Ten years ago, when Lower Manhattan erupted in a cauldron of flames and ash, the more than 1.5 billion followers of Islam withered from the heat of condemnation.
Sept. 11 changed the lives of Muslims in the U.S.
The day before the twin towers fell, one Muslim, now an attorney, said she was perceived as benign, a curiosity: Her classmates' image of her was a black scarf fluttering in the wind, a child fasting during her religion's high holy days.
The day after the towers fell, people began to view her with suspicion, she said, asking not to be identified out of concern over possible retaliation.
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Misinformation, suspicion and hatred still have Muslims frightened, Tarrant County Muslim leaders say.
In the years after the terrorist attacks, some Muslims say they have been treated shabbily by a minority of Americans and by news media that cannot seem to separate the words Muslim and terrorist. But Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the Tarrant County medical examiner and a Muslim, said Muslims love America, a point also made by Jamal Qaddura, a Muslim community spokesman and former president of the DFW Islamic Educational Center in Arlington.
Muslims living in America, Qaddura said, have religious, civil and political privileges that people living in predominantly Muslim countries do not enjoy.
A recent poll underscores that view.
Love for America is deep and widespread among the estimated 2.7 million Muslims living in the United States, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. About 8 in 10 Muslims say they are satisfied with their lives and have positive views of their communities. And a majority of Muslims (56 percent) felt that the United States is headed in the right direction, while only 23 percent of the general public agreed, according to the poll.
About 7 in 10 Muslims surveyed said life is better in the United States than in most Muslim countries, and only 16 percent of the Muslims surveyed said other Americans have been unfriendly to them.
A major threat?
But other polls suggest that nearly a third of Americans do not think that Muslims should enjoy the same freedoms as other Americans. And more than 55 percent of Muslims interviewed by Pew said life became more difficult after the collapse of the towers.
Adrian Murray, director of the Fort Worth chapter of Act for America, a self-described network of organizations designed to inform people about radical Islam, said that even if only a small percentage of Muslims are radicalized, they represent an enormous threat to the United States.
It is that threat within Islam that Act for America is trying to warn America about, Murray said. Muslims in America should not be annoyed that he and others are doing a job they were called to do, he said. They should be happy.
But local Muslims say that Act for America is among several echo chambers where people can hear that Islam serves as a breeding ground for those who would harm America. That makes Muslims the target of hatred and suspicion, Qaddura said.
Strains of racism and xenophobia have been inserted into anti-Muslim rhetoric for the past 10 years, said Sahar Aziz, an associate professor of law at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. Those negative attitudes became apparent during the discussions about the ground zero mosque in New York, which was not a mosque and was not at ground zero, Aziz said.
Stereotyping and misinformation are also apparent in the push by lawmakers in some states to prohibit judges and courts from using Shariah law, she said. Oklahoma has passed such legislation, and in Texas, state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, introduced a bill in this year's legislative session to ban state courts from considering religious or cultural laws like Shariah. The bill died in the Senate.
Shariah is a system of personal beliefs and practices that some, not all, Muslims subscribe to, but the outgrowth of anti-Shariah legislation is a response to fears that Muslims are cultural imperialists, Aziz said.
"Propagating false and exaggerated claims about Muslims has become a political asset, a means of garnering political votes," Aziz said. "If it were not Shariah, it would be something else."
She said it is fear-mongering by politicians. "It reflects poorly on us as a society," she said.
The cumulative effect of the public's perception of Islam makes Muslims more likely to withdraw into their own communities, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. And the retreat of Muslim voices comes as an alternate vision of Islam is needed to counterbalance all the negative versions that populate the blogs, the websites and the news portals, Hooper said.
Peerwani counsels patience, noting that other groups have also been victims of stereotyping and suspicion.
"Italians, Irish, Japanese, African-Americans, Hispanics, they have all been targets of prejudice in America," he said. "The same thing has happened with other faiths. There was a time when we had anti-Catholic propaganda. The Jews went through the same thing."
Teaching pride in America
He finds hope in recalling what happened in the dark days after 9-11.
"I did not realize how frightened Muslims had become until I called the mosque the next day and the imam told me that no one had come to prayer," Peerwani said. "Our religion calls for five prayers a day."
A meeting was held to address the fears that Tarrant County Muslims might be threatened, Peerwani said. Many of those who attended were not Muslim -- they were Christians and Jewish clergy who had come to lend their support and protection.
Christians and Jews offered to ring the mosques with their bodies so no harm would come to the buildings. Jewish and Christian women offered to escort Muslim women to the store so they would not be subjected to racist epithets or speech, Peerwani said.
"It brought a tear to my eye," he said.
Imam Moujahed Bakhach said one political and religious leader after another expressed support for the Muslim community in Tarrant County. He realized, though, that Muslims hadn't built bridges to people of other faiths to tell the true story of their religion.
"We teach the American national anthem in the mosque now," he said. "We printed it on cards and we distributed it. It had not been offered to them before. We want our children to feel proud of their country and their culture and their roots. Change will not come by words. You have to act on it."
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752