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American Muslims Broaden Their Outlook - 2003-12-29

By most standards, American Muslims are prospering in America, but they are far from realizing all their dreams. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, they have been on the defensive about their religion, but some analysts believe the tragic events have also pushed them to become more outgoing and generous. VOA's Yonca Poyraz-Dogan talked with some scholars about the outlook for American Muslims.

What is the most common name in the world? This was a question on "Jeopardy," one of the most popular quiz shows on American television. The answer was Muhammad.

This is the name of the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. Most likely, even Muslims themselves wouldn't guess it's the world's most common name.

There are about 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States. It is difficult to estimate the precise number of Muslims currently living in the United States, but the figures range from around four million to as many as seven million. According to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, in a typical American mosque, nearly 90 percent of worshippers come from three groups: South Asians, African-Americans and Arabs.

Muqtedar Khan, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution here in Washington and author of "American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom," notes the attainments of American Muslims: "Per capita income of American-Muslims is far higher than the average American citizen, estimated around 40-thousand dollars per person. The educational level of American Muslims is also very high. More than 70 percent are college graduates, and that includes both men and women. This is more than the literacy levels of many Muslim countries. In that sense, it's a very elite community."

Then came the shock of September 11.

"Before September 11, America was quite open and hospitable to Islam," says Mr. Khan. "Islam was growing rapidly. It was the fastest growing religion in the West. We built about two thousand mosques in the last 30 years and 400 schools in the United States. If you notice the mind set of American Muslims before September 11, they were completely assured of their political rights in this country. But September 11 happens, and the US Patriot Act was passed. Now Muslims are trying to start a struggle for civil rights."

The Patriot Act, passed a few weeks after the September 11 attacks, gave the US government new powers to investigate suspected terrorists. Although the Bush administration says a tiny minority of American Muslims may support terrorism, authorities have detained hundreds of Muslims, raided Islamic organizations and increased surveillance of mosques. The measures are drawing criticism as a threat to civil liberties. Many American Muslims feel unfairly targeted.

Ali Mazrui, director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at the State University of New York in Binghamton, was involved in such an investigation on his return to the United States from an overseas academic conference.

"I just gave them my green card and my passport," he says. "Normally they would say 'Welcome Home.' They didn't this time. They said 'Come this way sir.' Then I was taken into a room and I was interrogated by three different sets of people. First immigration, whose questions were security related; secondly, customs who were puzzled that I had writings on terrorism in my suitcase; and thirdly, by the Homeland Security. Why did it take seven hours? The computer could have told them a lot about me if they had just pressed a button because I have a huge academic record."

Professor Mazrui, who is also the creator of an acclaimed 1986 television series called "The Africans: A Triple Heritage," says the current mood against Muslims will change.

The US Congress has passed resolutions condemning violence and bigotry against Americans of Muslim, Arab or South Asian background. The lawmakers called upon U-S law enforcement agencies to work vigorously to prevent discriminatory backlash against members of these groups.

President Bush has often emphasized that the enemy is a radical network of terrorists, not a religion. At a White House dinner for Muslim ambassadors and Muslim community leaders in October, the president said America rejects all forms of ethnic and religious bigotry.

Many Muslims are frustrated with the way Islam is often portrayed. They say it should not be depicted as a religion of violence. Peace, forgiveness and love are far more characteristic, they say.

But Muslims sometimes send the wrong message to the world, says Katherine Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a board member of the Federation of Muslim Women. "I am very disappointed with extremist interpretations of Islam that are being pervaded now around the world," she says. "And that's very much a distortion of Quran. Since the colonial times, there is a defeatist attitude; I think a lot of Muslims feel that. Their self-esteem is low; they feel trampled upon. Let's face it: colonialism was a really nasty experience. I heard one scholar say, and I agree with this, there is like a post-colonial stress disorder, trauma. And I think this sort of revenge reaction is born out of that. But I don't think it's a good one. Of course, it's not."

American Muslims say they are determined to recover their good standing. Much of this is happening at a local level. They are becoming more active in various ways, such as contributing to Islamic studies at American universities. In California, a Pakistani couple gave 2.5 million dollars to Stanford University. The Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada recruited non-Muslims to join a "Ramadan fast-a-thon" to raise money for health care and hot meals for the homeless.

"Now Muslims are trying to focus on winning the hearts and minds of Americans," says Muqtedar Khan. "Suddenly, you find American Muslims investing in the 'American' part and this is a significant change."

According to Mr. Khan, Muslims have been too preoccupied with foreign issues at the expense of integrating into American life: "The biggest focus was on US foreign policy toward Israel. The American Muslims thought that they could change American foreign policy. Some people actually dreamed of converting all America into Islam and making America an Islamic state. After September 11, those dreams are shattered. Now Muslims have become more realistic. They suddenly realized how vulnerable they were to the new legislation, which has passed."

As a result, Professor Bullock says American Muslims are now broadening their outlook and becoming more active in politics instead of concentrating so much on aspects of their heritage: "They spent a lot of time building first of all mosques, somewhere to pray; secondly, schools, somewhere to educate the children. And now it's been about 30 years of this. The Muslims are venturing out and maturing into other avenues. You see the growth of political action committees, advocacy groups and media relation groups. This is a new phenomenon in about the last five years."

The American Muslim community has been challenged by the terrorist attacks of September 11. Scholars agree that Muslims are now forced not only to work harder in their own community but also to make more of an effort to engage with the rest of America. Professor Khan says that this is the only way really to become 'American Muslims' instead of just 'Muslims in America.'