Scurrying about my Berkeley apartment six years ago, I was preparing to leave for a journalism conference in Lake Tahoe. I turned on the TV, and noticed morning news programs running footage of the collapsing Twin Towers. On first impulse, I dismissed the coverage as a faraway international disaster.
Soon, reality hit me. Grief over loss of 3,000 innocent lives replaced indifference, and then quickly gave way to fear. I cringed, secretly praying — God, don't let it be Muslims. Before long, America learned al-Qaida was behind the attacks.
Over the years, I have spent considerable time educating co-workers, friends and strangers about the basic tenets of Islam, its principles of respect, brotherhood, establishment of human rights and peace and justice. However, I have also observed tremendous backlash against all things Muslim.
From prejudice to discrimination to outright hatred, the American Muslim community has been targeted frequently by a minority who view American Muslims as the "other." In fact, a USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted last year shows strong feelings against Muslims. Nearly 40 percent of the respondents claimed having at least some prejudice toward Muslims. Another estimated 40 percent also favored having Muslims bear special identification to prevent future terror attacks on our soil.
Despite that, there also has been much support and sympathy offered to the Muslim community after 9/11. Japanese Americans, the Latino and African American communities, Christian, Jewish and other faith observers have stood by Muslims during difficult times. They too had personally experienced, or witnessed discrimination and prejudice promoted against various other minorities. Native Americans were driven out of their homeland, Blacks were enslaved and segregated against, and Japanese Americans were interned. As new immigrants, Jews, Asians, Italians and Catholics weren't treated any better either.
As I write this column, I ponder the post 9/11 world we live in. I think about the irrational fear that has gripped us and impacts our judgment. The continued civil rights violations and the controversial Patriot Act, the aggressive call for profiling of Muslims and Arabs at airports and other places, the misadventure in Iraq, and the political turmoil the Bush Administration is embroiled in are all examples of this fear.
We proudly claim how 9/11 has not changed us or our values. Let us look around, though. We are now a nation consumed by an alarming level of polarization. The Democrat and the Republican split, the pro-war/anti-war camps, and the conservative versus liberal factions are a symptom of the deeper unrest and anxiety challenging our society.
Nonetheless, I believe in America as a great country for not only Muslims but people of all backgrounds and colors. Our nation's greatness lies in the founding principles of pluralism, inclusion and equality for all.
Americans used to converse with each other. We used to dialogue. Now, we bicker. We compete in who can shout louder. We feel so threatened by the other side that we quickly attempt to silence it.
We must change our ways. We must make a concerted effort to change our un-American policies and attitudes. Otherwise, we will have allowed al-Qaida to redefine America, and not for the better.
[Munira Syeda is Communications Coordinator for Council on American-Islamic Relations, Greater Los Angeles Area.]