- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2011

A 25-year-old Yemeni-American, Petra Alsoofy, sees the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a double-edged sword for Muslims in the U.S. The recent college graduate who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., illustrates her point with two stories from her life that gave her both pause and great hope.

Not long ago, a work colleague of her sister invited the Alsoofy family over for dinner. When they arrived, Petra looked around the home and saw books by conservative pundit Glenn Beck as well as other Christian materials. Ms. Alsoofy feared being judged, but left feeling touched, their families’ mutual conversation lasting three to four hours.

“The father of this family did research about where we came from, about the Muslim diet,” she said. “They were very interested and very respectful, and their hospitality was refreshing. It kind of hit home for me that there are people working hard to understand and people who care about others. I came home that night and thought we are bombarded every day with negative news and here is someone - he didn’t have to do any of that. And I realized he wasn’t the only one, that there are plenty of people who are just as hungry as us to learn about each other and reach out.”

But all is not rosy in the world, Ms. Alsoofy allows with a tone of acceptance, noting that her family has not been immune to hatred. She offers candidly that one of her sisters, while driving, was called a “towel head” by another motorist, and told to “go back to your country.”

And most recently, when Petra traveled through an airport wearing her hijab - a traditional Muslim head scarf for women - the security agent singled her out, called her a “target,” and forced her to step aside for a private search.

The incident, while upsetting, she said, only made her “motivated.”

“At the end of the day, I’m not going to do things just because others are uncomfortable with me. It’s not a way to fix fear, by removing what is fearful,” she said of her head scarf and culture. “You have to address the source of this and educate. There is no point in being angry. The only person you are harming with anger is yourself.”

A recent survey by Gallup found that Muslim-Americans are optimistic about their future at the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But nearly half of those who responded to the survey said that they are still facing discrimination.

The survey, “Muslim Americans: Faith, Freedom and the Future,” released in July, showed that this minority group was hopeful about its economic future, more so than other religious groups, as well more civically engaged. But U.S. Muslims also reported feeling disrespected in the practice of their religion, with many youth, however, registering more positivity about their lives than their elders.

Yale professor Zareena Grewal, who runs the Center for the Study of American Muslims at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, describes this group as an understudied minority prior to the terrorist attacks. Now she said, millions of dollars have been spent trying to learn more about the Muslim community.

Ms. Grewal derides a reactionary climate in the U.S. today and says that some media stories have been spun post-9/11 that create more rhetoric than truth about the Muslim culture. A decade later, she adds, U.S. Muslims face a political and public climate that is far more hostile, suspicious and aggressive than ever before.

“What concerns me about 10 years after Sept. 11 is that before it, both the right and the left had abandoned racial profiling as an ineffective policy that went against American values. Since Sept. 11, you have seen racial profiling as a new national consensus, as necessary even if it’s inefficient as a security strategy,” Ms. Grewal said.

“What is so troublesome now is it’s become about cultural domination,” she said. “What you have now is a much more virulent racial and political climate that is hostile to Muslims and to immigrants in general. It’s deteriorated from a national security conversation to a conversation about ‘Who do we hate? Who we are and who they are.’ A much stronger language.”

If U.S. Muslims are under increased suspicion, as some suggest, a study from the Pew Research Center found them not unhappy with their lives in the U.S. Fifty-six percent in a Pew poll released last month said they were satisfied with the state of the nation, compared with just 23 percent of the general public.

But Muslims in the survey also think that most in the U.S. do not understand their culture very well and are out of sync with their intentions. Fifty-six percent said they hope to adopt an American way of life and embrace its customs, while 33 percent of the general public said they think only 33 percent of Muslims hope to embrace U.S. ways. More than half of the public at large also thinks that Muslims hope to distance themselves as distinct in society.

Dr. Aly Mageed, a bone-marrow-transplant surgeon who moved to the U.S. from Egypt, said in response to the 9/11 attacks, many Muslims were forced out of their quiet shell and had to pull back the curtain on their culture and faith to create a better climate of understanding. In many ways, this has been good.

“Initially, Muslims here were shy, in the background,” said Dr. Mageed, 55. “I think post -9/11, the majority of Muslims took this as a challenge. We said we need to grow up and be more mature and go out into the community at large and open our mosques, to say come see us where we pray, to let people know that we are not doing anything in our places of worship.”

He acknowledges “just plain bigotry” from some and a culture of Islamophobia post-9/11 that has led to hate crimes in communities that have large populations of Muslims.

“I think following the plight of the African-Americans or the Jews in this country, we have a history of targeting minorities at different points for different reasons. We harbor a lot of insecurities about these particular groups,” he said.

As Muslims, “We needed to learn how to be ‘mainstream’ by participating. We wanted to say we are Americans first and although we have different theological systems, we are American residents and we want to participate in everything - from resolving the economic crisis to the educational crisis.”

Looking back on 9/11, he sees significant changes - some for better and others for worse. While some Muslims have withdrawn, others have been forced out and are eagerly sharing their ideas, their history and their concerns. The Sept. 11 attacks hastened the need and energy for better understanding of Muslims in the U.S., Dr. Mageed added.

“There are some minority Muslims who became more isolationist who are never going to be understood here,” he said. “Even in response to a lot of anti-Muslim propaganda, they started losing some faith in our U.S. system and the foundation that our country was built upon - freedom of religion. But we are trying to get over that. When you have interfaith dialogue, we are trying to build that trust, that mutual understanding and respect for each others’ differences and start looking at them as a source of stimulating discussion.”

He adds with a sense of hope: “I think the good non-Muslims and the majority of Muslims here are tackling these issues. I grow in my faith and views by challenging my ideas with your ideas. I think we both grow that way.”

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