American Muslims face charged climate since 9/11

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 30, 2011 

Javed Memon sells T-shirts with satire-laced phrases, such as "Frisk me, I'm Muslim."


Javed "Hijabman" Memon peddles the kind of post-9/11, self-referential, satire-laced merchandise that's become a fixture for Islamic hipsters eager to voice their frustration at a decade relegated to the fringes as members of the scary Muslim "other."

"My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?"

"Frisk me, I'm Muslim."

"Don't hate me because I am Muslim (and beautiful)."

Memon, 29, remembers what it was like growing up as one of the few Muslims in Yardley, Pa., then an upper-middle-class, predominantly white and Protestant town. Before 9/11, most of his high school classmates didn't know what a Muslim was and hurled the more general "dot head" or "towel head" slurs his way.

But when the mother of a bullied Muslim teen from a small town recently bought Memon's T-shirts, she told him that they "provided him a way to own that — take it and throw it back in their face."

Just after the Sept. 11 attacks ripped an irrevocable hole in both the New York City skyline and the nation's psyche, Muslim Americans stepped gingerly out of existences once quietly lived in the shadows. Ten years later, Muslims in the United States are just a bit more sure-footed as they navigate a highly emotionally and politically charged climate.

In the post-9/11 era, the choice to don or eschew a head covering or "hijab" at work is at once an issue of religious and identity politics and the stuff of countless civil liberties lawsuits.

For Muslims, life post-9/11 means building in a little extra time for random security checks when planning to fly and the realization that, because of those checks, electronic boarding is often just not an option.

They exchange knowing glances with other Muslims at the airport when it seems that only those with Arabic names are searched or not allowed to board — as was the case earlier this year when two imams flying to a conference on Islamophobia were brought off the plane to undergo an additional security check.

It meant collective breath-holding in 2009 when a gunman went on a mass shooting spree in Fort Hood, Texas, and sinking dismay tinged with just a hint of shame when it was learned that, yes, the suspect, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, was indeed a Muslim. And it meant a redoubling of efforts at mosques across the nation to open doors and invite non-Muslim neighbors in to learn more about the faith.

For many American Muslims, it meant high blood pressure-inducing outrage last year when commentator Juan Williams told the Fox News Channel: "When I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

But it also meant private conversations with Muslim and non-Muslim friends and colleagues about whether Williams was just speaking a truth that many people don't want to admit because it isn't politically correct.

American Muslims "are in this constant state of apologetics. It is exhausting," said Jen'nan Ghazal Read, associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University.

"I talk to Muslims all the time who say they hope they don't wake up and there's some bad story about Muslims. There's this constant 'when's the next shoe going to drop' mentality."

Despite a decade in which Muslim Americans have tried to show patriotism and educate non-Muslim friends and 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.

In the past year alone, there have been heated debates over the rights of Muslim congregations to build houses of worship within blocks of Ground Zero in New York and in a suburban community of Nashville, Tenn. Lawmakers in more than a dozen states have offered measures banning Sharia law, the religious guidelines that influence Muslims in their faith much as the Ten Commandments guide Christians.

And Muslims, who turned out in record numbers for the 2008 election, have grown increasingly political. There are now two Muslim members of Congress and a number of Muslims hold state and local government offices.

"As a reaction to some of the negative policies, I think American Muslims started to become aware that we have to get rid of some of the extremism in our community but also participate in democracy," said Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate.

For younger Muslims who came into adulthood during and after the 9/11 attacks, this business of trying to prove to non-Muslim neighbors that they, too, live lives of normalcy has grown just a bit stale.

Movements such as Taqwacore, a burgeoning Islamic punk rock scene, and music groups such as the Kominas challenge both radical Islam and post-9/11 religious profiling with in-your-face lyrics, hard guitar riffs and screeching vocals.

Other groups, such as the popular Washington-based Muslim rap group Native Deen, strike a universal chord by blending hip-hop beats and R&B influences with lyrics that speak to concerns about profiling — but also the joys of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and what it feels like to have "Sakina," or tranquillity.

"The spotlight was placed on the Muslim community and we had to do some looking into ourselves and make sure we are who we say we are," said Native Deen group member Abdul-Malik Ahmad, 35. "Before, Muslims were hesitant to claim their identity because of what was going on in the Middle East and foreign policy. After 9/11 they realized the need was to assert that identity."

And when all else fails, Muslims have learned to find a dark humor in life after 9/11. Comedian Bryant “Preacher” Moss calls himself an “undercover Muslim.” After all, he jokes, he doesn’t look like one of “those people." He is African-American, has an English name and speaks with the rhythms of someone equally comfortable in hip-hop and mainstream American culture.

“I had this guy come up to me talking about Shariah law, except he couldn’t pronounce it. He called it Shaquita law. And he just kept saying it. And I was like, ‘I know about 11 Shaquitas. Oh Lord, they gonna have a law against Shaquita. I can see it now. No braids. Stopping you at the airport. I’ve seen it.' "

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service