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View from Wayland's Islamic Center: How 9/11 Continues to Affect American Muslims

Area Muslims talk about how they've gone from being mostly overlooked to being a people with a scrutinized faith.

Eleven years ago, Muslims lived in America. They worked here, raised kids here, married here, died here, worshiped here, paid taxes here and otherwise went about living their lives much as any other Americans.

But 10 years ago, 19 Muslim men hijacked planes and flew them into the two towers of New York’s World Trade Center; the Pentagon in Washington D.C.; and, in what appears to have been a failed plot, a field in Shanksville, Penn., killing nearly 3,000 people and abruptly bringing foreign terrorism onto American soil.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the lives of millions of Muslims living in America changed profoundly because of the actions of 19 of those individuals.

Ghazi Khankan was serving as the executive director of the national organization, Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) when 9/11 happened. Khankan explained that Islam was not much understood, or even talked about, outside the Muslim community prior to 9/11. Ten years ago, that lack of knowledge created a breeding ground for rumor and fear among the American public.

“My son suffered the most because of what happened,” said Malik Khan, whose two-year term as president of the , located in Wayland, ended June 30, 2011. “He was in 10th grade.“

Khan said his son came home from school on Sept. 12 and went straight to his room. When Khan and his wife questioned him, “He said he was in the school today and people who knew him said, 'What the [expletive] did you do in New York yesterday?'"

“It was there before, but not in that direct fashion,” Khan said, of prejudice against Muslims. “The Muslim community was more insular. They were all into their own things.”

Khan said he believes the religion of the terrorists is irrelevant given that the deeds of Sept. 11 were politically, not religiously, motivated.

“Their goals were politically specific. From their perspective, they were doing a political act,” Khan said, stressing his belief in the importance of “not confusing faith with politics.”

But claiming credit for the attacks was al-Qaida, an organization committed to “opposing non-Islamic governments … with force and violence,” according to a December 2001 FBI testimony. With that claim and the organization’s Islamic ties, leaders within the American Muslim community found a suddenly curious public clamoring for answers and a sudden need to protect themselves and their children from anger and fear of those who blame the attacks on all Muslims.

“They're extremists,” said Hoda Yehia, a 16-year-old Muslim from Lexington. “Every religion has extremists. That’s not what Islam is about.”

Khankan agreed and goes so far as to question the true faith of the 19 hijackers.

“I don’t believe that they are truly practicing Muslims,” said Khankan over a recent community iftar, the evening breaking of the fast during Ramadan, at ICB. “For anything to be an Islamic act, it must originate in the Koran, and the Koran says, if you kill one soul, you have killed all humanity; if you save one soul, you save all humanity. If they were truly Muslim, they would not have done those attacks.”

But regardless the true motivation behind the acts or even the religious status of the 19 hijackers, the large, but largely unnoticed Muslim population in the United States found itself thrust into a harsh, unyielding public eye in the days following 9/11.

Acts of a few, consequences for many

Chief Robert Irving started his new job in Wayland nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks. There were fears of vandalism to the Islamic center in the days following 9/11, so one of the first places Irving visited in Wayland was the ICB.

“I attended a meeting there to reassure them that just like anyone in the community, we’re here to protect them,” Irving said.

As it turned out, the protection wasn’t needed.

Lexington resident Tahir Chaudhry, then president of ICB, said he was worried about the center after the attacks, and when he arrived in the parking lot, he saw about 20 “white faces” outside.

From behind their backs, the people produced not weapons or insults, but flowers.

“We had so many flowerpots we didn’t know what to do with them,” said Khan, a member of the ICB at the time.

“We got some negative remarks, but overwhelmingly, we got support,” Chaudhry said.

Both negative prejudices and newfound curiosity characterize the impact 9/11 has had on America’s Muslim community, at least as far as Najma Saeed can tell. Saeed lives in Northborough and has been attending ICB since she moved to the U.S. from Pakistan 13 years ago. She said 9/11 made life more difficult for Muslims – “Whatever you do you’re in the spotlight” – but she said she also noticed an increase in attendance, particularly among young people.

And this is where the heightened curiosity about Islam following 9/11 becomes visible in today’s Muslim population.

Khankan, who was also serving as the director of Interfaith Affairs and Communication at the Islamic Center of Long Island in September 2001, said the center was inundated with requests for speakers. He said 9/11 created both a challenge and an opportunity for leaders in the Muslim community to reach out to people largely unfamiliar with the tenets of the faith.

“I used to speak once a month in public,” Khankan said. “Immediately after 9/11, I was speaking three or four times a day. People started asking questions.”

Speaking up

Islam 101 still characterizes most speaking engagements in this post-9/11 world, both Chaudhry and Khankan said. They consider those talks opportunities to tamp out ignorance and break down walls. The secondary effect has been an increase in converts to Islam, which Khankan attributes simply to people asking more questions.

“You try to see if somehow you can put an alternate viewpoint [apart from that created by 9/11] of Muslims and Islam in front of the community,” Khan explained. “Because of this feeling that you have to defend yourself, there is this emphasis in reaching out. People are much more interested in us.”

These glimmers of positive steps taken in the past 10 years, however, cannot compensate for what Chaudhry calls “a huge negative effect – unimaginable effect – on Muslims in the U.S.”

Chaudhry found himself the subject of an FBI interview following 9/11, and he said that even now, 10 years after the attacks, when he travels overseas, he expects to be met by Homeland Security personnel and FBI agents on the plane. He has friends who have lost businesses and endured worse.

“Muslims have suffered the most [because of 9/11],” Chaudhry said. “They [Muslims, in general] were guilty without being guilty at all.”

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