Tuesday, October 17, 2006

NY Muslims keep the faith post 9/11
As part of his series on the fifth anniversary of the 11 September attacks, the BBC's Stephen Evans talks to Muslims in New York to see how they have been affected by the tragedy.

Many Muslims in New York have been through a period of reflection since 11 September 2001, looking out at the wider US and wondering where they fit into it.

Boys praying at a mosque in New York
The Muslim Center of New York hopes to train young leaders
And they have been looking inwards, to work out what kind of Islam sits easily with their lives.

Take the case of Nafisa Degani who worked for the insurance company, Aon, on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower.

She was in her office when the first plane hit the North Tower.

"All of us just stood up and looked out and saw this plane crash into Tower One and it was just like at eye level," she said.

"I stood there stupefied for a few seconds and we all thought it was pure accident - that he had lost control and that he had gone in. And it took a few seconds - I stood there, and a few seconds later a huge flame shot out and the fire was so close.

"I took my bag and I was just yelling, run, run."

Hijackers' motivation

Against the official advice to stay put, Ms Degani left her desk and descended. Half-way down the stairs, she felt the building shake as the second plane hit the tower above her.

Nafisa Degani
Nafisa Degani's experience has reinforced her faith
She escaped while her friends died, and the whole experience made her assess her whole life including her faith in Islam.

She says it has made her stronger in her faith.

She has thought hard about the motivation of the hijackers who killed her friends - rejecting the hijackers' version of Islam as a perversion.

"Firstly, Islam means peace - where was the peace in this? This Islam is just made up," she said. "It is nothing to do with Islam and these terrorists that take their own lives doing these kinds of acts - no religion permits that.

"So it is in the name of Islam but it has, as far as I'm concerned, nothing to do with the religion of Islam".

Ms Degani also re-ordered her own life. She tried to eliminate what was not working or important, and for her that meant getting divorced (something she says Muslim women very rarely initiate).

Community's role

Just as individual Muslims have re-examined their lives, so have communities.

At the Muslim Center of New York, in Queens, boys aged from seven to 14 rock back and forth as they memorise the Koran.

Imam Shamsi Ali
Imam Syamsi Ali believes Muslims have opened up since 9/11
It is a scene from thousands of mosques in the Pakistan many of their families left - except this is the US, with a very American attitude at the top.

The imam, Syamsi Ali, says he wants to bind people to the US, training young people who he hopes will become leaders in the law, medicine or engineering.

Since 11 September, Muslims in New York have become much more outgoing, he thinks.

"I used to attend meetings of the imams' council and I used to find many imams who were very, very unfriendly towards others. But after 11 September, they started realising that we need to open ourselves," he said.

"Before 11 September it was not easy to receive interfaith leaders in the mosques because of the perceptions - some Middle Eastern perception - that mosques are for Muslims only.

"But after 11 September, that changed. The mosque was opened, we organised many interfaith seminars, meetings where we reached out to the people."

Changing attitudes

New York's Muslims say they feel various pulls on them - this desire to be part of the US, but also some resentment from some of the rest of the country. Many Muslims say they face discrimination at work, or hostile looks on public transport.

Omar Mohammedi of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in New York, a civil rights lawyer, said he was taking cases brought by Muslims who had been fired from their jobs.

He was also representing a child who had been bullied in school because his name was "Osama".

Muslim Center of New York
The Muslim Center of New York holds regular interfaith seminars

Observers say there does seem to have been a change in Muslim attitudes since 11 September, with a much more determined rejection of isolation.

What it is impossible to know, though, is to what extent there are American Muslims who go the other way.

Analysts say home-grown terrorism seems less likely than in Europe, because integration of communities is greater.

Even in enclaves of people of Pakistani descent in the US, there is a mix, with Hispanics and Indians often living in the same street, their shops next to each other.

On top of that, Pakistanis who settle in the US generally do better, economically, compared with those who settle in the UK, many of whom fled poverty in Kashmir.

All the same, it only takes one alienated Muslim youth to act on his anger and then all the goodwill of thoughtful, active Muslim leaders in New York will count for little.

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