The 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington two years ago sparked strong feelings of national unity among most Americans. But many Muslim Americans say they have not always felt included in that national coming-together. Some believe they were doubly victimized by 9-11, as Americans and as Muslims. Many say they still feel victimized by the U.S. war against terrorism, and they have been highly critical of the government's scrutiny of Muslim-Americans during the domestic hunt for terrorists. For many, the response to the post-9-11 world has been to get more involved in their communities. Like millions of other immigrants, Muslim immigrants made a conscious decision to make America their home. America, in return, offered them opportunities for personal and professional growth and a climate of intellectual freedom that is lacking in many countries around the world. Many American Muslims thought they were living the American dream until September 11, 2001.
"September 11th has definitely changed our lives," said Abdulwahab Alkebsy.
Mr. Abdulwahab Alkebsy is the Middle East and North Africa program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based non-government organization that supports and promotes democracy around the world. He says on September 11he watched the collapse not only of the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse, but also of the world he'd known since immigrating to the United States more than 20 years ago.
"I remember we were watching TV as the twin towers collapsed," he said. "I experienced a feeling that I cannot explain. We knew then that things would change, but we did not know how much. Two years have passed and now we realize the calamity and the overwhelming change in all our lives since then."
Mr. Alkebsy believes that when President Bush signed the U.S. Patriot Act into law just weeks after the 9-11 attacks, all Americans lost some of their civil rights. He notes, for example, that law enforcement agencies can conduct electronic surveillance without first getting a court order, or search someone's home or office without even telling them until much later. But Mr. Alkebsy contends that Muslim Americans are the ones who have suffered the most under the Patriot Act.
"Some of the applications of the U.S Patriot Act have been targeted toward Muslims, including the many interviews that we heard earlier on, then the registration process, and the civil rights of those who were jailed sometimes for months, and we do not know where they are," said Abdulwahab Alkebsy.
Arab American immigration lawyer Ashraf Nubani says the situation after September 11 has been even more frustrating for Muslim tourists and residents who are not citizens.
"Applications are scrutinized," he said. "People who are applying for permanent residency or naturalization to become citizens have to go through a more rigorous check than was done before September 11. Also, getting a U.S visa from abroad has become more difficult."
Although the new immigration regulations are meant to secure America's borders, Mr. Nubani says such regulations have eroded immigrants' civil rights.
"One example is the registration process, where males from certain countries, the Middle Eastern and Muslim countries, were forced to register with the immigration service," said Ashraf Nubani. "This was not done across the board. That means people from Argentina or from South Africa for example, did not have to register. It was just Muslim and Arab countries."
U.S Attorney General John Ashcroft says the Patriot Act is necessary in the post-September 11 world.
"We have used the tools provided by the Patriot Act to fulfill our first responsibility to protect American people," said Mr. Ashcroft. "We've used these tools to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction on our soil. We've used these tools to provide security that ensures liberty."
Although Muslim Americans say they are not happy with the way the Patriot Act is applied, when it comes to national security, they say they are no less concerned than other U.S. citizens. Abdul Wahab Alkebsy of the National Endowment for Democracy believes that in the war on terrorism, Muslim Americans should be in the front lines.
"They have a lot to give and they should be part of the solution," he said. "In many meetings that we had whether in the Department of Justice, the F.B.I., with the members of Congress or in the White House, we always emphasize how important it is that Muslim Americans be involved as part of the solution not part of the problem."
Muslim American communities across the United States have organized meetings with local, state and national law enforcement agencies. Police officials are encouraging such meetings to get basic information about Islamic beliefs that could help police deal more sensitively and effectively with Muslim Americans. Immigration lawyer Ashraf Nubani says a way must be found to bolster national security without threatening civil rights.
"Benjamin Franklin once said; 'Those who'd give up civil liberties for security deserve neither.' The moment you take away deeply held principles and constitutional rights is the moment that you lose it for everyone," said Ashraf Nubani. "I think we need to focus on these issues that are important to us as Americans. Security is very important and there are many ways that we can be secured. Part of it is dealing with foreign policy, part of it is securing our borders in a way that does not impinge on the civil rights of our citizens, residents or guests to the United States."
U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft insists that the course America has chosen to combat terrorism is correct and constitutional. He notes that for two years after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Americans have been safe at home. And because Americans are safer, their liberties are more secure.
Abdul Wahab Alkebsy of the National Endowment for Democracy might not agree, but he does believe that the Muslim American community will emerge from this experience stronger, safer and better integrated into American society.
"Muslim Americans have to be involved at every level of activity, even at the school level, all the way up to the national level," he said. "Muslim Americans need to realize that unless they get involved at every level of political life in the United States, they'll always be targeted."
Dealing with the post 9-11 realities might be a tough test for Muslim Americans, but as Mr. Alkebsy says, they have no other choice. For most of them, the United States is home.