Feeling heartsick and helpless nearly 4,000 miles away from the attacks, trauma physician Rushdi Abdul Cader spent Sept. 11, 2001, paging through his Quran in search of guidance.
He feared a backlash against Muslims, though it would be a few more hours before the phone began to ring with menacing callers, including one who asked, “Are you happy now?” And it would still be a couple of days before friends offered to do the grocery shopping in case his wife, Nisha, was afraid to leave home in her headscarf.
Mainly, though, he struggled to understand how any Muslim could read the same sacred book he was holding and interpret it as condoning slaughter. Scanning the Quran at his home in San Luis Obispo, his eyes locked on a verse about how Muslims shouldn’t defend anyone who tries to justify “treacherous and sinful” conduct.
Finding those words, Abdul Cader said, was like “God talking to me.” On that day, he vowed to wrest his faith from a radical fringe whose attacks have turned Islam into the most vilified religion in the world.
Fifteen years later, Abdul Cader has come to personify mainstream America’s idea of the “good Muslim” – the guy Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has in mind when he says American Muslims “have to cooperate with law enforcement;” the ally Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is referring to when she talks about Muslims as a “coalition at home,” an “early-warning signal” and a “first line of defense against radicalization.”
Abdul Cader rolled out a counter-extremism program to deter young Muslims from militancy a year before the White House introduced a national approach. He volunteered as a trauma doctor on the local police force’s SWAT team, positioning himself as a bridge between the authorities and local Muslims. He set up an online portal where Muslims could safely report suspicious activity. And he created slideshows to present at mosques along the California coast, teaching parents how to stay vigilant for signs of radicalization.
When 9/11 comes and we remember it, for me there is no longer a wound in my heart about it because I believe I’m doing something about it.
Rushdi Abdul Cader
The warrior who emerged from 9/11, however, is fighting a lonely battle.
Abdul Cader’s decision to speak so forcefully against extremism alienated would-be Muslim allies, who deride him as a sellout for his close relations with police and federal agents at a time when authorities push – and sometimes cross – constitutional limits with their surveillance of Muslims. At the same time, some non-Muslims have publicly questioned his loyalties, either out of raw bigotry or skepticism that he’s representative of a religion they see as inherently violent.
His predicament shows the conundrum American Muslims have faced since 9/11 cleaved their lives into two distinct periods: a before, in which they were largely invisible, and an after, of unrelenting scrutiny.
Dilemma for American Muslims
American Muslim groups have struggled, and even fragmented, over how to make clear their rejection of extremism without becoming complicit in the demonization of Islam by political, law enforcement and media forces. And rather than easing in the years since the 9/11 attacks, the question has become only more fraught, with the rise of the Islamic State overseas and a fresh wave of anti-Muslim hostility in the United States.
Abdul Cader’s black-and-white stance on such a gray issue has turned him into an easy target for critics. He finds opposition from fellow Muslims disheartening, but not deterring.
In his thinking, Muslims are too interwoven into the fabric of the United States to put up with being treated as outsiders, and Islam is too beautiful a faith to be ceded to extremists. Other Muslims have valid reasons for not joining his fight, he said, but he’ll continue with or without them.
“That’s not on their list of things that they have to do: Get up, brush my teeth, take my kids to school, feed the dog, condemn radical Islam. You know what I mean? That’s not on most people’s daily list,” Abdul Cader said. “But it is on mine.”
I want to tell everybody in this room that I’m Muslim. And at that point you could literally hear a pin drop.
Rushdi Abdul Cader
Abdul Cader, a full-time emergency physician who volunteers as a reserve officer for the local police force, recalls attending a law enforcement conference in 2010 where a guest speaker on the topic of militant Islam asked the audience how many American Muslims were “moderate.” Abdul Cader said he was stunned when the speaker replied, “You can count them on two hands.” Abdul Cader stood up and strode over to a microphone.
“I want to tell everybody in this room that I’m Muslim,” Abdul Cader recalled saying. “And at that point you could literally hear a pin drop. Everybody in the room turned around and looked at me. And I said, ‘Nobody freak out now.’ ”
Even though it was quickly defused, the episode unsettled him enough to get him thinking again about the deep mutual mistrust between American Muslims and law enforcement officers. He wondered how many other officers in California and beyond were receiving such bigoted “training” about Islam.
“To train law enforcement – people who can literally take away somebody’s civil rights – to give them that type of false information is just irresponsible,” he said.
Later that year, nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks planted the seed in his mind, Abdul Cader launched ALERTUS, which stands for Alliance with Law Enforcement for Reporting Threats to the United States, a program that takes him to police stations and community centers in hopes of building trust between Muslim communities and the authorities.
In his two-hour presentations before law enforcement audiences, Abdul Cader dispenses with myths about what a radical Muslim might look like and underscores how outward expressions of Islam – such as praying in a park or wearing a veil – are constitutionally protected freedoms. There’s also an online component for reporting suspicious behavior.
No shortage of detractors
Abdul Cader’s later program, AntiVIRUS, is aimed at families. He said the idea was to address misconceptions about when to contact the authorities, reiterating that “the only time someone should report is when incipient crime is suspected.” It also stresses preventative education, encouraging parents to examine their own behaviors and biases and to ask what model they’re providing their children. Slides show how radicalization can evolve, from losing empathy for others to celebrating the suffering of others to harming others.
“It took 10 years after 9/11 to do something about it – sometimes the answer doesn’t come right away,” he said. “Everybody was just numb after Sept. 11.”
Initially received with skepticism from Muslims who were wary of his closeness with the police, Abdul Cader said he’d found a warmer reception in the aftermath of the shootings last December in San Bernardino as California imams grasped for ways to minister to their shocked and fearful congregations after an American-born Muslim and his Pakistani wife gunned down 14 people at a holiday party. It helps that, so far, Abdul Cader’s programs are self-funded, without government cash or involvement.
The last thing we want to do is to be insular and ignore problems when they come up. We have to be leading the discussion; we have to be right up front.
Rushdi Abdul Cader
But there’s still no shortage of detractors.
Much of the criticism is leveled at Abdul Cader’s support for initiatives that fall under “CVE,” or countering violent extremism, a broad label for approaches that examine how to stop radicalization before it leads to violence.
Many American Muslims resent being labeled the “front line” for counterterrorism efforts, with questions as to how everyday families are supposed to prevent attacks when powerful intelligence agencies have failed to detect plots. Many Muslims also complain that speaking out after every attack only supports the idea of a link between ordinary Muslims and the fanatics; they point out that non-Muslims aren’t pressured to answer for every violent white supremacist or school shooter.
Abdul Cader agrees wholeheartedly with those arguments – he includes them in his talks – but he wants Muslims to speak up, anyway. He recited a saying of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad that calls on believers to do whatever they can to prevent harm, even if it’s just removing a sharp stone from the road.
“The last thing we want to do is to be insular and ignore problems when they come up. We have to be leading the discussion; we have to be right up front,” Abdul Cader said. “Maybe the CVE bus needs to take a left turn and make a right at the corner, but we need to be part of the directions.”
An American family
There’s an easy California rhythm to life in the Abdul Cader household. Fig and lemon trees sprout along the front walkway to the family home. A surfboard belonging to Jibreel, 16, was propped up outside one warm day.
Inside, Islamic calligraphy adorns the walls and the shelves boast a mix of religious and secular reading. A book about Muslims who helped Jews during World War II was a gift from a Jewish friend; a handwritten inscription reads: “A friendship between two peoples begins with a friendship between two people.”
On a second-floor landing sat a harp, 13-year-old Hana’s instrument. She was engrossed in a book. Jibreel was in the kitchen making dinner with his mother, Nisha, who’d just come home from her job as a pediatrician for the county. She specializes in child-abuse cases, testifying on behalf of San Luis Obispo’s most traumatized youths.
The Abdul Caders’ oldest, 18-year-old Isa, named after Prophet Jesus, was away at the University of California Los Angeles, carrying on a family tradition. As UCLA medical students, Abdul Cader and Nisha, together with a few college friends, built the nation’s first Muslim-founded free clinic, in the heart of South Central Los Angeles – their contribution to the city’s recovery after the explosive riots of 1992.
Jibreel was in fourth grade the first time a classmate called him a terrorist – he had to ask his parents what the word meant.
The family dog could be heard barking from the patio; the cat purred on a couch.
It would be hard to imagine a more idyllic portrait of an American family, down to the red, white and blue flag pinned above Jibreel’s bed. None of this, however, has shielded them from the anti-Muslim hostility that peaked after 9/11 and is resurgent again.
Jibreel was in fourth grade the first time a classmate called him a terrorist – he had to ask his parents what the word meant. In middle school, he said, he was in the locker room sporting an Army-style backpack when a “cool popular kid” told him he shouldn’t wear it because it made him look like a terrorist. That, Jibreel said, felt like “a kick in the nuts.”
As the only Muslim kid in his high school class on modern politics, the teacher looked to him to explain to the room how Muslims feel about Donald Trump’s proposal to ban them temporarily from entering the country or to place them on a watch list. Other teens might shrink from the awkwardness of it all, but Jibreel embraces his parents’ mission, so much so that he was disappointed for only a split second when the family vacation was canceled to double down on their CVE work after the San Bernardino shootings.
Jibreel was only half joking when he said his life consisted of surfing, studying for the SATs and “fighting terrorism at the grass-roots level.”
It’s not easy for Abdul Cader to hear of his son’s experiences with anti-Muslim bullies, and he stressed that non-Muslims have a duty, too, to protect the rights and safety of Muslims in this era of open hostility and rising hate crimes. But his bigger focus is on his own community, and he has little patience with American Muslims who choose to stay silent.
“When 9/11 comes and we remember it, for me there is no longer a wound in my heart about it because I believe I’m doing something about it,” he said. “I feel that because I’m doing what I’m doing, I’m not hopeless or helpless at all. In fact, I see a solution for our community, a direction. I see a path.”