Feature: Wednesday, September 05, 2002
Strangers in their Homeland Part 2

By Naureen Shah

If a few Muslim Americans side with — or at least understand — the emotions that produced the al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, they’re not likely to say so publicly. But the confusion of children whose parents are virulently anti-American makes clear that people with al Qaeda sympathies do exist in the Muslim community, said Feryal Subhani. She has taught teenagers in a local Islamic Sunday school program for the past seven years. After 9/11, she made time for students to ask about concepts like jihad and terrorism. “A lot of kids had questions about jihad because their parents were pro-jihad and had agreed with the attacks. [The teens] talked about Gandhi and Martin Luther King and didn’t understand why we had to go to war to get [Islam’s] message across,” she said. Younger kids asked her questions like “Are we like them [al Qaeda]?” and “Do we really believe that?” and “Do I have to go fight [for Islam]?” The questions didn’t surprise Subhani.

Subhani said the differences she has observed in her students’ opinions and knowledge of the War on Terrorism fall along socio-economic lines, as much else does in the school’s primarily Pakistani community. The kids who were unsure of where Muslims stand on terrorism, she said, are the ones whose parents are recent immigrants or from lower-income backgrounds. Like other Muslims I spoke with, she said the difference in views owes to differences in education. “In Pakistan, there is no public education. So [the parents] went to religious schools where they’re brainwashed and they blame all their problems on developed countries. They come [to the United States] with tunnel vision.”

Subhani fielded her Muslim students’ questions easily, explaining in perfect English that jihad was a personal, spiritual struggle, not war. She has lived in the United States for 17 years, more than half of her life, and has a deep sense of commitment to both the Muslim community and the broader American community. So when, as a public-school substitute teacher in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, she was confronted by Bible-thumping students saying, “You are the Taliban,” and reciting passages from the Bible, her response was frustration, not anger. She blames the ignorance of her American students about Islam first on the isolation of the Muslim community, which has its own social gatherings about every weekend, and second on the Western-oriented social studies curriculum.

At one school, she witnessed discrimination against a Palestinian boy who was having difficulty with English. The boy told her that teachers hated him, that she was the only person who could help him. But she blames his frustration partly on cultural differences, on the fact that he comes from a patriarchal society and so did not respect his female teachers. The key, Subhani said, is for Muslims to join the American community and clear up misconceptions about Islam. But she admits it’s tough to balance assimilation into American culture with the maintenance of a Pakistani and Muslim culture that underplays American values like independence in favor of family and community. “Our society emphasizes community, but our kids want to have the independence they see in school,” she said. “It’s a daily struggle.”

Some Muslim American children do not face the culture clash in school because they attend Islamic schools that are perhaps even more conservative or religious than the private secular or Christian missionary schools their parents attended. Brighter Horizons Academy in Garland is large for a Muslim-run school and is connected with an equally large mosque — the Richardson-based Dallas Central Mosque.

When Suzanne Hitto, a fourth-grade teacher at Brighter Horizons, described the post-Sept. 11 backlash, she used words that might describe an unruly student. Bomb threats must be a lot more routine at Brighter Horizons than they were at my middle school back during the Oklahoma City bombing aftermath — I remember getting to go home for the day, but Brighter Horizons simply brought in a psychiatrist to speak with the kids and held school forums to discuss the 9/11 attacks.

Not many of Hitto’s students opted to speak with the school-provided psychiatrist, but she did notice changes in their behavior. “There’s a lot of stress simply [because] a lot of them have family overseas. Families sit and watch satellite news and it affects them.”

The kids asked — “Why are they doing that to those innocent people?”

At Brighter Horizons, “that” usually meant the bombing of Afghanistan or slaying of Palestinians and “those innocent people” were Muslims who are collateral damage in the War on Terrorism. In Subhani’s public-school class the same question may have been posed with quite different sympathies — “that” would have been the attacks in New York and D.C., and “those innocent people,” would, of course, be Americans.

Humdan Durrani, 22, was confident the day he drove to Crawford with some Richland College buddies. For a while, his mother had been anxious about his safety, but he wasn’t. He’d helped organize open-house events at the Dallas Central Mosque and been pleasantly surprised by the country he’d immigrated to as a 2-year-old. Despite the persistence of scandal surrounding some Richardson Muslims allegedly linked to terrorism, it seemed to him that people genuinely wanted to understand Islam.

So he was optimistic as he began driving to George W. Bush’s ranch to protest U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine in the good old-fashioned American way — with grins and gumption. Then, in the middle of nowhere, he got lost. Eventually, Durrani and his friends stopped in a small town they still don’t know the name of.

Hesitantly stepping into a little antique shop to ask for directions, they received the kind of stares that scruffy and scary barflies give to strangers on Gunsmoke. Durrani’s earlier optimism was replaced by alarm. He was half-Afghani and half-Pakistani — was it obvious? He had a goatee, his friend a beard, and all the friends shared a suspicious tan.

One of the glaring men finally asked — “Are you Palestinian?” Durrani answered honestly and prepared himself for the fall-out. But he was once again surprised. “They said we had their support. Then they told us not to go through another town because there were racists [there],” Durrani said. “We went in thinking these people would be hateful, but it turned out the opposite — we were the ones with the prejudices.”

The irony wasn’t lost on Durrani, who has been active in his college’s Muslim Students Association. “It’s unfortunate that it was September 11 that had to bring out these [issues], but now there’s a lot more understanding and respect,” he said. “You yourself have questions — what does Islam say about this? [Now] I understand myself and my religion more, I’m more confident in my beliefs.”

After the windows were smashed at Khurram Tareen’s dry-cleaning business in Arlington a few days after Sept. 11, he put up American flags everywhere. He and his family took down the suras, or Quranic verses, hanging from their cars’ rearview mirrors. Together the family, which has lived in the Metroplex for more than 10 years, removed their Pakistani flags from their key rings. The $1,000 worth of damage to their store didn’t make the Tareen family very angry, but it made them cautious. Amber, their 21-year-old daughter, was asked not to go out too much with her friends. After all, how would Americans feel watching brown people laugh and have fun after such a tragedy? They might blow up. There’s no point in adding to the tension, Amber was told.

After 9/11, Amber was not hassled walking to and from classes at UT-Arlington. Though she has friends who were called names and told to “go back,” she never experienced such racism herself. Still, Amber takes little at face value. “I think about my teachers, and it’s always in the back of my mind: Are they judging me as Desi [of Pakistani or Indian descent]?” she said. “Now, I think twice about what I do or say. But you’re brown no matter what you say. You’re always going to be walking on eggshells.”

Amber’s younger cousin, Hina Tareen, is a 14-year-old entering her first year at Colleyville Heritage High School. Unlike Amber, she doesn’t think twice about what she says, but she admits that since the attacks, things have become confusing. “All of a sudden, the whole news [report] is talking about Muslims, and most of the stuff isn’t true.” Hina said she doesn’t really think about the attacks or how her life has changed since them. But when prodded, she makes a prediction that echoes her cousin’s — a prediction about what it now means to be “brown,” or Pakistani. “Now when I’m looking for a job they might not give it to me. This is another thing against us,” she said. “[The news] says we’re all terrorists. But I was born here, they should know — we’re still American.”

My sister Sadia, 24, and brother Zafar, 22, sometimes act like twins who were separated at birth. They are wildly different politically, with Zafar sporting Ralph Nader pins and Sadia trekking to Republican primaries to vote for John McCain. Sadia reads Scientific American for fun and discusses gastrointerology with Dad the doctor. Zafar spent more time at UT-Austin picketing than plowing through textbooks. They delightedly share in c.d.’s and cynicism, indie movies and witty diatribes, but everything they have in common is apolitical. So it surprises me that their reactions to Sept. 11 are similar, only tinged with different experiences.

Sadia is fair-skinned and so probably looks more Arab than Pakistani. During the Gulf War, she was called “Sadia Arabia” a few times, but it didn’t seem to scar her. Maybe that’s because she always assumed that most Americans were color-blind. “That’s what we’ve been told, but it’s not true,” she said. Since Sept. 11, she’s felt displaced. “It’s like being neither here nor there,” she remarked, borrowing a phrase my mother often uses to describe hairstyles that aren’t short and aren’t long. “Over there [Pakistan], I don’t know how to drink tea properly or speak the language correctly. But if I’m here, I can tell that people are looking at me differently than they used to. I’ve become one of those people who, whenever I have to wait for service, thinks that I’m waiting because [the server] is being racist. I wasn’t like that before.”

But Zafar was. Ever since he grew out of comic books, Zafar has questioned the agenda of those around him. Finding bits of bacon on his pancakes at Denny’s infuriates him, whether he thinks it was done intentionally or not. And now, Zafar fits the “terrorist profile” and he knows it. Sliding off your Dr. Martens at the airport takes on a new meaning when you realize that security officials are inspecting your shoes a lot more closely than those of the grandmother next to you for one reason: your physical resemblance to madmen.

What concerns Zafar now is not so much what he sees as the blatantly racist treatment of Muslims — after all, racism existed before 9/11 — but the effectiveness of the Muslim reaction to what happened that day. Scorning Ralph Lauren Polo and other sweatshop-produced garments my mother buys for him, my brother rages against the Muslim-American establishment, which I’m sure few people outside the Muslim community know exists.

“The only leaders we have, specifically in Fort Worth, are the figureheads of the rich,” he said. “The ‘Muslim American’ ideology in this town flows from a particular class and culture — a high culture that will always seek to repudiate low-brow Islam, low-class Muslims, and the low intelligence of real political power.” Low-brow Islam may or may not mean extreme forms of Islam, ones that are anti-assimilationist or anti-American. It is nevertheless true that the blame game, in which leaders say “Those who are anti-American are poor and uneducated and not like us, who are very American,” exists in the Fort Worth Muslim community, which seems predominantly upper- and upper-middle class (no statistics are available, though CAIR-DFW is seeking to conduct a full survey of the Muslim-American population).

Zafar rails against the idea that Muslims are more politically united since 9/11, explaining that organizations such as the American Muslim Caucus do not represent the interests of those who have been most victimized by the post-9/11 crackdown on civil liberties.

“Muslims in Fort Worth may feel under attack. But why? Is it sympathy pains? The [INS holding centers] are on the East Coast, the ‘voluntary interviews’ are in Michigan and Illinois. Where does the wealth [of Muslims in America] go? A fancy mosque in the suburbs? A ‘caucus’ or ‘council’ comprised of self-absorbed doctors and engineers? It certainly isn’t helping anyone in the U.S.”

What that money and political involvement is doing, Zafar says, is furthering a trend toward assimilation that some, like Subhani, think will salvage the image of Muslims. But to Zafar, assimilating into mainstream politics means avoiding the real issue of political empowerment.

“September 11 is the historical turning point for Muslim Americans insofar as they push for assimilation into the American mainstream — the affluent, politically influential and conformist American mainstream where fighting for the disenfranchised isn’t the point at all. When I see a Million Muslim March on Washington—a million Muslims of all classes and races and sexes and sexualities marching for the rights of all of America’s oppressed— then I will feel a lot more confident about Muslim-American unity post-9/11.”

African-Americans make up 42 percent of Muslims in the United States (by far the largest portion), according to a 1992 report from the Muslim American Council. But the National Asian Pacific Legal Consortium has found that most hate crimes against Muslims after Sept. 11 were against South Asians. Yet, even if African-American Muslims are largely unaffected by Sept. 11 in terms of fear for their safety, they still have plenty to reckon with. The neutral or even positive image of Islam as a rehabilitating religion for prison inmates (among whom Islam has a high conversion rate) or religion of champions like boxer Muhammad Ali and NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon has been challenged by the Islam-terror connection presented in media reports.

Nigerian-American Asli Parker wasn’t worried about a cold reception for her own young children, whom she is raising with her African-American husband, but after 9/11 she went out of her way to try to ensure that other Muslim American kids would not be insulted because of ignorance. She spoke to fourth- and fifth-grade classes at a Dallas elementary school about the basics of Islam. Afterward, she was asked questions that might startle most other Americans, like “Why did you do this?” But the questions didn’t upset her. “I said to them, ‘I’m sorry, I cannot tell you who did it. Only God knows,’ ” she said.

Parker wears hijab, and after Sept. 11 she was heartbroken by the intolerance she felt when, as she drove down the highway, she was treated to horn-blowing and middle-fingering. But the lasting effects of 9/11, she said, have been good for Islam. “A lot of people were really interested to learn about the Qu’ran,” she said. “It’s our mistake that we didn’t deliver the message a long time ago.”

Delivering the message of Islam is part of why 18-year-old Amena Bakali began a Muslim Students Association at R.L. Turner High School in Carrollton last year. But she came up with the idea well before Sept. 11, and it was a coincidence that the principal granted her permission just as Muslim Americans began to take the heat, she said.

Bakali, who wears hijab and is beginning her first year at UT-Dallas, said there was no negative reaction by non-Muslims to the new club, whose dozen or so members successfully lobbied for Muslim prayer accommodations. Bakali mentioned “Osama bin Laden comments” as incidental; what stands out in her memory of the days following 9/11 is the angry reaction of other Muslim students. “Some of them said ‘Why the heck are you doing this?’ and I said, ‘If [others] can have FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] then why can’t we have an MSA? Let’s correct some stereotypes.’ ”

When I spoke with Bakali in August, she had not yet stepped through the doors of a college classroom. But she was already active in organizing the DFW Muslim Students Association’s big summer event, a music concert in downtown Dallas called Showtime at the Majestic that raised $5000 for Muslim refugees. She talked excitedly about the event and the initial opposition of “the adults,” who thought that concerts and Islam didn’t mix. She and other young Muslims are mired in the classic American struggle with their elders; they want to assert their independence but be respectful, too. So when I asked her how Sept. 11 has permanently affected her life, the question felt irrelevant.

“I don’t see it directly affecting my life,” she said. “But I’m going to have to respond to people [who ask questions about Islam]. People have more to say now ... more respect, more time to listen.”

I empathize with few of the people I spoke with in the course of writing this article. I do not fear for my safety in the way that Naeem does, and I certainly do not think of “going back” to a place I never went to in the first place, since I live in the exact same county I was born and raised in. I don’t often think twice about what I say in college classes as Amber does, maybe because I still think that if I speak up, my voice will overwhelm

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