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We are also Americans: Muslims

The aftermath of 9/11 was not only felt on the American soil but also in the hearts of Muslims living in the US.

india Updated: Sep 03, 2006 23:20 IST

Ihsan Saadeddin is proud to be an American. But he's tired of having to prove it just because he's a Muslim too.

The Palestinian grocery store owner in Phoenix has called the United States home for 25 years and feels as American as the next guy. He met his wife in Arizona, sent his three children to public school and has a weakness for McDonald's.

But Saadeddin says the Sept 11 attacks were a tragic watershed which turned US Muslims from ordinary citizens into objects of suspicion and discrimination overnight. He believes it is why he was questioned at the airport for 45 minutes last month and asked repeatedly if he supports terrorism.

"Being born in another country does not make me less American than the secretary of homeland security," Saadeddin said.

Estimates of the number of Muslim Americans vary between three and seven million, including Arabs, Iranians, South Asians, African Americans and many other communities.

News of domestic wiretapping, monitoring of mosques, immigration crackdowns, public support for racial profiling and bans on some Muslim scholars visiting the United States has made many Muslim Americans feel like targets of racism.

Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, speaks for many when he complains that officials including President George W Bush use terms such as "Islamo-fascism" to describe the terrorism threat. They say such terms are inflammatory and liken their faith to dictatorships.

"This type of thing really hurts," said Elahi, an Iranian-born Shi'ite religious leader.

Outreach efforts

US officials deny they unfairly target Muslim Americans and say community leaders have better access to top US officials than ever before. Outreach efforts include townhall meetings with law enforcement officers and training courses for officials by community members.

"It's obvious that Muslim Americans face civil rights challenges now that they never faced before," said Daniel Sutherland, who heads the civil rights and civil liberties office at the Department of Homeland Security.

"As the government, we need to engage better with Muslim Americans. And we're trying hard within our department and you'll see it with state and local governments," he said.

To enhance cooperation, Sutherland has created an "incident management team" of about 25 community leaders to share information when a crisis occurs and respond quickly to any backlash.

Many officials and Muslim leaders agree the community can be a vital resource to root out terrorists at home.

"We feel that inside the mosque is the first line of defense for the country. We keep a very close eye on anyone who comes in new. If we see any threat, in the first place it's a threat to us, to our mosque. I'm the first to do something about it by calling the authorities," Saadeddin said.

Sumbal Mahmud, a corporate lawyer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who is also the spokesperson for the local Islamic community, says US Muslims want to stop terrorism more than anyone because it affects their lives the most.

"I'm an adult and can take it. But how do I explain it to the sixth graders at the Islamic school when they come in after 9/11 and see 'Die, Muslim! Die!' scrawled on our playground?"

Muslim leaders say the post-Sept 11 difficulties have also had some positive impact on their community.

Khalid Qazi, an internist and activist in western New York, says Muslim Americans have become far more active in political and civic life since the attacks, running for public office, from district judge to US senator.

"I can't be American just like everybody else. It's a responsibility. I can't just stay home," said Nayyera Haq, spokeswoman for Democratic Sen Ken Salazar of Colorado.

"It's about being active and vocal and not feeling oppressed," said Haq, a Muslim American whose family emigrated from Pakistan. "(It's about) being active, by discussing, by listening to people and by being patient. That is my act of being American."