What is Islam? Who are the Muslims? - Part 2 (Perceptions)


Editor's note

Western Perceptions of Muslims

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees citizens, among other things, the right to freedom of religion. However, in the post 9/11 world, being a Muslim in America comes with a new stigma. Many American-Muslims now face a new wave of prejudice in the form of whispers, suspicious looks, and second guessing whether or not they are a ‘terrorist’ or sympathetic to the terrorist’s cause by the non-Muslims around them. Fear is winning.

Such fears recently prompted US Airways to remove six Muslim imams from a plane when some of the passengers became concerned after seeing the men kneeling to perform one of their five daily prayers before the flight.

“This was humiliating, the worst moment of my life,” said Omar Shahin, one of the imams removed. “To practice your faith and pray is a crime in America?” He continued, “I’m not going to stay silent. I came to this country to enjoy justice and freedom...We want America; the America we love and the America we came for. Forgiveness, tranquility, self-control, freedom of practicing your faith.”

Mosque with crescent moon top
[clockwise] 1.) Ironically, the “hijab” is meant to protect Muslim women from being looked at as sexual objects, but in Western countries, wearing the hijab in public can often attract unwelcome stares. 2.) After being seen praying before a flight, Omar Shahin, was one of six imams removed from a US Airways Phoenix-bound plane at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. 3.) Brandon Mayfield was arrested and later released in connection with the Madrid bombings based on an erroneous fingerprint match. He claims that because he had converted to Islam, and was a defense lawyer for Muslims, he was targeted by the FBI and presumed guilty.

Another American questioned whether it was his conversion to Islam that prompted the FBI to target him. Shortly after the March 2004 terrorist attack in Madrid, Spain that killed 191 people and injured 2,000 others, Brandon Mayfield—a lawyer who defended Muslims and was himself a convert to Islam—was arrested and held for two weeks in connection with the train bombings based upon a partial fingerprint that was later determined not to be his.

According to Mayfield, the FBI rushed to judgment because of his beliefs. “I believe I was singled out and discriminated against, I feel, as a Muslim.” Last month, Mr. Mayfield was awarded $2 million by the Federal government, along with an official apology as settlement for the mix up.

Several Muslims I spoke with indicated their frustration with having their loyalties and motives questioned, and their fears that the situation for them will get much worse after the next terrorist attack occurs in this country. Some have said that they fear deportation or being put in internment camps as was done to Japanese-Americans during World War II.

“This is very, very common thinking. And it’s sad. These are people who are American citizens. They came here legally. They did the whole process legally, but they’re scared.” according to one local American-Muslim woman named Tasneem, a working mother with a Masters in Computer Science. She describes a family friend who insists on maintaining a property in Pakistan just in case Muslims are no longer welcomed in America.

As one of the last acts of the Republican controlled congress, $38 million was set aside to preserve the notorious camps, hopefully only as memorial, where contrary to the American value of equality, the government kept Japanese-Americans behind barbed wire during WW II for fear that some of them may have been spies or saboteurs.

In times of fear and crisis, American concepts of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and even the basic belief that we are all equal under the law can become strained. Yet some would say that it is in those times in particular that keeping those values intact is most needed to preserve the integrity of the country; not allowing fear to make us lose sight of the very ideals that make America great.

“Those who give up essential liberties for temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” is some of the lasting advice left to Americans by founding father Benjamin Franklin. He also said, “I hope…that mankind will at length, as they call themselves responsible creatures, have the reason and sense enough to settle their differences without cutting throats…”

The recent elections have brought one positive step for Muslims becoming integrated in American society. Keith Ellison, a convert to Islam, won a seat in the House of Representatives, becoming the first Muslim in the U.S. Congress. He will be sworn into office with his hand on a Qur’an.

Mosque with crescent moon top
Congressman-elect Keith Ellison of Minnesota becomes the first Muslim elected to the United State’s Congress.
Note from the Editor Back to article

This is the second part of our extremely brief two-part look at how Islam is seen in America. The first part in the October 2006 edition of TIC focused on giving the historical context in which Islam began and the major conflicts that have shaped Muslim history.
[To view Part 1 of this article directly, click here.]

The First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Qur’anic verse on religious tolerance:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects Tagut (false gods) and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.” [Sûra 2:256]

If you have questions regarding Islam, there are many resources to help you. Please feel free to contact either of the two gentlemen below:

(Sunni Muslim)
Imam Kobeisy
Islamic Center of the Capital District
(518) 370-2664

(Shi’a Muslim)
Shakil A. Virjee
(518) 573-7714