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Frustrated U.S. Muslims Feel Marginalized Again

September 27, 2002|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, American Muslim leaders increasingly fear their community is being pushed to the margins of the American political system.

"On the political scene, we are back to square one," said Hussam Ayloush of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "In general, there is a fear that associating too closely with Muslims could be a liability."

Until the attacks, Muslims had been making steady gains in moving into the American mainstream. Muslims were just beginning to win appointments to government commissions. Politicians were knocking on the doors of their mosques, asking for support. Muslims were becoming politically emboldened to run for office themselves--producing 700 candidates for local, state and federal offices in 2000, according to Agha Saeed of the American Muslim Alliance.

In the weeks directly following the attacks, it seemed possible that trend would continue. National leaders, following the lead of President Bush, insisted that the U.S. war on terror should not become an occasion for turning against the nation's Muslims. And many Muslims say that ordinary Americans have reached out to them since the attacks--church members who offered to guard an Islamic school, women who donned head scarves to escort Muslim women on errands, casual acquaintances who have become friends.

Since January, however, the landscape has shifted.

Evidence of a hardening of attitudes against Muslims--at least on the part of some Americans--comes in several forms. So far this year, more than 20 books on the "Islamic menace" have been published. Two of those books are the best-selling titles among 7,219 books on Islam at Amazon.com: "American Jihad: The Terrorists Among Us," by Steven Emerson, and "Militant Islam Reaches America," by Daniel Pipes.

Leading figures among evangelical Christian denominations have made a series of public statements denouncing Islam as an evil.

And polls show that although Americans have gained familiarity with Islam, their increased knowledge has not led to greater approval. In a recent Los Angeles Times poll, 37% of those surveyed said they had a negative impression of Islam, compared with 28% whose impression was favorable.

While those surveyed had a more positive impression of American Muslims than of their faith, roughly a quarter said they had a negative impression of American Muslims.

Politicians appear to be responding to those developments and are shying away from Islamic conferences, Muslim activists say. Not a single national politician appeared at a recent convention of 30,000 Muslims in Washington, D.C., for example. Najee Ali, an activist with Project Islamic Hope, said one member of Congress even told him she would be in a photo with him only on the condition that it did not appear in any Muslim newspaper.

Muslim activists say the ostracism extends to the White House, where Bush met with a group of leaders shortly after the attacks, then went nearly a year before seeing any of them again.

Although Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council called the recent meeting a useful "steppingstone" to reopen dialogue, the perceived snub came as a disappointment to activists in major Muslim organizations who had high hopes for political inclusion and impact when they gave Bush their first-ever coordinated presidential endorsement in 2000.

The dicey political environment has drastically reduced the number of Muslims running for political office this year--only about 100, one-seventh of the number two years ago, Saeed said.

The recent arrests of six Muslims in New York on charges of supporting terrorism and the 17-hour detention of three Muslim medical students in Florida on suspicion of terrorism have only added to the American Islamic community's worries.

To critics, the New York arrests amplified fears of an Islamic "fifth column" in America, while many Muslims see the Florida men, who were later released, as evidence of injustices caused by paranoia.

"The tragedy," said Aslam Abdullah of the Los Angeles-based Minaret magazine, "is that American Muslims were working so hard to be accepted as equal citizens, and now all of a sudden they find they have to prove their loyalty all over again."

American Muslims remain a small minority group; estimates have ranged from about 2 million to 7 million. Educating Americans about their faith has been a priority for Muslim activists.

The attacks clearly have increased the amount of information Americans have about Islam and its American followers. Books about the religion have become bestsellers; college courses have sprung up nationwide.

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