A Troubling Year For Muslims in America

By Carol Eisenberg
Staff Writer

September 2, 2002

Nothing could dampen his mood that day. As Sayed Tayyab Bokhari chopped onions alongside his wife on that languorous Saturday last December, he thought that he had found happiness beyond anything he had ever dared dream of in America. After three years in this country, his hard work had paid off: The slight, soft-spoken Pakistani had worked his way up to a job as a manager for a chain of dollar stores. A few months earlier, he had married a dark-haired American beauty whom he adored. And now, as they prepared to host their first dinner party together, the newlyweds traded curry recipes and teased each other in their Brentwood kitchen.

“We were laughing and learning to make different dishes together — chicken biryani, mutton curry, fried queema,” Bokhari recalled. “I told my wife, Tania, ‘This was the life I had always dreamed of.’” Perhaps because he was so elated, he did not register the alarm in his older brother’s voice when they talked later that day on the telephone. “There is somebody who wants to speak to you,” the brother said, speaking from Bokhari’s store in Brentwood.

Who could want me on a Saturday evening? Bokhari wondered.

“The police,” his brother replied.

Assuming there had been another theft at the store — a not uncommon experience — Bokhari excused himself from his company without undue concern. But when he pulled up in the parking lot a few minutes later, he was surrounded by about a dozen men in suits, who identified themselves as agents of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Postal Service.

Like hundreds of Muslim and Arab immigrants picked up over the past year, Bokhari was arrested on visa violations and interrogated about suspected ties to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. It didn’t seem to matter how many times he denied knowing anything. “As a Muslim, you must support the Islamic jihad against the West,” he recalled one agent pressing him. Bokhari replied that he had wept “watching the people falling from the floors” of the towers. He told the agent that this was not jihad, but cold-blooded murder.

“You are scared now if you are Muslim, trust me, very much scared,” Bokhari said two weeks ago after his release from jail on a $12,000 bond while he awaits a hearing on whether he can remain in this country. “Anyone looks at me now, my heart starts pumping.”

This has been a deeply troubling year for Muslims in America — a time of bitter misunderstandings and often stark extremes of experience. On one level, the government’s questioning and detention of hundreds of mostly immigrant men in probes that many believe are based on religious and ethnic profiling have created a powerful sense of siege. But there also have been other, less remarked-upon changes. In hundreds of mosques across the country, there is reinvigorated debate about what Muslims believe and how they should live in a pluralistic society. And, too, there have been unexpected moments of grace in encounters with people of other faiths. “When I go to churches, synagogues and schools, folks are very warm, they’re very understanding and they’re very keen to learn more about Islam,” said Dr. Faroque Khan, one of the founders of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury.

“But it’s at the government level we’re having big-time trouble. No one is criticizing the detention of people who create problems. But when you pick up hundreds of people whose visas have expired and put them in prison for six or seven months without representation, and they all have names like Mohammed or Sayed, and you know for a fact that the gardener who works for you is undocumented, you begin to wonder what’s going on.”

As the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center draws near, many Muslims say they are especially uneasy. Fears of additional reprisals and a sense of betrayal on the part of the government complicate already tangled emotions. And though government officials deny they are pursuing suspects based on religious or ethnic profiling, few believe that.

“I don’t know a single Arab or Muslim American who does not now feel that he or she belongs to the enemy camp, and that being in the United States> at this moment provides us with an especially unpleasant experience of alienation and widespread, quite specifically targeted hostility,” wrote Edward Said, a Palestinian Christian who teaches at Columbia University. His column appeared on iviews.com, a Web site of Islamic and Middle Eastern news and opinion. And the ongoing drama of detentions and deportations has only intensified those feelings, particularly since very few arrests have resulted in charges related to terror.

Though Bokhari was cleared of any ties to terrorism, for instance, he was imprisoned for eight months on charges of having a fraudulent South African passport. He spent nearly three of those months in a 5-by-8-foot cell called “The Hole,” at the maximum-security Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where fluorescent lights shined 24 hours a day and cameras followed his every move.

“They put me in a place where they put extremely dangerous criminals,” he said. “And when I went there I thought, ‘I’m in a grave.’ I said, ‘I’m claustrophobic.’ I told them, ‘It’s going to be very hard for me to survive even for an hour or two. Please, for God’s sake, don’t leave me here.’ “All they said was, ‘We have orders from the central office in Washington, D.C.’” Though he was released two weeks ago from an INS detention facility in York, Pa., Bokhari remains frightened about what lies ahead. He lost his job and his rented home, and with a conviction for passport fraud, he worries about whether he will be allowed to remain here. He denies that he knowingly engaged in deception when he applied for and received a passport while working in South Africa in the late 1990s, though his name and birth date appeared incorrectly. Justice Department officials did not return calls about the case.

“The people of the U.S., they are very much innocent,” Bokhari said. “But we are scared from the government and the police.”

The irony is that many Muslims say they feel more — not less — marginalized as the months since Sept. 11 have rolled on. “I think the larger American community doesn’t appreciate how the Arab and Muslim communities, like all New Yorkers, were traumatized by what happened Sept. 11, but this was a double trauma for them in that . . . they were also stigmatized and in some cases blamed for what happened,” said Emira Habiby Browne, executive director of the Arab-American Family Support Center in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. “Now with the anniversary coming up, people feel very insecure, very vulnerable and very unprotected. They feel they can be accused of anything, and they’re suspected of everything — regardless of who they are or what they’ve done in this country. This is a community that feels under siege.”

Akram Jamil, a Yemeni man living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said he suffers from panic attacks since federal agents broke into his apartment with drawn guns shortly before 6 a.m. on June 26, in an apparently misguided search for someone else. When they realized their error — after handcuffing him and his wife and beginning to ransack the apartment — Jamil said, the men left quickly without an apology and proceeded to the door of one of his neighbors.

“I’m living in constant fear now,” said the 23-year-old custodian for the
New York City school district, speaking through a translator. “If I hear a loud noise whether I’m on the subway or at my job, my heart pounds. And I’m a man, so you can imagine how my wife is faring.”

Even Muslims who are well established as doctors, lawyers and academics and hold American citizenship say they feel threatened.

“Some of the Muslim groups that were raided this spring are very pro-U.S. and pro-Western,” said Muqtedar Khan, a political scientist at
Adrien College in Michigan who has been an outspoken critic of Islamic extremism. “That sent a message that no one is safe.”

To be sure, the picture is not uniformly negative. A poll of U.S. Muslims recently released by a national Islamic advocacy group captured hardships — but also portents of hope. The poll reported that 57 percent of American Muslims said they experienced bias or discrimination in the months since Sept. 11, and almost all of the 945 respondents (87 percent) said they knew of someone who had. Almost half said their lives had changed for the worse following the attacks.

Yet that same poll, conducted by the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations in late July and early August, found that more than three in four Muslim Americans (79 percent) said they also had experienced kindness and support from friends, colleagues and communities of other faiths.

“The results of this survey show that while we have all gone through a traumatic year in our nation’s history, there is hope for the future if Americans who support and practice tolerance challenge the vocal minority who seek to divide our nation,” said CAIR
executive director Nihad Awad.

Many speak movingly about the power of even isolated acts of tolerance. Mohammad Tariq Sherwani, director of the
Muslim Center of New York in Flushing, recalls the gratitude he felt toward a Christian neighbor who left a bouquet of flowers two days after Sept. 11 with a scrawled card: “Don’t worry, we love you.” Hoda Spiteri of North Babylon, a radiant woman in a head scarf and loose, flowing clothing, said she has experienced “nothing but positives” as she speaks to non-Muslim gatherings about her faith.

Nine months ago she gave birth to her third child, and in an act of solidarity with her non-Muslim neighbors, she named him in honor of the patriarch shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

“We all come from the same lineage,” she said, bouncing curly-haired Ibrahim on her lap. “It’s just that we practice a little differently. That’s what I want to teach my children — to be accepting of everyone and not to pass judgment on people based on stereotypes. And I pray that that is how people will treat them.”

Yet, Spiteri, a board member of the Islamic Center of Long Island, believes the tolerance she experiences at the grassroots level does not extend to the reaches of government. Like virtually every individual interviewed for this story, she said she has begun to fear that the government’s war on terrorism is, in fact, becoming a war on Islam — President George W. Bush’s protestations notwithstanding.

“Something went upside down and inside out after Sept. 11,” she said.

Some Muslim communities have begun to mount their own counteroffensives.

On a recent Muslim holy day, a big bear of a man in a double-breasted black suit lectures sternly to several hundred of the faithful worshiping at the
Muslim Center of New York.

“My brothers and sisters, it is wrong to stay inside your house and think this storm is going to pass,” said Bassem Khafagi, community affairs director of the national office of CAIR

“We owe it to our kids to stand up and explain who we are and what we believe. Otherwise, what kind of country are you going to leave them? A country that hates them? A country that knows nothing about their religion? Would you like your kid to say someday, ‘Oh, my dad left me with a million dollars, but with no dignity?’” Khafagi left no doubt about what he regarded as the path to salvation in

“Are you an ambassador of Islam? Are you telling others about Islam? If you’re not doing your job, then don’t curse the media, please. Each one of us is responsible.” With the approaching anniversary, several national advocacy groups are trumpeting that message in m
osques across the country, urging the faithful to throw open their doors to the community and to hold days of “unity and prayer” to mark Sept. 11.

“Sometimes the reaction of people who feel under siege, as Muslim people do today, is to retreat and defend themselves,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR
. “But we feel the best way to defend the community is to reach out and bring people in. Ignorance is the root of hatred and bias crimes.”

Perhaps the most articulate defense is coming from an increasingly visible and vocal community of young Muslims, many of whom were born and raised in this country.

Aasma Khan, a 31-year-old
Manhattan attorney, has worked virtually full time this past year to spread the message of a moderate Islam as a founding member of Muslims Against Terrorism, a New York-based group of mostly young, well-educated professionals formed in the days immediately after the attacks.

“I think my generation has claimed an American identity and is leading the way,” she said over coffee recently.

Whether Khan is warning of the consequences of the government’s assault on civil liberties or defending her choice not to cover her shoulder-length red-brown hair, she is a fearless advocate.

“I’m not afraid as a Muslim who’s an American citizen,” she said of the government’s detention of terror suspects. “I’m afraid as an American citizen. I may be the first to go, but I won’t be the last.” As for the decision to forgo a hijab, or head scarf, Khan tells critics: “That’s between God and me, and I’ll be held accountable on Judgment Day. Implicit in that is that I’m not accountable to you.”

Khan believes that Muslim-Americans are at a crossroads, not just in their relationship to
America, but in relationship to their faith. “In some ways,” she said, “9/11 ripped the lid off the discussion, and it’s become much more vibrant and robust, and in some ways it’s become more respectable even as it becomes more critical.” Open conversations are taking place, she said, about how engaged Muslims should be in secular politics, equality for women, and the need for greater tolerance among Muslims of different ethnic and racial communities. And those discussions, in turn, have sparked new energy and commitment, particularly on the part of young, American-born Muslims like herself.

Khan believes that a purer, more tolerant Islam is being forged in the American m
elting pot, simply because it is one of the few places in the world where Muslims of different cultures worship side by side and have the freedom to debate their beliefs. And she is confident that in the not too distant future, her faith community will be fully accepted into the American mainstream.

“If we do this right,” she said, “it will be an example for Muslims around the world.”
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.