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9/11: A decade after

Thinking outside the 'Muslim bubble'

Many American Muslims have hunkered down since Sept. 11, fearful of the anti-Islamic backlash. But some have found that reaching out to non-Muslim neighbors in small ways can have big results.

September 03, 2011|By Raja Abdulrahim and Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Omar Ahmed, left rear, and his wife, Dunia Ramadan, right rear, help fill food bags for the homeless in Rancho Cucamonga. It's just one part of their mission to get outside what they call the "Muslim bubble" and become more deeply involved in the community around them.
Omar Ahmed, left rear, and his wife, Dunia Ramadan, right rear, help fill… (Katie Falkenberg / For The…)

Maria Khani was at her computer that September morning, working on an Arabic textbook. The small TV on the desk was turned to Al Jazeera. Suddenly, news came: A plane had struck the World Trade Center. Minutes later, she watched the screen as the second plane hit.

Khani sat frozen, questions racing through her mind: "Oh, my God, what do I do right now? Is everything that I built … gone?"

For five years, she had been planting the seeds of goodwill with Americans of other faiths. What if it was all for naught?

Unlike many Muslims who hunkered down after Sept. 11 and let national religious organizations defend their rights and make their case in the public square, Khani resolved not to retreat into the safety of silence, but to press on with her efforts over the years to become a part of her community, one neighbor at a time.

When Khani walked out of her house that day in a well-to-do Huntington Beach neighborhood, on a block of large houses and palm-shaded driveways, neighbors approached with no hint of rancor or suspicion. Their message: "We know who you are, we know about your faith, and we support you and we will take care of your kids."

This was not the experience of every Muslim American. Many recall the first months and years after Sept. 11 with dread: the detentions, the airport searches, the suspicious stares, racist epithets and worse. In response, some sought safety in a low profile.

The decade since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon has seen a shift in the way many American Muslims negotiate their delicate position as a minority group associated, fairly or unfairly, with the perpetrators of the deadliest acts of terrorism in the nation's history.

As the years wore on and the hostility continued, even intensified, a number of American Muslims became disenchanted with the official campaigns for acceptance. They began to see that a voice — their voice — was missing from the conversation about Muslims' place in America.

They took matters into their own hands. Their efforts have been as idiosyncratic as the individuals involved. They have been as simple as inviting a non-Muslim neighbor to an iftar, the sunset meal that breaks the fast during the monthlong observance of Ramadan. They have been as life-changing as making a commitment to educate one's children in a religiously diverse public school instead of a Muslim private school.

Khani and others involved in such outreach attempts believe — and this is supported by opinion surveys — that Americans are less likely to harbor anti-Muslim feelings if they get to know even one Muslim.

When they do, they find that American Muslims, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants, share with them many of the same values, including a rejection of extremist violence, appreciation of hard work and support for women taking an active role in society, according to polls.

Remarkably, despite a decade of turbulence and a sputtering economy, Muslim Americans are far more likely than others to be optimistic about the nation's future.

'A wonderful family'

There was a moment 10 years ago that Khani now remembers with an approving smile.

It came a few weeks after the attacks, when neighbor Patti Markowitz was washing her car in her driveway and two FBI agents approached. They began asking questions about Khani and her family, angering Markowitz. She still remembers what she said.

"We love having them on our street," she told the agents. "The family is a wonderful family."

Markowitz didn't tell Khani about the incident until months later, not wanting to upset her.

"I had already established a strong relationship," Khani said. "Doing that made a big difference."

Khani's daughter, Dania Alkhouli, was then in eighth grade at Ethel Dwyer Middle School, her local public school. Like her mother, she wore a hijab, a Muslim head scarf. At school, she felt enveloped by support from the principal and teachers, some she didn't even know.

The previous year, Khani, 48, had begun a tradition of cooking an appreciation lunch — usually food from her native Syria — for the staff at Ethel Dwyer. As she always told fellow Muslims: Get out there — be a part of American society. Get to know your neighbors. And for those who might consider it, enroll your kids in public school.

After the attacks, she could see the payoff. Friends told her stories of harassment. Newspapers were full of those stories. It wasn't her experience.

Born to Syrian parents in England, where her father was an ambassador, Khani lived in France, the Netherlands, India and Syria, often attending Catholic schools. She grew accustomed to quickly integrating into a new society. She moved to the United States with her husband, Hassan Alkhouli, an intensive-care doctor, 24 years ago.

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