American Muslims Come of Age in Decade After 9/11

Despite hate crimes, racial profiling and discrimination faced by American Muslims in the wake of 9/11, many Bay Area Muslims have spent the last ten years working to build allied relationships and a greater understanding of Islam.

Clouds of smoke billowed out of the World Trade Center towers on the TV screen, which had the effect of choking 21-year-old Mustafa Popal as he stood in the living room of his parent's home in Concord on Sept. 11, 2001.

Images of the towers collapsing and people running, their faces contorted with fear, flashed before him.

With the thunderous fall of the iconic towers, enemy lines were drawn and Popal's worry became two-fold.

"My heart sank at the reality of my fellow Americans being so brutally attacked, but with the simultaneous fear of how my fellow Afghan and Muslim Americans would become the target of ignorant retribution throughout America," Popal said.

Now a 31-year-old community college instructor, the fear that struck through Popal's heart was no different than many other Muslim Americans that day as a plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers around 8:45 a.m. and left a gaping hole in the building, setting it afire. Twenty minutes later, a second plane crashed into the second tower and exploded.

As Americans of every nationality and faith tried to come to terms with their sudden changed reality in the aftermath of 9/11, the Muslim American community was catapulted into a coming-of-age that continues to this day.

And like most coming-of-age transitions, the experience has been marked with growth, change, and identity development, but also difficult decisions, lost innocence, and painful truths.

Popal realized some of these lessons when he returned home from the University of California at Riverside in the spring of 2002 with an unshaved face and went to a 7-11 in Concord to buy ice for a family party.

He was speaking Dari on the phone with his mother as he parked his car and noticed a group of four high school-age boys leaning against a pick-up truck in the parking lot.

"I could immediately see that both my unshaven look, plus speaking in Dari, did not settle well with the group of young men," he recalled.

Upon exiting the 7-11, one of the boys spat at Popal's feet and another hit him on the side of the face.

Popal's story is just one of many that exemplifies the impact of 9/11 on the Muslim American community.

According to Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, statistics since 9/11 reveal a spike in anti-Muslim sentiment, ranging from hate crimes and discrimination in the workplace and at schools to vandalism and racial profiling.

"Islamophobia wasn't even a term before 9/11," Billoo said, adding that in the media, "more often than not when Islam is mentioned, it's negative."

Muslims in the Bay Area and beyond have been repeated targets of harassment, discrimination, scrutiny, and violence.

In Sunnyvale last June, two men approached a man in his 40s as he was waiting for a friend to pick him up and asked him if he was Jewish. When the man said he was Muslim, one of the men called him a terrorist and punched him several times in the face.

Last month, state Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, held a community forum in Mountain View about the impact of 9/11 on the Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities, saying that he felt it was necessary, despite his office receiving threats and negative feedback via email.

"These are tremendous concerns for us as a community," Fong said. "We must stand up and fight this."

Billoo, who participated in that event, along with San Jose Police Chief Chris Moore and San Jose Councilman Ash Kalra, encouraged Muslim Americans to counter intolerance by reaching out to their non-Muslim friends and neighbors.

She noted the circumstances of 9/11 have forced Muslim Americans to be more extroverted. Examples of that in the public spectrum, Billoo said, are Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who in 2006 was the first Muslim elected to Congress, and following in his footsteps, Andre Carson, D-Ind., who was elected to Congress in 2008.

There have been other positives as well - more interest in Islam and non-Muslim Americans standing up in the spirit of solidarity, Billoo said. When Florida pastor Terry Jones called for people around the world to set fire to copies of the Quran on the ninth anniversary of 9/11 last year, he had his supporters, but more people, including President Obama, condemned the act. "What wasn't getting attention in the headlines was the number of people that were expressing solidarity with Muslim Americans," Billoo said. "Those voices really are far larger in number."

Zuhair Saadat, a 24-year-old Richmond resident and development associate for West Contra Costa Public Education Fund, a Richmond-based nonprofit, said 9/11 pushed Muslims to come out of their shells and talk to people about their faith and that outreach has helped improve the public perception of Islam.

"Even during the Park 51 mosque debate in New York City, there were lots of non-Muslim allies on the side of the Muslim developer, and I don't think that would have happened without a lot of positive relationship-building," Saadat said.

Looking forward to the next 10 years, Billoo said Muslim Americans should make more effort to be proactive members of society by joining, for example, parent-teacher associations or running for city council.

"American Muslims are part of the American fabric," she said.

There are examples of proactive Muslim Americans all over the Bay Area. Wali Kohgadai, a 33-year-old Alameda resident, said 9/11 inspired him to be more involved in his community and to use any opportunity to inform others about his faith. Within a few months after the attacks, he coordinated a movie night at Diablo Valley College in Concord, where he attended school at the time, and showed "The Message," a film about Islam, to nearly 250 people. 

Kohgadai also visited various high schools in Fremont and talked about Islam with students, teachers and faculty, helped organize a workshop on misconceptions about Islam, and invited non-Muslims to attend Friday prayer at Diablo Valley College.

"I'm making sure that Muslims are out there doing what everybody else is doing," he said. "But I'm not going to sit here and say we're at fault. I'm not taking the blame because I had nothing to do with it."

Kohgadai is a project coordinator for Project Feed, a grassroots group of students that meets monthly to assemble and distribute bags of food to the homeless in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. He is currently working on coordinating with Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco to create a coalition for future Project Feed events.

Both Kohgadai and Popal said 9/11 was a significant influence on the direction they took in life. Kohgadai decided to study philosophy with a concentration in religious studies at California State University, East Bay, because he wanted to learn about Islam as well as other faiths.

Similarly, Popal said instead of choosing whether to identify with being an American or Afghan, he sought to understand the dynamics of identity and culture and how they lead to conflicts, a topic on which he teaches a class at the College of Alameda.

"I am who I am today because of this event," he said. "I teach what I teach and how I teach because of 9/11."

To commemorate the 10-year anniversary on Sunday, the American Muslim Voice Foundation, the Muslim Community Association and Northern California Islamic Council, along with more than 50 multi-faith groups and community organizations, is holding a memorial event and candelight vigil this evening in Santa Clara at the Muslim Community Association.

- Bay City News

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