9/11 and the Muslim civil rights campaign

Islam in America: Part 4

By Ameen Izzadeen

(Deputy Editor the Sunday Times and Daily Mirror-Sri Lanka)

Originally published in Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on Friday, October 24, 2003

In 2003 Ameen Izzadeen spent nearly a month in the United States as a guest of the US State Department. This is part one of a series of observations penned  after his visit. As an outside observer Mr. Izzadeens insights are both enlightening and squarely on the mark.  Mr. Izzadeen addresses the concerns of Post 9-11 Muslims in America and the campaign to vilify  the American Muslims.  We present the series in its entirety.

Rahma Salie, a Sri Lankan Muslim, was a passenger on American  Airlines #11 that crashed into the North Tower. She was traveling with her husband Michael (a convert to Islam) to attend a friend’s wedding in California.

Rahma was seven-months pregnant with their first child. According to  the London-based Independent (October 11, 2001), Rahma’s name was  initially put on an FBI watch list, because her “Muslim-sounding”  name was on the passenger manifest, and her travel patterns were  similar to those of the hijackers (she was a computer consultant  living in Boston). Although her name was eventually removed from the list, several of her family members were barred from taking flights to her memorial service. Her mother, Haleema, said, “I would like everyone to know that she was a Muslim, she is a Muslim and we are victims too, of this tragic incident.” – http://www.islam.about.com/

Along with Rahma, hundreds of Muslims – according to some statistics, about 600 – perished on September 11 when 19 terrorists, who were purportedly Muslims, hijacked four planes and attacked New York and Washington. By using the phrase ‘purportedly Muslims’, I wish to convey two points: First, Islam, as preached by Prophet Muhammad, does not condone the killing of non-combatants. The Quran says the killing of one innocent person is like the killing of all humanity.  Secondly, my cynical mind refuses to reject various conspiracy

theories, which talk about masterminds other than Al-Qaeda. Whatever the truth, the fact remains that the Muslims in America paid a bloody price on that day and still continue to pay. They were killed by the terrorists but are now being hounded by racists who believe every Muslim is a terrorist or a terrorist sympathizer, courtesy a section of the US media – like Fox, which many Muslims say, is anti-Islam. It appears that no sooner the attack took place; the Muslims became a target – a target of attack and suspicion. Take, for instance, the case of 23-year-old medical student Salman Hamdani, who was also a New York City police cadet and part-time ambulance driver. This is what http://www.Islam.about.com had to say about his fate:

“When he disappeared on September 11, law enforcement officials came to his family, seeking him for questioning in relation to the terrorist attacks. They allegedly believed he was somehow involved.  His whereabouts were undetermined for over six months, until his remains were finally identified. He was found near the North Tower, with his medical bag beside him, presumably doing everything he could to help those in need. His family could finally rest, knowing that he died the hero they always knew him to be.”

A target of attack and a target of suspicion, the Muslims in America were forced to go into their shell in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In some instances, Sikhs were mistaken for Muslims and attacked or killed. The Imam of a mosque in New Jersey, after lying low for a week in the aftermath of the attack, went to a nearby store for coffee. He was taunted by some passers-by who yelled at him, saying “Hey bin Laden”.

But I must stress here, the attacks were isolated incidents committed by a handful of people – a misguided minority, as some American Muslims magnanimously call them. A large number of Americans, Muslims in America say, are good people who provided them protection, food and shelter when many Muslims feared to venture out after the attack.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, once white racist Ku Klux Klan stronghold, we met Sheryl Siddiqui, a community worker and prominent member of the Islamic Society of Tulsa. She is an American of European descent (the racist term ‘White American’ is avoided here) and converted to Islam in her youth. When we asked her to describe the fear psychosis that prevailed among the Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, she said some Muslims of Pakistani or Indian origin were attacked and the Muslim school was closed for several days, but she also paid a glowing tribute to a large number of Tulsa citizens who sent food and comforted their Muslim neighbors who feared to venture out. She also had many generous words for the Tulsa police who were prompt in providing security to Muslims and their mosques and schools.

In Washington, we met Baheeja Abdussalam, an Afro-American Muslim who is a powerful voice in the American Society of Muslims of Imam W.  Deen Muhammad and ex-co member of the Inter-faith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. She said that on 9/11 she attended to her chores as usual and encountered no problems. But these two Muslim women admitted that their “sisters and brothers” of Asian and Middle Eastern origin faced unpleasant experiences. In Washington, we had a discussion with Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an organization that is fighting for Muslim rights in the United States. While we were at the CAIR office, he had to cut short his discussion to attend to an urgent matter. He told us that he had just been informed that a mosque in Savannah, Georgia, had been destroyed by a suspicious fire, which the FBI believed was an act of arson.

CAIR has been carrying out a campaign – a campaign that has been intensified in the aftermath of 9/11 – against alleged harassment of Muslims not only by racists but also by government institutions such as the Justice Department, the FBI and local law enforcement authorities. Its annual reports make a shocking indictment on the state of Muslims in America and affirm its resolve to fight injustice whether it is institutional or ad-hoc.

According to CAIR’s 2003 annual report appropriately titled “The  Status of Muslim Civil Rights in the United States” Guilt by  Association”, complaints received by CAIR have increased by 64  percent after 9/11 while FBI’s 2002 report says that hate crimes  against Muslims had increased from 28 in 2000 to 481 in 2002 – a  1,600 percent increase.

The CAIR report notes that in the first few days after 9/11, government officials, including President George W. Bush, made it a point to reach out to the Muslim community.

“Islam is a peaceful religion,” said President Bush in spite of his slip-of-the-tongue remark about a “crusade” against terrorism. US officials whom we met said the President, who later retracted the word, had used it not in its historical sense but in a semantic sense to mean a determined effort to achieve a just goal – the elimination of terrorism. “For instance, we often refer to campaigns against  crime or poverty as crusades,” said one official, who dismissed allegations that the Bush administration was anti-Islam. Despite the President’s kind words for Islam, CAIR says that since the initial period of support from the administration, a number of government policies have singled out Muslims and Muslim organizations.

CAIR says the government action and recent anti-terrorism legislation such as the USA Patriot Act of 2001 violate the First, Fourth and the Sixth Amendments to the US Constitution. Muslims in America are beginning to realize that they have no choice but to become more active in defending their civil and religious rights. The irony is that while American Muslims in their struggle cling to and revive the spirit and the basic principles on which the founding fathers of the United States framed the constitution, there are signs that a small but powerful segment of the Bush administration is trying to make the country a police state.

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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