us," she said. "[The news] says we're all terrorists. But I was born here, they should know -- we're still American."

My sister Sadia, 24, and brother Zafar, 22, sometimes act like twins who were separated at birth. They are wildly different politically, with Zafar sporting Ralph Nader pins and Sadia trekking to Republican primaries to vote for John McCain. Sadia reads Scientific American for fun and discusses gastrointerology with Dad the doctor. Zafar spent more time at UT-Austin picketing than plowing through textbooks. They delightedly share in c.d.'s and cynicism, indie movies and witty diatribes, but everything they have in common is apolitical. So it surprises me that their reactions to Sept. 11 are similar, only tinged with different experiences.

Sadia is fair-skinned and so probably looks more Arab than Pakistani. During the Gulf War, she was called "Sadia Arabia" a few times, but it didn't seem to scar her. Maybe that's because she always assumed that most Americans were color-blind. "That's what we've been told, but it's not true," she said. Since Sept. 11, she's felt displaced. "It's like being neither here nor there," she remarked, borrowing a phrase my mother often uses to describe hairstyles that aren't short and aren't long. "Over there [Pakistan], I don't know how to drink tea properly or speak the language correctly. But if I'm here, I can tell that people are looking at me differently than they used to. I've become one of those people who, whenever I have to wait for service, thinks that I'm waiting because [the server] is being racist. I wasn't like that before."

 

Bakali: 'Let's correct some of the stereotypes.'
 

But Zafar was. Ever since he grew out of comic books, Zafar has questioned the agenda of those around him. Finding bits of bacon on his pancakes at Denny's infuriates him, whether he thinks it was done intentionally or not. And now, Zafar fits the "terrorist profile" and he knows it. Sliding off your Dr. Martens at the airport takes on a new meaning when you realize that security officials are inspecting your shoes a lot more closely than those of the grandmother next to you for one reason: your physical resemblance to madmen.

What concerns Zafar now is not so much what he sees as the blatantly racist treatment of Muslims -- after all, racism existed before 9/11 -- but the effectiveness of the Muslim reaction to what happened that day. Scorning Ralph Lauren Polo and other sweatshop-produced garments my mother buys for him, my brother rages against the Muslim-American establishment, which I'm sure few people outside the Muslim community know exists.

"The only leaders we have, specifically in Fort Worth, are the figureheads of the rich," he said. "The 'Muslim American' ideology in this town flows from a particular class and culture -- a high culture that will always seek to repudiate low-brow Islam, low-class Muslims, and the low intelligence of real political power." Low-brow Islam may or may not mean extreme forms of Islam, ones that are anti-assimilationist or anti-American. It is nevertheless true that the blame game, in which leaders say "Those who are anti-American are poor and uneducated and not like us, who are very American," exists in the Fort Worth Muslim community, which seems predominantly upper- and upper-middle class (no statistics are available, though CAIR-DFW is seeking to conduct a full survey of the Muslim-American population).

Zafar rails against the idea that Muslims are more politically united since 9/11, explaining that organizations such as the American Muslim Caucus do not represent the interests of those who have been most victimized by the post-9/11 crackdown on civil liberties.

"Muslims in Fort Worth may feel under attack. But why? Is it sympathy pains? The [INS holding centers] are on the East Coast, the 'voluntary interviews' are in Michigan and Illinois. Where does the wealth [of Muslims in America] go? A fancy mosque in the suburbs? A 'caucus' or 'council' comprised of self-absorbed doctors and engineers? It certainly isn't helping anyone in the U.S."

What that money and political involvement is doing, Zafar says, is furthering a trend toward assimilation that some, like Subhani, think will salvage the image of Muslims. But to Zafar, assimilating into mainstream politics means avoiding the real issue of political empowerment.

"September 11 is the historical turning point for Muslim Americans insofar as they push for assimilation into the American mainstream -- the affluent, politically influential and conformist American mainstream where fighting for the disenfranchised isn't the point at all. When I see a Million Muslim March on Washington--a million Muslims of all classes and races and sexes and sexualities marching for the rights of all of America's oppressed-- then I will feel a lot more confident about Muslim-American unity post-9/11."

African-Americans make up 42 percent of Muslims in the United States (by far the largest portion), according to a 1992 report from the Muslim American Council. But the National Asian Pacific Legal Consortium has found that most hate crimes against Muslims after Sept. 11 were against South Asians. Yet, even if African-American Muslims are largely unaffected by Sept. 11 in terms of fear for their safety, they still have plenty to reckon with. The neutral or even positive image of Islam as a rehabilitating religion for prison inmates (among whom Islam has a high conversion rate) or religion of champions like boxer Muhammad Ali and NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon has been challenged by the Islam-terror connection presented in media reports.

Nigerian-American Asli Parker wasn't worried about a cold reception for her own young children, whom she is raising with her African-American husband, but after 9/11 she went out of her way to try to ensure that other Muslim American kids would not be insulted because of ignorance. She spoke to fourth- and fifth-grade classes at a Dallas elementary school about the basics of Islam. Afterward, she was asked questions that might startle most other Americans, like "Why did you do this?" But the questions didn't upset her. "I said to them, 'I'm sorry, I cannot tell you who did it. Only God knows,' " she said.

Parker wears hijab, and after Sept. 11 she was heartbroken by the intolerance she felt when, as she drove down the highway, she was treated to horn-blowing and middle-fingering. But the lasting effects of 9/11, she said, have been good for Islam. "A lot of people were really interested to learn about the Qu'ran," she said. "It's our mistake that we didn't deliver the message a long time ago."

Delivering the message of Islam is part of why 18-year-old Amena Bakali began a Muslim Students Association at R.L. Turner High School in Carrollton last year. But she came up with the idea well before Sept. 11, and it was a coincidence that the principal granted her permission just as Muslim Americans began to take the heat, she said.

Bakali, who wears hijab and is beginning her first year at UT-Dallas, said there was no negative reaction by non-Muslims to the new club, whose dozen or so members successfully lobbied for Muslim prayer accommodations. Bakali mentioned "Osama bin Laden comments" as incidental; what stands out in her memory of the days following 9/11 is the angry reaction of other Muslim students. "Some of them said 'Why the heck are you doing this?' and I said, 'If [others] can have FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] then why can't we have an MSA? Let's correct some stereotypes.' "

When I spoke with Bakali in August, she had not yet stepped through the doors of a college classroom. But she was already active in organizing the DFW Muslim Students Association's big summer event, a music concert in downtown Dallas called Showtime at the Majestic that raised $5000 for Muslim refugees. She talked excitedly about the event and the initial opposition of "the adults," who thought that concerts and Islam didn't mix. She and other young Muslims are mired in the classic American struggle with their elders; they want to assert their independence but be respectful, too. So when I asked her how Sept. 11 has permanently affected her life, the question felt irrelevant.

"I don't see it directly affecting my life," she said. "But I'm going to have to respond to people [who ask questions about Islam]. People have more to say now ... more respect, more time to listen."

 


I empathize with few of the people I spoke with in the course of writing this article. I do not fear for my safety in the way that Naeem does, and I certainly do not think of "going back" to a place I never went to in the first place, since I live in the exact same county I was born and raised in. I don't often think twice about what I say in college classes as Amber does, maybe because I still think that if I speak up, my voice will overwhelm any objections to what I say. I don't even consider how much 9/11 has affected my job prospects.

Americans may be more willing to hear about Islam now, more tolerant of what's different, and more interested in what used to only be Over There. But I'm not eager to lecture about it. I'm not sure how much I like being the "visible" and "controversial" minority discussed on CNN Headline News, in AOL chat rooms, or during the lunch break. I've been listening to Michael Jackson sing "It doesn't matter if you're black or white" for a long time. Amid the celebration of "color blindness," I thought most people had forgotten there were races in between. So all the attention was at first startling and is now a little distracting from my life. Yes, I had a life before Sept. 11, though honestly, it's hard to remember what I did all day and what people talked to me about back then. It's not that I believe I'm "just like everyone else" or that I'm "ashamed of being Muslim," as my parents sometimes imply when I announce I'm going bowling with friends instead of watching the latest Bollywood flick. It's just that a little less than one year since the Real Thing happened, I'm sick of it and all the notice it's brought me.

Maybe that's because it seems that so many who want to hear about Muslim Americans want to know about the "terrorists" and the "radicals." Being Muslim American doesn't have much to do with either, for me. It means hearing your mom explain that your Pakistani cousin is in big trouble for having the Muslim version of an affair to remember -- coffee with a male classmate. It means being beckoned to the television to hear the latest about Kashmir and (evil) India or Palestine and (awful) Israel from an anchor on Pakistani government television -- oh, the wonder of satellite tv. It means being simultaneously bombarded with the American Dream (if you work hard like us and become a doctor then maybe you'll own a BMW like we do) and the Pakistani Dream (get married to a good Muslim and have four kids, preferably three boys and one girl). These aspects of life were a constant before Sept. 11 and remain so. But few wanted to know about them before last September, and they certainly weren't considered newsworthy enough to make the front page of the daily paper.

But most Muslims don't share my tired reluctance to speak. They want to talk -- about being Muslim, being American, and everything in between. They have a lot of stories to tell -- some are true, but like all Texans, DFW Muslims are prone to telling tall tales. It's true that some Muslims are in hiding -- just as you were right after Sept. 11 when the government said that another attack was imminent. Those folks won't talk -- not even to me, a person who was told "Allah bless you" so many times in the course of interviewing that she forgot whether she was a reporter or a divine messenger. But they'd still like to be heard, if by chance they let something slip to you. They want you to ask, because for all their self-imposed isolation they are lonely for the comfort of community, which probably came easier in their countries of origin. They'd like to speak up, but -- like you -- they're wary of what's different. And the most different thing about this post-9/11 world is that you're talking to them, prodding them, pushing them into a spotlight they've never seen the source of. You're asking them to speak up louder and clearer in a voice that, until now, they never even dreamt of having.

You can reach Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@fwweekly.com

 
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