Until last September, Aasma Khan’s life was ordinary. She’s a lawyer and second-generation Pakistani-American who grew up in the midwestern United States.
A devout Muslim, she felt comfortable in America, especially in multi-ethnic New York City.
Then the September 11 attacks happened, and the religion Aasma Khan loves seemed to be under attack, both from outside and within. And so she became one of the founders of a new group: Muslims Against Terrorism.
It’s an unpaid job that consumes her night and day: “Every single one of us needs to speak out and take back our religion from those who preach hate,” she reads, practicing for a speech.
Sitting on the floor in the Muslim prayer room at Columbia University, Ms. Khan explains why she and 10 others began the group. “The need for the organization Muslims Against Terrorism stems from the misconceptions that exist about Islam,” she says, “both among Muslims themselves as well as what Americans know about Islam. Part of that is because people like Osama bin Laden get to speak on international television and they get to use Islam as a justification for what they do, and that is wrong.”
On this Friday night in mid-October, she’s traveled out to Long Island, to the home of her sister’s in-laws. After dinner, they’re all attending a service at a Jewish synagogue in Great Neck, New York where Aasma and Dr. Faroque Khan will speak. Dr. Khan and his wife, Dr. Arfa Khan, helped found this interfaith group of Muslims and Jews 10 years ago and the friendships have grown deep among the members.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” says one member of the synagogue. “They’re the greatest people, and we’re like family now.”
Following a religious service, Aasma speaks from the podium, “We believe that we can dispel the fear and hate through education. That is the message of hope, but it doesn’t change what Muslim-Americans are experiencing today. Since 9/11, Muslim-Americans and people of Arab descent are now the victims of hate.”
The congregants like Aasma Khan’s speech, Muslims and Jews alike. An Iranian Muslim tells her how proud he is of her, while the head Rabbi asks her to return to speak to a youth group: another event to be added to her crowded calendar. It’s almost midnight before she and visiting Rabbi Jennifer Krause can catch a late train back into Manhattan.
The demands of the new group keep Aasma Khan’s schedule full the rest of the weekend, too: Saturday afternoon, she’s on the Columbia University campus to help train Muslims Against Terrorism volunteers to give presentations in schools. The next day is a seminar on how to monitor media portrayals of Muslims.
Guest lecturer Sarah Sayeed points to one issue of concern, that photographs of Muslims at prayer are being used to illustrate news stories about terrorism. She tells the young Muslim Americans who are here to volunteer, “We have got to stop seeing this typefication of terror with people who are prostrating themselves to God.”
Aasma Khan says Muslims Against Terrorism wants not only to reach out to educate non-Muslims, she says education also needs to be done among Muslims themselves.
“There are approximately 1,200 mosques in America, and what we need to do is talk to every single congregation about how they think about Islam,” she says, “and we need to educate them about Islam and with regard to terrorism, both about how they are presenting it and how they are talking about it themselves.”
On Monday, Aasma Khan makes her second pilgrimage to the ruins of the World Trade Center, though the area is cordoned off for blocks, and little can be seen. “I look at it but I still can’t believe it.” Among the victims buried in the rubble are several hundred Muslims. But it’s as Americans, she says, that Muslims Against Terrorism came together.
“I think this attack has really woken up young Muslim Americans,” she says. “We’ve always felt fully integrated into American society and have participated fully as Americans, and for the first time we’re feeling a need to respond to an attack from overseas, as Muslim-Americans, speaking out against what other Muslims are doing.”
Aasma Khan says she won’t let fear stop her from speaking the truth, as the Koran says all Muslims must do. “If that puts me at risk either with my fellow Americans or with other Muslims, I am willing to accept it, because I feel somebody has to defend the religion from the hate-mongers.”