For U.S. Muslims, bin Laden's death may not end stigma

McClatchy NewspapersMay 5, 2011 

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A tumble of kindergarteners sat cross-legged on their classroom carpet, reading in tiny voices a list of rhyming words: best, rest, west, nest.

At this Islamic school in suburban Washington, where an American flag hangs in the lobby and pupils' Earth Day posters decorate the hallways, teachers guide a generation of youngsters defined by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"They have never lived in a world where Muslims were not considered terrorists," said Johari Abdul-Malik, an imam and director of community outreach for the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, which runs the school. "These children are growing up in a world where they are imprinted by this experience. They have to struggle to redefine what it means to be American and to be Muslim."

In the wake of 9/11, the lives of many American Muslims were changed in such a fundamental way that not even the death of Osama bin Laden — the leader of the al Qaida terrorist organization, who orchestrated the attacks — can fully turn back the clock on an existence once quietly lived in the shadows. In the post-9/11 era, the woman in the head scarf or the man in the turban became part of the scary "other," and new phrases such as "Shariah law" were added to the nation's lexicon.

Despite nearly a decade in which Muslim Americans have tried to show their patriotism and educate their non-Muslim neighbors, polls show that many people in the United States remain wary of Islam or don't know much about it.

In a poll last year by the Pew Research Center, only 30 percent of Americans said they had favorable views of Islam, down from 41 percent in 2005.

In the same poll, just 44 percent said they knew at least some information about the Muslim religion; the numbers have changed little in the past four years.

The day after President Barack Obama made the dramatic announcement late Sunday night that bin Laden had been killed, Muslim religious leaders took to the airwaves condemning the terrorist leader.

That same day, vandals spray-painted the words "Osama today, Islam tomorow" (sic) on a mosque in Portland, Maine.

The incident was a stark reminder that the idea of the Muslim next door remains a polarizing image in some circles.

In recent months, the public has debated the rights of congregations to build houses of worship within blocks of Ground Zero in New York and in a suburban community of Nashville, Tenn. State lawmakers have offered bills banning Shariah law, the religious guidelines that influence Muslims in their faith much as the Ten Commandments guide Christians.

Meanwhile, since January, Americans have been transfixed by footage of Muslims in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain demonstrating for democracy and freedom.

In America, the heightened focus on eradicating the violence perpetuated by those who espouse radical views of Islam has meant that Muslims try just a little bit harder to subtly show their non-Muslim neighbors that they, too, live lives of normalcy.

Tayyibah Taylor, the editor and publisher of Azizah Magazine, an Atlanta-based publication that focuses on American Muslim women, said there was a difference between how American-born Muslims and immigrants reacted to being considered different.

"It depends on the level of comfort," she said. "For African-American Muslims, who have already dealt with some social injustices and know how to maneuver that road already, it's something that you just do. For many of the immigrants, some of whom were flying under the cultural radar, all of a sudden they realized they were the 'other' and it was a surprise."

As Imam Adam Fofana and his wife scramble to ready their children for school in the mornings, the leader of a religious community in Centerville, Ga., said, he often thinks about what he's really preparing them for: a day when they are no longer seen as "other."

"But there is a big difference between the neighbor you live with every day and you go to the same workplace with, and an uprising in another country and killing the head of a terrorist group," Fofana said. "We tell our children about the aspect of integration, assimilation, working hard. If you work hard you will never be discriminated against."

Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the counterterrorism panel of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, has been working with moderate and secular Muslims for years on how to tamp down any radical activities within American mosques. Myrick pointed out that bin Laden's death does little to limit what she sees as the increasing threat of violence on American soil inspired by the rise in radical Islam.

"This isn't going to stop terrorism, that's for sure," she said.

Still, with bin Laden's death there's renewed, if reluctant, hope that the pall cast by Islamic extremists will lift soon.

"The death of bin Laden is a turning point in the discourse on Islam in the United States," said Jocelyne Cesari, the director of the Islam in the West program at Harvard University.

"The fact that this killing happened with the democratization in the Middle East is a good sign," she said. "These people in Tunisia and Egypt are fighting for democracy and freedom, which are American values."

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