What does a Muslim in America look like? Any religion, especially one as large as Islam, crosses all racial, ethnic, and geographic boundaries. And how do Muslims dress? While growing up in my native Pakistan, no female member of my immediate or extended family ever wore a hijab. None of the males kept beards either. Ironically, the women from my parents’ generation wore a veil only when they visited their ancestral homes in India!  How times have changed.

I was once a skinny, long-haired, aspiring “hippie” kid from Karachi and Dhaka who reached American shores in the early 1970s. Religion was the last thing on my mind; I was more inspired by the Beatles, Elvis, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin.
To my dismay, attitudes towards Muslims in America have steadily deteriorated since those carefree days. Today, Anti-Muslim sentiment has moved out of the confines of the fringe elements of American society into mainstream discourse. It is, and should be, a cause for alarm.

It all started in 1979 during the Iranian hostage crisis. I started getting my homework back in class at college with some choice expletives written on it, for looking like and having a name of a then-undesirable Iranian. After 9/11, and later, during the two wars against Iraq, while the people of that country were being shredded between a brutal dictator and our “democratic” objectives, I can recall being shown “the bird” on more than one occasion for looking like the enemy. And now with our increased presence in the Afghanistan/Pakistan morass and the upcoming presidential elections next year, who knows what’s next?

Arab-Americans hold signs saying 'Islam Is Against Terrorisim' as they demonstrate outside the Federal court building in Detroit, Michigan January 8, 2010, during a hearing for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year old Nigerian accused of attempting to blow up a Detroit bound jetliner. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST)

Arab-Americans hold signs saying ‘Islam Is Against Terrorisim’ as they demonstrate outside the Federal court building in Detroit, Michigan January 8, 2010, during a hearing for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year old Nigerian accused of attempting to blow up a Detroit bound jetliner. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES – Tags: CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST)

In these trying times it is easy to forget that, as a religion, Islam shares a lot with Christianity, not just in its common origins, but in its beliefs and value systems. Like Christianity, Islam strongly encourages its followers to lead a simple life, free of sin and temptation. The architects of 9/11 have twisted its messages and scriptures for political purposes, seeking a “clash of civilizations.” It is disheartening that these efforts have been successful in distorting the core essence of a religion whose very name signifies peace and purity. The extreme acts favored by a tiny minority have conflated violence and Islam in the public eye, to the dismay of followers of Islam the world over.

In October 2010, SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together), a national, nonpartisan, non-profit organization advocating for South Asian individuals and communities, released a report that showed xenophobia and Islamophobia were rising, especially in the political discourse. “We released the report to ring an alarm bell.” says Deepa Iyer, SAALT’s executive director.

The tragic events of 9/11 were the tipping point for the changing attitudes towards Muslims, and though the initial furor died down, “the discrimination didn’t really disappear,” adds Iyer. A Washington Post/ABC poll in 2006 showed that more than half of Americans believe there are more violent extremists within Islam than in any other religion and that the faith encourages violence against non-Muslims. The construction of a mosque in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site triggered another wave of anti-Islamic sentiment last year, almost certainly fomented by candidates contending for the midterm elections of 2010 and their supporters.

These beliefs translate to an impact in all arenas of our lives, from bias-based bullying in schools to discrimination in workplaces. Mosques are routinely vandalized in this country, signaling to Muslims that they are not welcome in the United States. “People are afraid to practice their religion openly,” says Iyer. “It impacts the community’s involvement in politics and policies.”

What, indeed, does a Muslim in America look like? Many immigrants from the Middle East can pass for white and not get a second look. It is often the darker skinned South Asians who suffer the hostility of the intolerant.

Immigrants have been attracted to the United States for its stellar Constitution, which enshrines equal rights for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, or color. While xenophobia is not new to this country, we have always believed that laws and lawmakers would uphold these inalienable rights. But the hysteria over Islam today feels unprecedented. I am reminded of the Communist “Red Scare” that engulfed this country during the Cold War between the United States and Russia shortly after World War II. The sentiments are similar: An unwillingness to learn the facts about the phenomenon in question, a willingness to engage in hyperbole, and cynical misuse of fear for political purposes. Is Islamophobia the bogeyman of this new century?

Islam has been around in the United States from the time of slavery, as portrayed with great sensitivity in Alex Haley’s Roots television series in 1977. Today, Muslims in America are reported to number between 2 to 7 million and fall into these three major categories. 1) African-American Muslims 2) Arab American or Middle Eastern Muslims and 3) South Asian Muslims, with each group making up roughly 25% to 30%  of the followers of Islam in this country.  From sports legends Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Muhammad Ali, beauty queen Rima Fakih and comic Maz Jobrani, to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and Sufi rock star Salman Ahmad, examples abound.

There are many more individuals beyond these groups, a smaller yet significant remainder of “others,” who do not physically embody the Muslim stereotype; blue-eyed blondes, Slav Muslims, even Hispanics and Orientals. The majority of us do not wear our religion on our sleeve. We are your doctor, your cab driver, your realtor, your tax accountant.

In this environment of hatred and suspicion, it becomes vital to ask what the American Muslim community is doing to change how it is viewed in this country since the horror of 9/11.

Writer, activist, and lawyer Wajahat Ali’s post-9/11 play on a Muslim family called The Domestic Crusaders has found widespread critical acclaim. “I was a senior at UC Berkeley and also a board member of the Muslim Students Association,” recalls Ali. “As soon as I saw the images of the burning towers I knew life for Muslims in America had changed forever. There would always be a ‘pre-9/11’ and ‘post 9/11’ fork in our timeline and collective narrative. Since UC Berkeley is universally recognized as the vanguard in political activism, other colleges looked to us for a proactive lead. So I, very reluctantly, became 75% activist and 25% student for the rest of the year.”

There have been many organizations which have attempted to provide a forum for Muslim Americans, even before the events of 9/11. One such organization is the American Muslim Alliance(AMA). The aim of the AMA was to encourage Muslim participation in American politics in the two main political parties. Samina Faheem Sundas was the national coordinator for the Alliance since 2000, inspiring involving, and empowering Muslims to become full partners in the political arena. “9/11changed everything,” says Sundas. “In the 2002 elections the number of Muslim candidates dropped from 700 to less than 100.  My faith was under attack and Muslims were being called terrorists.” She founded the American Muslim Voice (AMV) Foundation to “provide my fellow Americans an opportunity to get to know Muslims and Islam through us and not from the media and the Bush administration. We provide education with social interaction to change the negative image of Islam and Muslims. We are one of the few proactive Muslim peace and community building organizations.”

“I do not want Osama Bin Laden to represent Islam,” says Sundas.

Despite the existence and efforts of community-based organizations like the AMA, AMV, and CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), there is no denying that Islamophobic sentiment is on the rise, fomented by irresponsible politicians and thought leaders. From the Florida pastor who carried out a Koran burning, a potential

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Presidential contender who is running on a platform of not allowing Muslims in the administration, to accusations of passivity on the part of American Muslims, there seems to be a disturbing trend of Islam-baiting.

The media has not been helpful in defusing the dynamic. Mainstream publications often focus on the intersection of violence, terrorism, and Islam. It can be disparaging, says Nadia Maiwandi, events editor at India Currents and an Afghan Muslim. “In a way, I feel that doing these stories sort of exacerbates the issue, as it continues to link these two terms together: violence and Islam. It’s  tired and overplayed. In another way, these discussions are needed because there is still so much misinformation. Yet media stories purporting to debunk the myths often inadvertently play into their perpetuation. It’s almost as if media persons are afraid to speak the truth for fear of being labeled as sympathetic to Muslims—as if this alone makes one an enemy of the state. Certainly, many people were called anti-American and ostracized after 9/11 for showing the smallest glimmer of compassion or knowledge of this community.”

So what can be done to correct these misperceptions and stem the tide of anti-Muslim sentiment that appears to grow stronger as we get closer to the 2012 elections?

Basim Elkarra is the Executive Director of CAIR, Sacramento Valley. He concedes that Islamophobia is a very real issue and adds, “While the organized and well-funded hate machine is in full swing, many Americans are standing up to the bullying of the American Muslim community. Rallies have taken place around the nation to show solidarity with the Muslim community.  Last year, around 9/11, CAIR launched a series of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) with Muslim 9/11 first responders speaking on how they helped on that fateful day. The PSAs were viewed by over 12 million Americans. Also, law enforcement officials like Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca have spoken on Capitol Hill about the wonderful work that the Muslim community has done to help keep American safe. I believe the peddlers of hate will continue attacking the American Muslim community until they run out steam after the Presidential elections.”

A Democrat, Elkarra recently swept a District Delegate election in Sacramento with a huge non-Muslim vote. I asked him the secret to his success. “When you stand in solidarity with others and fight in their struggles they will stand with you. Over the years the Muslim community has worked for causes of justice, from supporting the rights of workers to educating the public about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. My success is owed to the Muslim community who, even before I moved to Sacramento, built strong and lasting relationships with diverse communities.  Winning an election also takes grassroots mobilization, from phone banking to making the rounds at community events. I owe it to the countless volunteers that worked tirelessly to bring out the voters.”

Ali concurs with Elkarra’s view of the Muslim community’s outreach efforts: “The community is much more enlightened and progressive now than it was in 2001. There is a growing understanding that we can no longer just sit on the sidelines, but that we have to be engaged participants. We are slowly but surely becoming more savvy on how to leverage our wealth in more intelligent manner.”

cover_basimelkarra_copyBut the numbers of those fighting back against the creeping xenophobia are few. “There are many who  are still apathetic due to lack of awareness. It’s changing for the better … but not quick enough,” he adds.

I asked Zahra Billoo, Executive Director of CAIR’s San Francisco Bay Area chapter, on how her organization has assisted people of the Islamic faith to know their rights in post- Patriot Act America. “We’ve done dozens of workshops on the issue, as well as provided direct services to community members who have alleged rights violations,” she said. What should a community member do when contacted by the authorities? She replied, “We recommend that these individuals contact an attorney immediately. Our approach to these issues within the community is that we encourage constitutionally informed cooperation with law enforcement.” In other words, the message is to remain guarded but cooperative.

Sundas mentions an upcoming special neighborhood event that aims to reach out to the larger community and educate mainstream Americans about Islam. “The initiative, dubbed ‘National Invite Your Neighbors to Dinner Day,’ is part of our larger goal to move Americans from fear to friendship, by expanding the sense of community at a grassroots level. Feeding neighbors and being kind to them is one of the Islamic tenets. Previously we have been engaged in many community driven efforts including open homes, peace picnics, teach-ins at high school and college campuses, national and regional conventions, and their hallmark ‘dinners with dialog’ that spearheaded the movement to build what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as a beloved community.”

The efforts of Ali, Sundas, and others like them are hopeful and encouraging, but far more needs to be done by the Muslim community to educate and American people to be receptive to the true, peaceable nature of Islam and the patriotism and contributions of the Muslim community. It is not an easy task, by any means. My own attempts to contribute to the dialog by writing about Muslim community events in the United States for a Pakistani newspaper have been met with suspicion, and linked on websites claiming to defend America by keeping an eye on Muslims in this country.

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But what has kept people like me going is the desperate need for communication and understanding by, for, and of the American Muslim community. This article was not conceived because of New York congressman Peter King’s hearings in March this year on Muslim radicalism. The main reason for this look at Islamophobia is a grim incident that occurred on the outskirts of Sacramento, in Elk Grove, California, recently. Two turbaned Sikh American seniors were gunned down in early March while taking a walk. Details are not available but the random nature of the incident suggests it could have been a hate crime and that the two may have been mistaken for Muslims. Also in the Sacramento area in November 2010, Sikh cabdriver Harbhajan Singh was severely beaten and robbed by two passengers in his cab as they yelled racial and ethnic slurs and called him Osama bin Laden.  It is both ironic and sad, a chilling reminder that we are all in this together and that this is a fight for the future of this great country that we have adopted as our home. We need to step up and speak in one voice against this rising tide of hate. It is Islamophobia which is putting America in danger, not Islam.

Readers interested in  understanding the beliefs of Muslims are encouraged to visit http://www.whyislam.org

Ras Siddiqui is a South Asian writer and journalist based in Sacramento.

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