[The Record] Ten years after 9/11, U.S. Muslims still battling stereotypes
I was interviewed by “The Record” for a piece on 9/11. Read Online Here.
Ten years have passed since al-Qaida terrorists hijacked four planes in an attack that killed nearly 3,000 people and wiped the World Trade Center from the New York City skyline.
But time has done little to dispel the deep mistrust some Americans feel toward Muslims, believing they are sympathetic to terrorists and have not done enough to root out radicalism in their communities.
Muslim leaders have ramped up outreach to show they’re as American as anyone else, but have been unable to shake the specter of terrorism. That mistrust has played out across national and local levels in racial profiling, congressional hearings on radicalism in Islam and virulent opposition to the building of mosques.
North Jersey has a large Muslim community with deep local roots and some members serving in public office. But Muslims here have hardly been immune from tensions over Islam in America.
“Sept. 11 was a major rude awakening. All of a sudden our religion was hijacked by someone who flies into buildings,” said Mohamed El Filali, the outreach coordinator for the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson.
New Jersey was inextricably linked to the disaster, having lost so many of its residents to the attacks and later learning that a few hijackers made a temporary home in Paterson. Suspicion and fear were rampant in the aftermath.
Tensions surfaced sharply with a North Bergen Muslim cleric’s proposal to develop the Park51 mosque near Ground Zero. Richard Zuendt, a member of the Bergen County Republican Organization and co-founder of ConservativeNewJersey.com, said the mosque plan showed that Muslim-Americans were not understanding or tolerant of their neighbors, a sentiment shared by other Americans who protested the project.
“They don’t feel the way we do,” said Zuendt, of Garfield. “They don’t feel our hurt. If they felt our hurt, they would not want to open a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero.”
Muslim-Americans across North Jersey said the “us versus them” scenario was unfair and that their civil liberties as Americans suffered when their homes and non-profits were raided, when their houses of worship got extra land-use scrutiny, or when they were subject to tougher questioning when they came up for public-service jobs.
In a recent high-profile case, critics assailed Governor Christie’s appointment of Clifton lawyer Sohail Mohammed, an Indian-American Muslim, as a state Superior Court judge. During his confirmation hearing in June, Mohammed was grilled by lawmakers on topics like his Muslim affiliations and beliefs on Shariah law, or Islamic religious law, and the Palestinian political party Hamas.
State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Demarest, who vigorously questioned Mohammed, said he had the right to assess how people’s beliefs might affect their work.
“The majority of Muslims pose no threat,” Cardinale said in a recent interview. “What I believe is that most of them are as fearful of the extremist minority as we are and our goal should be to overcome the extremist minority tendencies.”
Cardinale said those Muslim extremists want to “destroy American culture” and impose Shariah law, which he said makes women into cattle or slaves. But Muslims say critics are using terms like Shariah to inspire fear, while spreading misinformation about what those terms actually mean.
Muslims interviewed about Sept. 11 said they were resentful of what they called guilt by association. Kashif Chaudhry of New Milford, a Muslim youth leader, said Muslims were being subject to the same kind of prejudices that other religions and ethnic groups had faced in the past in the U.S.
“The perception that the whole community was terrorists or terrorist sympathizers — we hoped that would go away with time,” said Chaudhry.