Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Being Muslim in America isn't what it used to be

A Muslim homemaker from the Los Angeles area, assuming authorities monitor her charity donations, has stopped giving to "any Muslim charity that touched my heart" and now contributes to less-controversial organizations.

In Sacramento, Calif., a young imam has broken with an ancient tradition among Islamic prayer leaders by shaving part of his beard to appear less threatening to non-Muslims.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, they say, increased scrutiny and suspicion have made them more cautious about expressing their faith. Other California Muslims have taken a different approach.

A 19-year-old hijab-wearing student at the University of California, Irvine, and others in her school's Muslim Student Union staged a program in May critical of Israel called Holocaust in the Holy Land. She also helps organize rallies and fundraisers to support Muslims that she believes have been unfairly targeted by federal investigators.

The experiences of the homemaker, the imam and the student reflect the transforming and sometimes contradictory effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the five years since the attacks, some Muslims have tried to be less visible, others more bold, as they live and work beside their fellow Americans.

"We are witnessing the creation of a new Muslim-American identity that is still a work in progress," said Zahid H. Bukhari, director of the American Muslim studies program at Georgetown University.

"In times past, it happened to African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, Japanese and Catholics; now, it's Muslims' turn to become part of the fabric of American life," he said.

Many who study U.S. Muslims say that, without the Sept. 11 attacks, it might have taken the extremely diverse, reclusive and largely immigrant community - an estimated 6 million to 8 million - another decade to enter the public square. The acts of terrorism on U.S. soil forced them into it, albeit under what some Muslims believe are the prying eyes of government, media and neighbors.

They speak of shifting to unlisted telephone numbers or obtaining post office boxes so they don't have to reveal their home addresses. Some have even stopped going to mosque prayer meetings.

"It's an amazingly exhausting job being Muslim in America these days, because we're always on," said Napha Phyukal Quach, a congregant of the Al-Fatiha Islamic Center in Azusa, Calif.

Zubeida Khan immigrated to the United States from India in 1977, under terms of a family-arranged marriage, to wed Iftikhar Khan.

Her husband went on to become a cardiologist. In 1998, the couple and their two sons moved into a spacious hilltop home 15 miles east of Los Angeles.

For years, "I was content being a housewife," said Khan, who does not cover her hair with a hijab but always dresses modestly, in long-sleeve blouses and long skirts or pants.

Then came Sept. 11.

"With people being arrested left and right and negative images of Muslims filling the news, I told my sons to keep a low profile," recalled Khan, 49. "But I also felt I had to step out of my home and into the real world to stand up for Muslims and tell people what Islam really stands for: peace, mercy, equality for all. Surrender to God."

Khan began inviting people who might help promote understanding - city officials, pastors and rabbis - to her home for face-to-face talks.

She joined the Muslim Public Affairs Council Foundation in 2003, and now serves as treasurer of its board.

"In becoming more assertive in the public arena, I've made a statement about who and what I am at a time when a few unreasonable radicals have hijacked public attention," she said. "We have to make it loud and clear to other Muslims and our communities that we stick to the principles of the Quranand the life of the prophet."

Marya Bangee, the student at UC Irvine, says she, too, is trying to embody the principles of Islam. But she is among those who take a more aggressive approach when engaging American society.

Civil rights have become a banner issue among many Muslim youths. Unlike their parents, many of whom came from countries where political activism could be dangerous, today's students know their rights, speak the language and know American culture.

Among Bangee's recent priorities has been campaigning on behalf of an Orange County, Calif., fundraiser jailed for two years because of his connection with a charity allegedly tied to terrorists. On July 27, a jubilant Abdel Jabbar Hamdan was ordered freed by a federal judge who rejected the government's claim that he was a national-security threat.

The next day, Bangee helped stage a town-hall meeting for Hamdan in Irvine. As more than 200 people filed into a sweltering auditorium, she said, "This event is a direct result of 9-11 and the subsequent government investigations of Muslim charities."

The investigations have resulted in the freezing of millions of dollars in bank assets and the closure of several Muslim charities.

"One of the mandates of Islam is that Muslims donate 2.5 percent of their assets to the poor and the needy," Bangee said. "But for us, it is more difficult than ever to get money to the people in places such as Palestine, one of the most pressing humanitarian disasters in the world.

"Our job now," she added, "is to put pressure on the government to make sure, insha Allah" - God willing - "that justice prevails."

A surge of concern about how to divert Muslim youths from radical influences has created a post-Sept. 11 demand for a rare commodity: English-speaking imams who understand American youth culture.

One such imam is Mohamed Abdul Azeez, the new prayer leader at the SALAM Islamic Center in Sacramento.

He's the kind of leader Mahdi Bray, executive director of the nonprofit Muslim American Society, had in mind when he observed, "We need imams who know that when our kids talk about Eminem, it's not chocolate candy, and 50 Cent isn't loose change and Usher is not going to take you to your seat."

Azeez, 30, was born in Egypt. He immigrated to the United States in 2000 with aspirations of establishing himself as a scholar. He took charge of the mosque in 2004.

The United States, he said, gives him the opportunity to continue studying Islam free of the cultural restraints of the Middle East. As Azeez put it, he can explore his faith "outside the box."

Shaving his beard was a break with a tradition calling on imams to take on the appearance of the bearded prophet Muhammad. "I may be the only imam in America who doesn't wear a full beard," he said.

"But I don't want to scare people," said Azeez, who sports a mustache and goatee. "There are just too many negative ideas that go along with Muslims with full beards these days."

Azeez encourages congregants to vote and to support civil rights organizations, backs women on the mosque's board of trustees and welcomes non-Muslim participation in religious activities.

Given that nearly everyone at his mosque has a relative or friend who has been visited by federal authorities, had a run-in with airport security or been called a profane name in public, Azeez also started a free lecture course called "Discover Islam."

At his mosque one day this summer, Azeez led prayers in Arabic and then addressed 150 worshippers in English, presenting them a challenge.

"Brothers and sisters," he began, almost scolding, "I still hear Muslim immigrants in the United States say, 'I am from Turkey, or Jordan, or Morocco.' They never call themselves Americans. ... They spend their entire lives in a nice house in the suburbs and taking advantage of a system without giving back.

"This is extremely dangerous, brothers and sisters," he said. "There is no shame in saying, 'I am a Muslim American and will help make this a better place for everyone.' "

Later, in his office, Azeez said, "People think I have answers for everything. I don't. Nor do I have a coherent picture of reality to share. I tend to give people hope."

Staring out the window, he added, "I have a few deferred dreams of my own, like learning to fly, or buying a rifle to go deer hunting with friends. But I can't do either of those things without worrying about being reported to authorities. Non-Muslims can do those things. We can't."

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