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A Post-9/11 Identity Shift

Muslim Americans reassess how they portray their faith in public.

September 08, 2006|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

A Muslim homemaker from La Habra Heights, assuming authorities monitor her charity donations, has stopped giving to "any Muslim charity that touched my heart" and now contributes to less-suspected organizations.

In Sacramento, a young imam has broken with an ancient tradition among Muslim prayer leaders by shaving part of his beard to appear less threatening to non-Muslims.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, they say, increased scrutiny and suspicion have made them more cautious about expressing their faith. Other California Muslims have taken a different approach.

In Irvine, a 19-year-old hijab-wearing UC Irvine student and others in her school's Muslim Student Union staged a program in May critical of Israel called Holocaust in the Holy Land. She also helps organize rallies and fundraisers to support Muslims whom she believes have been unfairly targeted by federal investigators.

The experiences of the homemaker, the imam and the student reflect the transforming and sometimes contradictory effects of Sept. 11 on Muslims in the United States. In the five years since the terrorist attacks, some Muslims have tried to be less visible, others more bold, as they live and work beside their fellow Americans.

"We are witnessing the creation of a new Muslim American identity that is still a work in progress," said Zahid H. Bukhari, director of the American Muslim studies program at Georgetown University.

"In times past, it happened to African Americans, Latinos, Jews, Japanese and Catholics; now, it's Muslims' turn to become part of the fabric of American life," he said. "Before 9/11, many Muslims were physically here but mentally living back in their homelands. That is starting to change."

Many who study U.S. Muslims say that, without Sept. 11, it might have taken the diverse, reclusive and largely immigrant community another decade to enter the public square.

The acts of terrorism on American soil forced them into it, albeit under what some Muslims believe are the prying eyes of government, the media or neighbors.

They speak of shifting to unlisted telephone numbers or obtaining post office boxes so they don't have to reveal their home addresses. Some have stopped going to mosque prayer meetings.

Compounding problems is an almost predictable increase in tensions and intimidation -- vandalism, break-ins, slurs -- after every arrest of a suspected terrorist who is a Muslim.

"The terrorists are just everyday Muslims following their satanic cult," read a recent e-mail to the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.

"It's an amazingly exhausting job being Muslim in America these days because we're always on," said Napha Phyukal Quach, a member of the Al-Fatiha Islamic Center in Azusa.

For some Muslims, the best way to respond is to embrace American institutions. A Georgetown University study in 2003 found that 93% of those surveyed believed that it was important to join the American political process.

That was the conclusion of Zubeida Khan, whose family's commitment to Islam is so strong that even Muslim friends jokingly call them "The Mullahs."

The La Habra Heights homemaker had come to the United States from India in 1977, under the terms of a family-arranged marriage, to wed Iftikhar Khan.

Her husband went on to become a cardiologist. In 1998, the couple and their two sons moved into a spacious hilltop home 15 miles east of Los Angeles.

For years, "I was content being a housewife," said Khan, who does not cover her hair with a hijab, which is not mandated by the Koran, but always dresses modestly in long-sleeve blouses and long skirts or pants.

Then came 9/11.

"With people being arrested left and right and negative images of Muslims filling the news, I told my sons to keep a low profile," recalled Khan, 49. "But I also felt I had to step out of my home and into the real world to stand up for Muslims and tell people what Islam really stands for: peace, mercy, equality for all. Surrender to God."

Khan began inviting people who might help promote understanding -- city officials, pastors and rabbis -- to her home for face-to-face talks.

A few years earlier, the Khans had supported a successful effort to preserve a swath of nearby hills from development.

After 9/11, they helped campaign door to door for City Council candidates and served on La Habra Heights' budget advisory committee. She volunteered for the board of trustees at Beverly Hospital in Montebello.

She also joined the Muslim Public Affairs Council Foundation in 2003 and now serves as the treasurer of its board.

Stirring a traditional Indian curry dish in the kitchen of her home, which is adorned with framed ayahs, or verses, from the Koran, Khan recalled: "It was a stressful time. But I've come to be quite well known in La Habra."

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