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American Muslims Strive to Become Model Citizens

American Muslims Strive to Become Model Citizens

             

 

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim immigrants were seen as a potential threat in the United States. They have since become model citizens -- and now they want a greater say in politics.

It is almost 1 p.m., time for noon prayers, and Abdul Malik Mujahid, 55, is in his office on the second floor of Chicago's Downtown Islamic Center, preparing for his sermon. On his desk are a Koran, a pad of paper and a Blackberry. A telephone rings in the next room as people hurry through the corridors.

 Soon Mujahid takes the elevator to the fourth floor, carrying the text of his sermon under his arm. The 200 men waiting for him in the prayer room are dressed in jeans and in suits. They have slipped away from their offices for lunch, removed their shoes and staked out their spots on the carpet. Now they want to hear Mujahid's Friday sermon.

 He nods to the congregation. Mujahid is a short, elegant man. His gray beard is carefully trimmed and he has a smooth voice. He turns toward Mecca and recites the Fatiha, the opening Sura in the Koran. Then he quickly gets to his point: "My brothers, we can all contribute to reducing our energy consumption," he says. "That must be your very own jihad, your fight against global warming."

 When he speaks he sounds like Al Gore, the former vice president of the United States and the man who is now leading America in the battle against climate change. "This wonderful country," says Mujahid, "depends on its immigrants. Show that you are good Americans and good Muslims."

 

Councillors, Advisors, and an Ambassador

 Six years after Sept. 11, 2001, America and its Muslim immigrants seem to be on surprisingly good terms. They get along, they discover common interests, and it almost seems as if America's latest immigrants want to prove to everyone that they are the better Americans.

 Many recent Muslim immigrants arrived in the mid-1970s and came from Southeast Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, the Arab countries, Europe and Africa. They are responsible for making Islam a fixture in "God's own country." There are already an estimated 3 to 7 million American Muslims today. No one knows exactly how many, though, because the United States has no religious census and church registers are not used in Islam.

Most of America's new Muslims adapted quickly, eager to become model citizens. Unlike other minorities -- the Chinese or Italians -- Muslims did not isolate themselves in distinct urban neighborhoods but tended to blend in. They were quiet and industrious, and once they had been granted asylum in the US, they stayed to make money. They wanted their children to have better lives, to go to school and earn degrees that would enable them to lead middle-class lives as lawyers, doctors and academics. They were not interested in politics. But then came Sept. 11.

In the space of a single morning, taxi drivers, cooks and waiters suddenly became potential terrorists. Hate crimes against Muslims jumped by more than 1,600 percent in the following year. That September day in 2001 seemed to mark the end of a dream. Five thousand men were placed in preventive detention merely because of their Arab birthplaces and, a short time later, government agents questioned 170,000 Muslim men. Applications for citizenship were turned down and many Muslims were deported.

 But if there is an American answer to every problem, then America's Muslims provided the most American of all answers to Sept. 11. They saw the date as both a challenge and an opportunity. Six years after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, American Muslims are now self-confident and more influential than ever before. They earn as much money as the average American, they go on talk shows to tell their success stories and they are beginning to run for political office.

 American senators offer Muslims internships, members of Congress hire Muslim press secretaries and chiefs of staff and the US State Department recently appointed a female Muslim ambassador who also happens to be its chief advisor on issues of equality.

 Muslims are everywhere in US politics: in government agencies and in the White House, in Congress and on city councils, in city halls and on planning commissions. They are the new imperative of political correctness in the United States. A year ago President George W. Bush announced: "America is stronger because of the countless contributions of Muslim citizens." Less than six months later, in February 2007, he nominated Zalmay Khalilzad, a native of Afghanistan, to the position of US ambassador to the United Nations. Khalilzad is now the most important Muslim in the US cabinet.

 

'Simply accepted as a fact'

 There are already several influential Muslim interest groups in the US today. One is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which almost always sends one of its representatives to make the rounds of the talk shows whenever a US flag is set on fire somewhere else in the world. Another is the American Muslim Alliance, which aims to send Muslims to the Capitol. The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is deeply involved in civil rights issues.

 Edina Lekovic is the communications director for the Los Angeles and Washington-based MPAC. She sits in her office in downtown Los Angeles, facing a wall of brochures. She seems to have answers to all the relevant questions: how to deal with Islamophobia, or how to take advantage of free legal aid. The battles she wages are very much American battles.

 Lekovic is a journalist by training and once wanted to be a TV reporter. She was told she would never make it in front of the cameras wearing a headscarf. But she was self-confident and decided to take a media job in the Muslim lobby instead. "If Sept. 11 hadn't happened," says Lekovic, "we wouldn't have this much influence today."

 Americans are even entrusting Muslims with key positions, such as that of the deputy mayor of Los Angeles, a job with important homeland security responsibilities. Arif Alikhan, a devout Sunni and the son of Pakistani immigrants, has held the position since September 2006. He wears a shirt and tie; his suits are better-fitting than those of most Americans. He's in his late 30s. His office on the third floor of the Los Angeles city hall is only three doors down from the mayor's office.

 He began his career seven years ago, when he took a job with the Department of Justice hunting down computer hackers, crooks who were selling merchandise on Ebay at rock-bottom prices. In his former position as an assistant US attorney, Alikhan consistently did his work accurately and silently, never producing any headlines. But then he suddenly became one of the most important men in Los Angeles, America's second-largest city after New York.

 As the city's computer and telecommunications crime coordinator, Alikhan is in the process of hiring new police officers. The job is as big as it is crucial: Close to four million people live in Los Angeles proper, while the metropolitan area is home to 18 million. Los Angeles could well be the target of the next terrorist attack. There was no commotion when Alikhan was appointed, nor did any newspaper so much as question why someone like him should be placed in charge of the security of America's second-largest city. It was simply accepted as a fact. "I never had the feeling that my religion is written on my forehead," he says.

 Trial by Fire

 Sixty-five percent of America's Muslim community was born abroad. It is just beginning to develop its own institutions and produce its first representatives. Immigration experts call this stage the embryonic phase. But Sept. 11 threw them into the public spotlight, forcing them to make certain decisions. "Our generation has grown up, and it realizes that we are Americans," says Amina Masood, assistant to New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. By the time Congressman Tom Tancredo, from Colorado, proposed in August of 2007 that America should bomb Mecca if a nuclear attack were staged on American soil -- a suggestion that made headlines around the world -- American Muslims were in a position to speak for themselves.

 The Last of the Muslim Republicans

 That was the case with Masrur Javed Khan, 56. Only a few years ago, this friendly, thoughtful and charming man could hardly have imagined giving up his well-paying job as a project manager for a Texas oil company. But then came Sept. 11 and everything happened at once. Khan felt that he had to set an example, so he decided to go into politics. Friends told him that he was crazy, but Khan, a Pakistan-born engineer who had come to the United States as a student in 1975, remained resolute.

 "For 30 years not a single American asked me about my religion," he said. "Only my work and my performance counted. Anyone who votes for me now should also be voting for me for that reason."

 In November 2003, Khan ran for a seat on the city council in his adopted hometown of Houston and won -- as the first Muslim immigrant in US history. Even more remarkable was the fact that the majority of voters in his election district -- District F -- were Catholic Latinos.

Khan proudly recounts how he knocked on at least 3,000 doors during the campaign. He wanted voters to see him as a public servant and as someone who respects the common good. Khan says that public service is entirely compatible with his religion. Today he is embroiled in a dispute with the city administration for the construction of a park in District F -- his pet project. He is also involved in programs to combat violence and drugs in his district.

A gold-framed picture depicting the 99 names of God hangs on Khan's wall, next to oil paintings from Pakistan and his university diplomas. A devout Muslim, he considers himself a conservative when it comes to values, and because of this he has always felt closer to the Republicans than the Democrats. He joined the Republican Party and has remained there ever since, despite the war in Iraq. "I'm always telling my friends in Washington that I am part of a dying breed: the last self-confessed Muslim Republican," he says, jokingly.

 In fact, Muslims from the Middle East, Iran and Southeast Asia were traditionally among the Grand Old Party's most loyal allies. In the 2000 presidential election, Muslim interest groups even endorsed George W. Bush. They liked his canon of values -- family, faith and private enterprise -- which was compatible with theirs. But the Iraq war and Bush's antiterrorism policies turned off most Muslims. They turned their backs on the Republican Party and have voted primarily Democratic ever since. Before the 2004 election, 74 percent of US Muslims said they supported Democratic candidate John Kerry. This suddenly placed middle-class Muslims in the same boat with an entirely different group: America's established Black Muslim community, which consists of those whose ancestors brought Islam with them as slaves from Africa, as well as those who followed civil rights leader Malcolm X's example and converted to Islam in the volatile 1950s and 60s. In other words, America's new Muslim immigrants now find themselves being associated with people who were traditionally viewed as America's losers.

 "There are still major social differences between African American and immigrant Muslims, differences of language, culture, national origin," says Boston political science professor Peter Skerry. "There are alliances between the two groups, but they largely keep to themselves in mosques and residential neighborhoods."

 Khan isn't ruling out the possibility that a Muslim could even become the US president one day. "I'm not entirely serious," he says, "but if a woman or an African American can do it, why not one of us in 50 years?" It only took three years after Khan managed to capture a seat on Houston's city council for the first Muslim to be elected to the House of Representatives. Until recently, the governing body included 16 Mormons, 21 Lutherans, 37 Jews, 50 Presbyterians, 63 Methodists, 72 Baptists and 153 Catholics. But then Democrat Keith Ellison from Minnesota was elected the United States' first Muslim congressman. Ellison had announced that he planned to take the oath of office on the Koran, which of course didn't sit well with everyone in his district. But in the end he captured 56 percent of the vote.

 'It's different in the Christian rural areas'

 America's new Muslims come from all over the world, speak dozens of languages and practice a wide range of rites. This pluralism, immigration experts repeatedly emphasize, is perhaps their greatest advantage. Unlike European Muslims with their virtually monolithic blocs -- Algerians in France or Turks in Germany, for example -- no single Muslim group sets the tone in the United States.

 An estimated 400,000 Muslims live in the greater Chicago area alone -- Sunnis next to Shiites, white converts next door to black imams. The community includes Iranians, Turks, Somalis and Bosnians -- and the Arabs in Bridgeview.

 The neighborhood in the western part of the city is the quintessential American dream: rows of single-family homes with basketball hoops over the garage door, manicured lawns and brand-new Pontiacs. A group of boys plays basketball on the neighborhood court. But at the center of town is an imposing mosque surrounded by a large, green lawn, about as unreal as an oriental UFO.

 Hind Makki, a petite student, proudly takes visitors on a tour of the mosque. Women pray on the lower level and men up above. Makki, 25, says that her dream job is to work for the State Department in Washington. She comes from a conservative family. Her parents emigrated from Sudan but, she says, it was her choice to wear the headscarf. "People in Chicago are totally relaxed about the hijab. It's different in the Christian rural areas. That's where they give you a hard time."

Most businesses in Bridgeview are geared toward a predominantly Muslim clientele. Fast-food restaurants clearly identify dishes containing pork, and during the month of Ramadan, furniture stores decorate their displays with tinsel garlands. But it hasn't always been this peaceful. On the day after Sept. 11, when the images of the fallen towers had barely taken hold in the collective consciousness, residents of a nearby trailer park had banded together and planned to attack the mosque. Church elders and the police managed to avert violence, but the group did inflict some minor damage.

 "Jealousy was part of it," says Makki, "they were lower-class whites who couldn't stand the fact that we live in nicer houses than they do."

Makki's American heroes are other whites: Ralph Nader, for example, the leftist consumer advocate and sometime presidential candidate; and Christine Rodogno, a Republican who in 2001 introduced the Halal Food Act, a law that regulates the proper labeling of Islamic food products.

It appears that the United States has a more effective immigration policy than Europe. Less well-educated Muslims tended to go to the United States, while others went to the Old World. In Europe, for the most part, they remained part of the lower classes. This is why Washington's Department of Homeland Security is not overly concerned that US Muslims could be planning the next terrorist attack. Muslims from Great Britain and continental Europe seem far more suspicious.

 The United States, the land of religious refugees, is more open to religion than secular Europe. Debates over headscarves or mosques are less likely to ruffle feathers in the United States. And while America has 250 Islamic schools, Great Britain has less than half as many, France has only three and Germany has none at all. If Mujahid, the imam from Chicago, had any remaining doubts that the Muslims' lot has improved significantly in the six years since Sept. 11, they would have been dispelled once and for all on this morning. He has just met with two security officials from Washington. They came to see Mujahid because they wanted his advice on how to recruit Muslims with roots in America to work in homeland security and assist in the fight against terrorism.

The imam switched off his mobile phone, shut the door and spent the next two hours talking to the men. When they left, Mujahid knew that they would come to the mosque more often now. Now they need him.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

URL:

                                 http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,505573,00.html

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