Young generation of Muslims consider identity post-9/11
Adel Mahjoub and Louie Al-Hashimi. (Brooke Wieczorek/The Pitt News)
[The Pitt News, Sept. 9, 2011]
By Amy Friedenberger
After the World Trade Center fell, the Pentagon burned and the debris settled, Adel Mahjoub didn’t fully grasp the situation, but he knew things were going to change.
While still a child in elementary school, Mahjoub’s parents told him to be subtle about his religion when around others, to avoid parading his beliefs.
“A lot of people didn’t take the time to understand what Islam was about,” Mahjoub said. “So our parents told us to keep calm at all times, even if people got heated toward us.”
Pitt sophomore Mahjoub and his classmate Louie Al-Hashimi are part of the generation of Muslims that grew up after 9/11. Al-Hashimi is president of the Muslim Student Association, and Mahjoub is the vice president. They found themselves coping with how their religion was viewed in the world. At times, they found their situation unsettling, but now they are optimistic that Islam will thrive in the U.S.
Mahjoub said that his parents tried to be vague when informing him of what happened. They didn’t want him to think that his religion played a role in the terrorist attacks.
He said as he advanced into middle school and high school, more information unraveled about Islamic militant groups and more focus was placed on Islamic extremists as the enemy of the U.S.
Al-Hashimi had a similar reaction when he heard the news of the terrorist attacks
“Even though we were younger, we had a sense that things were going to change,” Al-Hashimi said. “Being a kid and knowing that things weren’t going to be the same, it’s tough to deal with.”
In the United States, a country historically hailed for embracing diverse cultures and religions, 4.5 million Muslims in America experienced a sudden tumult in the aftermatch of 9/11: opposition to mosques, suggestions to burn the Quran and racial profiling aimed at people following Islam.
“If people don’t take a little time to get to know Islam, all they’re going to get is the image of a violent Islam,” Al-Hashimi said. “There are some people that just want to accept Islam as violence because they don’t want to take the time to learn, but some people just don’t know better.”
The Pew Research Center interviewed Muslim-Americans for an August 2011 publication. The Center found that they reported similar levels of alienation and anger since its 2007 survey.
With nearly 10 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a majority of Muslim-Americans reported that it has become more difficult to be a Muslim in the U.S. Negative views about Muslims, discrimination and prejudice or misconceptions about Islam are problems facing Muslims in the country today, Muslims polled in the survey said.
Mohammed Bamyeh, a Pitt sociology professor with Islam as a field of interest, said that the events of 9/11 drew unwanted negative attention to Muslims. The terrorist attacks made the U.S. react strongly against a previously unfamiliar religion, he said.
“Since Sept. 11, Muslims have been on the defense, trying to defend the meaning of their religion against the extremist interpretations, but also defend themselves against the civil rights kinds of violations,” Bamyeh said.
According to a 2009 publication from David Harris, Pitt law school’s associate dean for research, law enforcement has “actively sought partnerships with Muslim communities in the U.S.” with the goal of persuading “members of these communities to share information about possible extremist activity.”
Al-Hashimi and Mahjoub said that they never felt like they were singled out by people, but they think that was mostly because they are Syrian. Because they don’t look Arab, most people didn’t immediately associate them with Islam.
Both men’s parents were born in Syria, then later moved to the U.S. Their parents follow Islamic law to a moderate degree. Al-Hasimi’s mother wears a hijab, or veil, the only outward indication that his family is Muslim.
But Mahjoub, as one of the only two people practicing Islam at his high school, didn’t completely feel like he belonged.
“Was I singled out? In a way, but nobody ever pointed it out to me. But I just felt it,” Mahjoub said.
In the past two years alone, Muslims found themselves answering questions about the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre, the attempted bombing of Times Square and the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic cnter near Ground Zero.
“It all goes back to those terrorists on 9/11,” Mahjoub said. “Anytime anything bad ever happens, we resent those terrorists, because they gave us that image and put that idea out there that it’s Muslims. Few people were able to brand a whole group that’s really about peace, equality and other good things about our religion.”
When Al-Hashimi and Mahjoub came to Pitt, they joined the Muslim Student Association. They said that the organization strives to serve the interests of Muslim students while accurately informing non-Muslim students about Islam. The group’s membership has increased each year.
“I just feel like 9/11 brought Islam to the forefront, for good and for bad,” Al-Hashimi said. “Some people became, honestly, curious about Islam, to learn more. But some people decided to exploit Islam and to declare Muslims as the enemy.”
Al-Hashimi and Majhoub said that, for them, Islam is a lifestyle and something with which they strongly identify, regardless of how society perceives the religion.
Bamyeh said that like most young Muslims that go from concealing a religion to proudly associating with it, they became tired of veiling their faith.
“You start to realize that most of the campaign against Islam in this country is based on ignorance, and you begin to think that it’s your obligation to combat that ignorance,” he said.
Al-Hashimi said that he believes that the increased dialogue between Muslim communities and other communities will allow Islam to fit into American culture — and his generation will be the one initiating that interaction.
“Some Muslim areas are still struggling, but others are starting to thrive, and I think we’re heading in the right direction,” he said.