Civil Rights Concerns in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Area in the Aftermath of the September 11, 2001, Tragedies

Chapter 3

Understanding Islam in America in the Aftermath of September 11

The forum opened with a panel intended to increase understanding of the affected communities and Islam as a religion, addressing specific misunderstandings and stereotypes that have colored relations between Muslims and people of other faiths. Panelists included specialists on Islam as well as those focusing on interfaith relations. In their presentations, the panelists made the following key points, among others:

Yahya Hendi
Muslim chaplain, Georgetown University, and imam, Islamic Society of Frederick, Maryland

The word “Islam” means “peace” and also “surrender.” Muslims believe that Islam teaches us to achieve peace in our lives by surrendering to the will of God and living up to the teachings of the prophets. We are created in God’s image and are called to represent God on earth spiritually, morally, and physically. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have much in common—belief in one God, the legacy of the prophets, many biblical events, and the concept of peace as an ultimate goal. We also share a historical space and time, and the social and political challenges of our time.

There are several prevalent misunderstandings about Islam. First of all, many people think that if you are Muslim you must be Arab, and if you are Arab you must be Muslim, but that’s not true. Worldwide, there are more than 1 billion Muslims who are not Arabs. At the same time, there are many Arabs who are Christian or Jewish.

Second, many people seem to think, based on what the Taliban has done, that Islam by nature abuses women. I think that to the contrary, Islam gives to women the rights it gives to men.

Third, people fail to differentiate between political and religious agendas. Often religion is used to back up a political agenda, as bin Laden did, and as the Christian crusades did in history.

Fourth, people counterpose “Islam and the West,” as if there were no Muslims in the West. With millions of Muslims living in North America and Europe, Muslims are part of the fabric of Western society. I see myself as an American Muslim; although I was born in another part of the world, the West is my home.

As spokesperson for the Islamic Jurisprudence Council of North America, I believe there’s no contradiction between Islam and democracy. For something to become an order under Islamic law, it must ensure the safeguarding and protection of, one, the intellect and freedom of expression of every person who lives under Islamic law; two, every person’s right to accumulate wealth; three, every person’s dignity; and four, every person’s freedom of religious expression. Islamic law says that people should be governed by an elected body, and that elected body decides on what is good or bad for the community, as long as it does not contradict the four points I just mentioned. The foundations of democracy are not in opposition to the foundations of Islamic teachings.

There is nothing in Islamic law that prevents a Muslim from turning away from Islam.[1] This question was addressed recently by the Islamic Jurisprudence Council of North America, which recognized that such conversions have happened in our history and that the individuals were left free to live under Islamic rule. Have there been violations of this? Certainly; but other faiths have also engaged in similar persecution at times. We should not accuse Islam of being responsible for intolerant actions because the individuals who carry out these actions happen to be Muslim; nor should intolerant actions by some Christians and Jews reflect on their religion.

The September 11 attacks have forced some soul-searching in the Muslim community. But in each religious community, not only in ours, the majority opinion has been silent while the extreme minority has been loud. We, the majority, need to become more vocal. A Muslim article of faith is to enjoin the good and forbid the evil; during Ramadan, we go through self-criticism of our own actions.

What really frustrated the community was that the Muslims who were targeted by the federal raids in March were not the people known to have extreme agendas.[2] For instance, Dr. al Alwani,[3] who had traveled from mosque to mosque telling Muslims that America is the best country in the world, who had issued a fatwa urging Muslims to fight in the U.S. military in Afghanistan against terrorism, was targeted. His house was raided and his wife was forced to remain for seven hours in her sleeping clothes, not allowed to cover her head. Cupboards were broken, TVs were broken. Every Muslim in this country knows what happened to Dr. al Alwani. What kind of message is that sending?

On the positive side, I have recently seen a great deal of success in interfaith dialogue that I had not seen before September 11. After September 11, churches and synagogues were opened for Muslims to go in and celebrate their services. I have given more than 350 lectures at religious institutions since then, participating in dialogue with clergy of other faiths, trying to build mutual understanding. Leaders of three well-known Christian entities have asked their members to reach out to Muslims. If religious people are willing to follow the fundaments of their faiths, they will find more room for dialogue and interreligious relations because the fundaments of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the same.[4]

Sanaulla Kirmani
Adjunct professor of philosophy and religion, Goucher College

Christianity is based on the idea of love; that does not necessarily mean that all Christians love everybody else all the time, but there is a fundamental picture of God as love in Christianity. The fundamental idea in Islam is of a God of justice; that does not necessarily mean that every Muslim is just, but that the primary idea in most Muslim social and economic affairs is that of promoting justice. God implies unity because Muslims are vehemently monotheistic, and that implies also for Muslims the idea of peace, because everything in this world surrenders to God and is at peace with God. That does not necessarily mean that every individual Muslim is a person of peace, but that Muslims as a culture have the idea of peace in their minds.

Muslims are keenly aware of equity in human relations, including the distribution of wealth. The Quran says that men and women are created from the same source and have no difference in their intellectual capacities; they may have different stations in life.[5]

September 11 has sometimes been depicted as something that is justified by Muslims and Islam, as if all Muslims were somehow responsible for this horrible event. But looking at it in historical perspective, we may recall that with the expansion of Islam the rules of warfare changed to prohibit scorched earth and killing of unarmed civilians. Islam radically changed the idea and practice of warfare, so that no killing of common people ever took place under Islamic rules and regulations. Therefore it strikes Muslims as very, very bizarre to hear that the September 11 attacks are somehow representative of Islam. American Muslims have tried to show people here, those who will listen, that these attacks were not religious events, but expressions of some kind of frustration.

To raise the question of whether there is a radical difference between Islam and the West reflects the erroneous notion that Muslims are fundamentally different from people of other faiths. There is a radical difference between those of us sitting here at this table: some of us were raised in Michigan, others in the South, others in Massachusetts, and we do have some cultural differences. Muslims also have these kinds of differences among themselves. But it is not necessarily the case that a Muslim is altogether different from a Christian, Jew, Hindu, or Sikh.

Islam has no central ecclesiastical authority to tell people what is right and wrong, or to make corrections if things go in a wrong direction. There can be and are differences of opinion. That’s why Islam is suited to democracy—but sometimes democracy is not allowed to grow in Islamic countries. Colonialism and anticommunism have had unfortunate impacts on the historical development of Islam. The impact of colonization throughout the Muslim world meant that almost any idea associated with colonialism or the colonizers was rejected. Furthermore, for expedient purposes of fighting communism, people who were otherwise rational supported governments that were dictatorial. That is a tragedy, I think, in Islamic and Muslim countries. And our name as Americans, as the United States, has become associated with some of those dictatorial governments.

Recent events and the government’s response have sent a chill through the Muslim community. Children are afraid to admit they are Muslims in school. Adults are reluctant to get involved in community activities, or even to talk on the phone, thinking it’s tapped. Some are afraid to attend Friday prayers.

It is essential to promote dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims, and our country, the United States, perhaps more than other countries, provides an environment where this can happen. For example, I recently attended a “peace seder” at a university in Towson, Maryland, where Jews and Muslims celebrated a seder together. I think most of the difficulties we have are because we think of each other as strangers. We especially need to reach out to those who are most intolerant.[6]

Yvonne Haddad
Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University

After the attacks, Americans asked, “Why do they hate us?” Immediately we had a parade of people come on TV and tell us why they hated us. They hated us because of our values, we were told; they hated us because of our democracy, because of our very existence. Every one of those people who told us what to believe was a policymaker, and every one of them said it isn’t because of our policies.

But if you look at Mohammed Atta’s will and at bin Laden’s statements, you will see that they identified three policies that are repugnant to them. One is our policy on Iraq. In the Arab world, they still remember when former Secretary of State Albright was asked about the 500,000 Iraqi children who die every year because of our policy of containment. She said, “Yes, it’s tough, but it’s worth it.” Those three words, “it’s worth it,” still reverberate throughout the Muslim world. Five hundred thousand children can die and we don’t care.

A second policy they identified is our policy in Palestine, which has become an issue for Muslims worldwide. And the third policy is the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.

I am not justifying what happened on September 11. Many Muslims throughout the world are not justifying what happened, but they are saying we need to look at U.S. policies in the Middle East. Their question is, “Why does America hate Islam?”

There are 1,400 years of relationship between Muslims and Christians or the West. They include the Crusades, which were based on the idea that if you killed an infidel—in this case, the infidel is the Muslim—you go straight to heaven; you get an expiation. The history includes the Inquisition in Spain, when Muslims were told to convert, leave, or die. It includes colonialism, when European powers, starting in the 16th century, expanded all over the Muslim world. Today, of the 56 Muslim countries in the world, only two have not been occupied by European countries.

Muslims are aware of this historical relationship and many believe that the West wants their resources, wants to keep them oppressed. President Bush’s recent comment about mounting a “crusade,” and Secretary Powell’s comments about “we, the civilized world,” reinforced that notion. We don’t know if the President’s remark about a crusade was a slip of the tongue or a Freudian slip. But Muslims heard: “Here they come again. They hate us; they want to destroy us.”

Arabs immigrating to the United States initially were not allowed to become citizens. Eventually they were accepted, and Arab Americans fought with the American forces in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. Dearborn, Michigan, has a center for Veterans of Foreign Wars whose members are all Arab Muslims. The influx of new immigrants after 1965 has brought in many Arab professionals who are helping our economy—doctors and computer scientists and others. Do they feel at home in America? They did. But after September 11 it has become very, very difficult.

Arab Americans have no access to policymaking and feel disenfranchised. Money they donate to candidates is returned because of the stigma. It’s not just a question of assimilation.

With the USA Patriot Act, Arab Americans and Muslims are being specifically targeted as threatening elements in society. The March raids in Northern Virginia targeted people the U.S. government recognized as Muslim leaders; then included the school that produced the Muslim chaplains for the U.S. military. It also targeted Dr. al Alwani, who issued a fatwa to Muslims to go fight in the war against terrorism. His home was ransacked by federal agencies in March.

President Bush asked Americans not to stereotype Muslims and Arab Americans, but there’s a difference between his words and the actions of the Justice Department. The Muslim community worldwide fears that the U.S. has declared war on Islam. They don’t see it as a war on terrorism.

In the 20th century, Islam became a modern religion: it deemphasized predestination, Muslims took on the burden of history and responsibility to act for change. They created resistance movements against European colonization. Bin Laden represents a type of Islam that was developed to fight communism, encouraged by the U.S. government. The United States supported, trained, and armed bin Laden’s movement as a wall against the spread of communism.

We hang on to stereotypes about how Islam treats women. You can’t generalize from the practices in one country, such as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.[7]

Nedzib Sacirbey
Interim director, American Muslim Council

Islam values peace; the traditional greeting, as-salaam alaikum, means “peace upon you.” Muslims support peace for all; we believe that all humans are equal in creation. There is no difference between Muslim and non-Muslim. We have one creator, and life is the gift of our creator. We believe in accountability for our actions: we will, on the day of judgment, answer to our creator for everything we do. Islam condemns suicide and homicide because life belongs to human beings as a gift of God.

I’m European, from Bosnia-Herzegovina; I’m not Arab or Middle Eastern. There are about 200,000 Bosnian Muslims in this country. I came to the United States because I wanted freedom; I was jailed during the German occupation and again during the communist regime. I chose a country of freedom and I came with faith in America.

In 1941 President Roosevelt spoke about four freedoms, including freedom of speech and expression, freedom of faith and worship, and freedom from fear. I’m determined to try to see what is best in America as well as to remind myself what has sometimes been wrong in America in the past. Slavery was wrong; lynching was wrong. Discrimination is wrong, and probably some elements of this so-called USA Patriot Act are wrong today. And we have to be open to say so.

American Muslims are part of America; without us, America will be smaller. We have adopted America and we love America. We consider ourselves American patriots. One reason is that most Muslims here come from countries of Asia and Africa that were colonies—but not American colonies—and they respect America because it never was a colonial power.

But this question about Iraq. Muslims hate Saddam Hussein and would like him to disappear from the political scene, but without paying 10,000 Iraqi lives. Second, Palestine.

There is no Muslim organization in this country that did not condemn the al Qaeda terrorist attack, and many have given contributions to the fight against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is an ulcer on the body of Muslims, and we want it to disappear as soon as possible because it gives a face to Muslims that is not our face. But we do have a problem with this question about Palestine. We support the Oslo agreement, and America supported it, but Sharon was always against it. President Bush says Sharon is a man of peace. I don’t know how many Americans think so but I know the rest of the world thinks Sharon is a man of war, an enemy of peace and he is accused of war crimes.

Muslims in the United States didn’t come here to impose Islamic law, but to obey American law and the Constitution. We want to add to the diversity of America and practice our faith on the basis of American law.

In Dayton, I visited a beautiful mosque and a Muslim school, by name, Bright Horizons School. I found there a handwritten certificate of friendship, stating: “The members of Peace Lutheran Church want to assure the staff and members of the mosque that we are grateful that they are part of the Beaver Creak community and that we will not tolerate any unloving words, actions, or attitudes from anyone seeking to harm or intimidate them. Scripture tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and to work hard at living in peace with everyone. We want students of Bright Horizons School to know they are loved. And we pray that we will all be able to live in peace with each other.”

This is America.[8]

Clark Lobenstine
Executive director, InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington

The InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington began working in 1978 to bring Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities together to increase understanding and dialogue. Other faith communities have since joined as well.

The Conference issued a statement on September 11, expressing outrage and grief over the terrorist attacks and stating that religion should not be used to justify violence, while also cautioning Americans not to rush to judgment as to the perpetrators. We held an interfaith prayer service on September 13 that was attended by more than 500 people.

Confronted with the rising tide of hate violence after September 11, we publicized the united stand of the religious community against expressions of religious bigotry. We worked with 18 key leaders from eight world religions, who joined in making an important statement and who stood with Muslim and Sikh victims of hate violence at the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. That statement quoted the words of the Very Reverend Nathan Baxter, dean of the Washington National Cathedral: “Evil does not wear a turban, a tunic, a yarmulke, or a cross. Evil wears the garment of a human heart, a garment woven from the threads of hate and fear.”

September 11 has presented an opportunity for public education about other faiths, especially Islam, and since that date there has been a surge in demand for speakers who can address this. Just since the beginning of 2002, we have worked with 30 congregations, schools, and community groups providing speakers and consulting on how to build bridges among faith traditions that are sometimes fighting elsewhere. The mainline Protestant congregations have been most active in hosting speakers of other faiths, so part of our challenge is to broaden that base and encourage more learning about other faiths within Islamic institutions, Catholic churches, and synagogues.

It has been said that “the world is most deeply divided not between those of different religions but between those of each religious tradition who hold their faith in an open-handed and generous way and those in each religious tradition who hold their faith in a closed-fisted and narrow way. It is the difference between those who feel firmly grounded in their faith by virtue of building walls and those who feel firmly grounded in their faith by virtue of deep roots.”[9]

[1] Concerns have been reported to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about pressures being brought on individuals who convert from Islam to a non-Muslim faith. Imam Hendi’s comments were made in response to a question about how such conversions are handled.

[2] On March 21–21, 2002, agents from a U.S. Treasury Department financial crimes task force, called “Operation Green Quest,” served federal search warrants on 19 locations in Northern Virginia (“In Anti-Terrorist Raids, Issues of Tact and Tactics,” Washington Post, Apr. 11, 2002, p. B05). In one of these raids on March 20, 2002, one Pakistani woman, who came to the United States in 1970 and long ago became a naturalized citizen, and her 18-year-old daughter were confronted by armed men dressed in black who broke down their house door. When the daughter tried to call 911, “the men ordered the teenager at gunpoint to put down the phone, then kept both of them handcuffed for nearly five hours” (“VA Program Helping Muslim Women Upset by Post 9/11 Raids,” Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2002, p. B04).

[3] Dr. Taha Jabir al Alwani, a noted scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, is president of the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg, Virginia.

[4] Yahya Hendi, summary of testimony before the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia Advisory Committees to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Annandale, Virginia, April 24–25, 2002, transcript, pp. 19–26, 64, 82–83, 85–86, 102–03, 109, 115–16, 124–26 (hereafter cited as Forum Transcript).

[5] Referring to Mr. Kirmani’s statement, a SAC member later questioned whether having different stations in life for men and women was compatible with democracy. In response, panelist Clark Lobenstine of the InterFaith Conference noted that many fundamentalist Christians believe strongly in men and women having different stations in life, yet their commitment to democracy is not questioned. Similar perspectives on male and female roles, he noted, are found in some areas of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths. Forum Transcript, pp. 111–12.

[6] Summary of testimony by Sanaulla Kirmani, Forum Transcript, pp. 26–32, 62–64, 76–79, 80–81, 88–89, 123–24.

[7] Summary of testimony by Yvonne Haddad, Forum Transcript, pp. 32–41, 58–61, 71–76, 99–100, 113–14.

[8] Summary of testimony by Nedzib Sacirbey, Forum Transcript, pp. 41–47, 66–68, 93–96, 122–23.

[9] Summary of testimony by Clark Lobenstine, Forum Transcript, pp. 47–57, 89–91, 105–07, 111–12.