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America's Muslims after 9/11

The 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States have had a worldwide impact. The effect on the Islamic world has been especially complex because the terrorists were Muslims.

The United States has an estimated six million Muslims. More than half of them are Arabs. Muslims living in this country are more educated and tend to have higher incomes than average Americans. Unlike Muslim minorities in Europe, American Muslims are generally more assimilated into mainstream society.

When terrorists struck New York and Washington five years ago, U.S. Muslims were as shocked and horrified as other Americans. But in addition to coping with terror, many Muslims say they had to deal with the pain of being shunned by their fellow Americans.
"You would walk down the street and you could be physically attacked," says Nidal Ibrahim is Executive Director of the Arab-American Institute in Washington.

"Unfortunately, Sikhs wear turbans and they were mistakenly taken for Arabs and you had some who were outright shot and killed, specifically in Arizona. So you had some violent actions. And then you had job discrimination increase dramatically," says Ibrahim. "You also had racial profiling, whether in the health care sector or service sector. So you had those issues as well."

9/11 Backlash

Ibrahim says some anti-terrorist measures, such as the surveillance of Muslim charity organizations and limiting the number of visas for immigrants, students and visitors from Muslim countries, have added to the feeling of unease among many American Muslims. Ibrahim says they reacted in different ways.

"One of two things happens. Either you become emboldened and recognize that, as a community, we must engage in ways that we have not previously engaged to inform our fellow Americans and to affect the political process here," says Ibrahim. "And we have seen that happen. And, in other instances, we have also seen some folks who have basically decided to withdraw from public and political life who are perfectly content to just go to work, come home and take care of their families."

Analysts note that many Muslims have made efforts to prove their loyalty to the United States. A number of Muslim organizations throughout the country have issued statements, including Islamic fatwas, or religious pronouncements, condemning terrorism. Some have turned to their own communities for support or become more religious. Analyst Nidal Ibrahim says that groups once identified as Egyptian-Americans, Lebanese-Americans or Palestinian-Americans have bonded into a wider Arab-American community, which he says is becoming more politically active.

But while some feel they are victims of discrimination, many U.S. Muslims say that in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, their fellow Americans have also been supportive. Since 2001, America's interest in Islamic culture has grown. The Koran has become one of the bestselling books and the demand for Arabic language lessons is unprecedented.

Kamal Nawash, President of the Free Muslim Coalition, an organization that promotes modernizing Islam, says American Muslims have not engaged enough in fighting terrorism and denouncing radical Islamist ideology.

"We have a failure in Muslim leadership. And that is: rather than admit that we have a problem and try to deal with it -- and that is the problem with extremism -- most American Muslim organizations took the victimization mentality and rather than recognizing that we have a problem, instead, accused anyone who noticed the obvious -- that there is a problem -- they accused him of being anti-Muslim," says Nawash.

Decline of Traditional Muslim Organizations

In addition, Nawash says that investigations of many Islamic organizations after the September 11th attacks were justified and many of them deserved to be closed.

"I think one good thing that happened is that September 11th weakened many of the traditional Muslim organizations and many of the Muslim charities. They have become either much weaker or just closed down altogether," says Nawash. "By the traditional Muslim organizations I mean those whose main goal in life was to advocate political Islam and create these theocracies, or what they call the Caliphate. Those Muslim organizations and their ability to impact other Muslims have been seriously reduced, in particular in the United States. And we think that's a good thing."

Nawash says the weakening of traditional Islamic organizations has made room for new ones that recognize the importance of American values and democratic institutions. It has also made formation of home-grown Islamist terrorist cells less likely, he says.

But some analysts are concerned that a new generation of Muslims is more religious and more traditionalist than their parents. Many young Muslim women born in the United States now wear traditional attire that their Egyptian-born or Pakistani-born mothers left behind. Young Muslims increasingly attend Islamic schools and lectures. And Muslim student organizations are proliferating in high schools and university campuses across the country.

Many analysts point out that the role of American mosques has evolved from strictly a place of worship to a center for socializing, and teaching Islamic culture, languages and values. And some Americans worry that this trend could radicalize some Muslims.
But Parvez Ahmed, Chairman of the Council on American-Islamic relations, one of the nation's oldest Islamic advocacy groups, says those fears are unfounded.

"Of course, the American Muslim community is very concerned about the continuing war in Iraq, the violence in the Middle East, a lack of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the recent war in Lebanon and the general politics of the situation," says Ahmed. "But you [i.e., U.S. Muslims] are using legitimate political methods of voicing your concerns, not in the sense of using any kind of radical thought or organization."

As more American Muslims consider Islam an integral part of their character -- above any national identity -- analysts say it is important to ensure that all Americans are integrated into mainstream society.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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