Monday, September 11, 2006

A Post-9/11 Identity Shift

Muslim Americans reassess how they portray their faith in public.
By Louis Sahagun
Times Staff Writer

September 8, 2006

A Muslim homemaker from La Habra Heights, assuming authorities monitor her charity donations, has stopped giving to "any Muslim charity that touched my heart" and now contributes to less-suspected organizations.

In Sacramento, a young imam has broken with an ancient tradition among Muslim prayer leaders by shaving part of his beard to appear less threatening to non-Muslims.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, they say, increased scrutiny and suspicion have made them more cautious about expressing their faith. Other California Muslims have taken a different approach.

In Irvine, a 19-year-old hijab-wearing UC Irvine student and others in her school's Muslim Student Union staged a program in May critical of Israel called Holocaust in the Holy Land. She also helps organize rallies and fundraisers to support Muslims whom she believes have been unfairly targeted by federal investigators.

The experiences of the homemaker, the imam and the student reflect the transforming and sometimes contradictory effects of Sept. 11 on Muslims in the United States. In the five years since the terrorist attacks, some Muslims have tried to be less visible, others more bold, as they live and work beside their fellow Americans.

"We are witnessing the creation of a new Muslim American identity that is still a work in progress," said Zahid H. Bukhari, director of the American Muslim studies program at Georgetown University.

"In times past, it happened to African Americans, Latinos, Jews, Japanese and Catholics; now, it's Muslims' turn to become part of the fabric of American life," he said. "Before 9/11, many Muslims were physically here but mentally living back in their homelands. That is starting to change."

Many who study U.S. Muslims say that, without Sept. 11, it might have taken the diverse, reclusive and largely immigrant community another decade to enter the public square.

The acts of terrorism on American soil forced them into it, albeit under what some Muslims believe are the prying eyes of government, the media or neighbors.

They speak of shifting to unlisted telephone numbers or obtaining post office boxes so they don't have to reveal their home addresses. Some have stopped going to mosque prayer meetings.

Compounding problems is an almost predictable increase in tensions and intimidation — vandalism, break-ins, slurs — after every arrest of a suspected terrorist who is a Muslim.

"The terrorists are just everyday Muslims following their satanic cult," read a recent e-mail to the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.

"It's an amazingly exhausting job being Muslim in America these days because we're always on," said Napha Phyukal Quach, a member of the Al-Fatiha Islamic Center in Azusa.

For some Muslims, the best way to respond is to embrace American institutions. A Georgetown University study in 2003 found that 93% of those surveyed believed that it was important to join the American political process.

That was the conclusion of Zubeida Khan, whose family's commitment to Islam is so strong that even Muslim friends jokingly call them "The Mullahs."

The La Habra Heights homemaker had come to the United States from India in 1977, under the terms of a family-arranged marriage, to wed Iftikhar Khan.

Her husband went on to become a cardiologist. In 1998, the couple and their two sons moved into a spacious hilltop home 15 miles east of Los Angeles.

For years, "I was content being a housewife," said Khan, who does not cover her hair with a hijab, which is not mandated by the Koran, but always dresses modestly in long-sleeve blouses and long skirts or pants.

Then came 9/11.

"With people being arrested left and right and negative images of Muslims filling the news, I told my sons to keep a low profile," recalled Khan, 49. "But I also felt I had to step out of my home and into the real world to stand up for Muslims and tell people what Islam really stands for: peace, mercy, equality for all. Surrender to God."

Khan began inviting people who might help promote understanding — city officials, pastors and rabbis — to her home for face-to-face talks.

A few years earlier, the Khans had supported a successful effort to preserve a swath of nearby hills from development.

After 9/11, they helped campaign door to door for City Council candidates and served on La Habra Heights' budget advisory committee. She volunteered for the board of trustees at Beverly Hospital in Montebello.

She also joined the Muslim Public Affairs Council Foundation in 2003 and now serves as the treasurer of its board.

Stirring a traditional Indian curry dish in the kitchen of her home, which is adorned with framed ayahs, or verses, from the Koran, Khan recalled: "It was a stressful time. But I've come to be quite well known in La Habra."

"In becoming more assertive in the public arena, I've made a statement about who and what I am at a time when a few unreasonable radicals have hijacked public attention," she said. "We have to make it loud and clear to other Muslims and our communities that we stick to the principles of the Koran and the life of the prophet."

Marya Bangee, the student at UC Irvine, says she too is trying to embody the principles of Islam. But she is among those who take a more aggressive approach when engaging American society.

Civil rights have become a banner issue among many Muslim youths. Unlike their parents, many of whom came from countries where political activism could be dangerous, today's students know their rights, speak the language and know American culture. They have no qualms about using edgy imagery to make a point.

The Holocaust in the Holy Land program included a speech titled "Israel: the Fourth Reich" and a mock Israeli security wall.

Bangee, who was a high school sophomore in Riverside when she became a political activist, made no apologies for what she called "inflammatory" and "provocative titles and phrases that brought students into the discussion."

"Keep in mind that we are college students trying to inspire discussion and debate," she said, "and sometimes we say stupid things to get things moving."

What led Bangee, who was born in the United States, to political activism?

"It was the gradual buildup of negative stereotypes and misconceptions" after 9/11, she said. "I felt I had to do something to change that. I feel no kinship with Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, but I do feel an obligation to bring attention to what we believe are political realities that are not being heard.

"The Koran says we must stand up for justice, and doing just that consumes almost all my time," said Bangee, who is pursuing degrees in sociology and English.

"I'm optimistic," added Bangee, whose role models include the prophet Muhammad's virtuous and supportive first wife, Khadija, "because the overwhelming trend right now is away from fear and toward a sense of proudly reclaiming our lives and defining our roles before others define them for us."

Among Bangee's recent priorities has been campaigning on behalf of a Buena Park fundraiser jailed for two years because of his connection with a charity allegedly tied to terrorists. On July 27, a jubilant Abdel Jabbar Hamdan was ordered freed by a federal judge who rejected the government's contention that he was a national security threat.

The next day, Bangee helped stage a town hall meeting for Hamdan in Irvine. As more than 200 people filed into a sweltering auditorium, she said: "This event is a direct result of 9/11 and the subsequent government investigations of Muslim charities."

The investigations have resulted in the freezing of millions of dollars in bank assets and the closure of some Muslim charities.

"One of the mandates of Islam is that Muslims donate 2.5% of their assets to the poor and the needy," Bangee said. "But for us, it is more difficult than ever to get money to the people in places such as Palestine, one of the most pressing humanitarian disasters in the world.

"Our job now," she said, "is to put pressure on the government to make sure, inshallah" — God willing — "that justice prevails."

A surge of concern over how to divert Muslim youths from radical influences has created a post-9/11 demand for a rare and expensive commodity: English-speaking imams who understand American youth culture.

One such imam is Mohamed Abdul Azeez, the new prayer leader at the SALAM Islamic Center in Sacramento.

He's the kind of leader Mahdi Bray, executive director of the nonprofit Muslim American Society, had in mind when he observed: "We need imams who know that when our kids talk about Eminem, it's not chocolate candy, and 50 Cent isn't loose change and Usher is not going to take you to your seat."

Azeez, 30, was born in Egypt and attended a Catholic school, where he learned English. He memorized the Koran at a traditional Islamic school and later earned a medical degree at a university in Cairo.

He immigrated to the United States in 2000 with aspirations of establishing himself as a scholar and living near relatives who had arrived earlier. Azeez, who took charge of the mosque in 2004, is the one who shaved his beard.

The United States, he said, gives him the opportunity to continue studying Islam free of the cultural restraints of the Middle East. As Azeez put it, he could explore his faith "outside the box."

Shaving his beard was a break with a tradition calling on imams to take on the bearded prophet Muhammad's appearance. "I may be the only imam in America who doesn't wear a full beard," he said.

"But I don't want to scare people," said Azeez, who sports a mustache and goatee. "There are just too many negative ideas that go along with Muslims with full beards these days."

Azeez encourages congregants to vote and to support civil rights organizations, backs women on the mosque's board of trustees and welcomes non-Muslim participation in religious activities. Along with some other mosques after 9/11, his now flies an American flag.

Given that nearly everyone at his mosque has a relative or friend who has been visited by federal authorities, had a run-in with airport security or been called a profane name in public, Azeez also started a free lecture course called "Discover Islam."

Although Azeez insists that the theology at his mosque is "as orthodox as any mosque in Saudi," some congregants are dismayed by the changes, including his beard.

"Our biggest problem right now is internal squabbling," Azeez acknowledged. "I'm getting hate mail from members who say we're selling out. They don't want to adapt to what they consider a corrupt system."

At his mosque one day this summer, Azeez led prayers in Arabic and then addressed 150 worshipers in English, presenting them a challenge.

"Brothers and sisters," he began, almost scolding, "I still hear Muslim immigrants in the United States say, 'I am from Turkey, or Jordan, or Morocco.' They never call themselves Americans. They say they will go back one day. But they don't. They spend their entire lives in a nice house in the suburbs and taking advantage of a system without giving back.

"This is extremely dangerous, brothers and sisters," he said. "There is no shame in saying, 'I am a Muslim American and will help make this a better place for everyone.' "

Later, in his office, Azeez conceded, "People think I have answers for everything. I don't. Nor do I have a coherent picture of reality to share. I tend to give people hope."

Staring out the window, he added, "I have a few deferred dreams of my own, like learning to fly, or buying a rifle to go deer hunting with friends. But I can't do either of those things without worrying about being reported to authorities. Non-Muslims can do those things. We can't."

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