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Life for Muslim-Americans Drastically Different After 9/11


Attorney Alamdar Hamdani used to represent multimillion-dollar corporations. Now Hamdani represents cab drivers and convenience store owners who are called in for questioning by the FBI.

Nohayia Javed was a college student who never thought of herself as different from her classmates. Then she was beaten up and had hot coffee thrown in her face.

Many lives changed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But Muslim-Americans say that, as a group, the change for them has been dramatic, generally negative and certainly long-lasting. Overnight, they became an enemy in their own country.

The backlash has primarily been focused on those with ancestries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

“We feel embarrassment, frustration, anger on a daily basis,” said Farha Ahmed, general counsel for the Muslim American Republican Caucus, at a recent symposium on racial profiling at the University of Houston Law Center.

Ninety-nine percent of Islam’s adherents are nonviolent, said Ahmed, a Libyan-American, but “that doesn’t seem to be enough.”

Hamdani realized the day of the attacks that there would be a backlash against fellow Muslims. So he joined the American Civil Liberties Union and started representing, pro bono, people who were being detained or questioned by the government.

Hamdani, an American citizen raised by Indian parents, says it’s one thing for the general public to look at Muslims with a jaundiced eye, but it’s something else for the government to do that.

“Just because I worship a god named Allah doesn’t mean the 1st, 4th, 5th amendment don’t apply,” he says, referring to the Bill of Rights amendments concerning the rights to free association and speech, against unreasonable search and seizure, and to due process.

FBI spokeswoman Shauna Dunlap says her agency’s work in the Muslim community benefits both sides.

“No lead can go uncovered in a post-9/11 world,” she says.

The agency does not investigate people based on their religion or ethnicity, Dunlap says, adding that the FBI has proactively reached out to Muslim leaders in the area to build relationships and clear up misconceptions.

Javed, a 20-year-old senior at Baylor University, is a neuroscience major and plans to go to law school. This spring, a stranger approached her on campus, threw her to the ground, kicked her, pulled at her hijab — her head covering — and made anti-Muslim remarks.

Less than a week after the 9/11 attacks, Javed was at a gas station with her mother when another customer gave her an evil stare and threw hot coffee in her face. Another customer confronted the man, who left the scene.

“Muslims are not what they’re made out to be, and if you have any doubt in your mind, you should get to know a Muslim,” Javed says. “We’re normal, just like you.”

Tarek Hussein, a physical therapist who’s active in the Houston Muslim community, has unwittingly gotten himself on a no-fly list. This summer, after vacationing in his native Egypt, Hussein was told by airport officials in Cairo that his name was flagged and that they needed to call the U.S. Embassy before letting him travel. After landing in New York, Hussein found two U.S. Department of Homeland Security officers waiting for him in the jetway. His 10-year-old daughter cried as he was led to a room where he estimates 90 percent of the passengers were of Middle Eastern descent.

The officers made copies of all of his documents and papers, including a receipt from a souvenir shop, and questioned him about his trip.

Muslim-Americans point to one positive consequence: 9/11 has made them become more active in the public sphere. More Muslims now work in politics and the armed services. Organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations have stepped up their efforts in educating the public, media, government and law enforcement agencies about Islam, as well as registering Muslims to vote. And, of course, more Muslims are active in civil liberty issues.

It’s a lesson minority groups historically have had to learn, says Sahar Wali, a Muslim who works for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee: “If you want to have rights, you have to defend them.”

— Associated Press


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