NORFOLK - After his mother-in-law called to tell him to turn on the television that morning, only one question entered Mohamed Rahoui's mind when he saw the images: Why?
As he watched the World Trade Center towers descend into plumes of dust and debris Sept. 11, 2001, a shocked Rahoui searched for answers. Then, the Old Dominion University doctoral student remembers asking himself something else: What's next for Muslims who live here?
Five years later, what is clear is that the attacks of Sept. 11 and subsequent terrorist assaults worldwide by Islamic extremists have caused some local Muslims to keep a low profile. They fear that if they speak publicly about Islam or the conflict in the Middle East, they will be misinterpreted or attached to a stereotype that equates their way of life with suicide bombers.
For others, though, Sept. 11 represented a turning point. The day propelled local Muslims to become more outspoken about the tenets of Islam and determined to show how they are just as much a part of American society's fabric as anyone else - working, raising families, contributing to the community.
That response reflects a shift nationwide since Sept. 11: Muslims have become more active in the public sphere. More now work in politics and serve in the armed forces. Organizations such as the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations have stepped up their efforts in educating the public, the media, the government and law enforcement agencies about Islam, as well as registering Muslims to vote. Also, more Muslims are active in civil liberty issues. . .
According to a 2005 report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, there was a 49 percent increase in reported cases of harassment, discrimination and violence toward American Muslims between 2003 and 2004. Hate crimes grew to 141 in 2004 from 93 in 2003, a 52 percent increase. Virginia was among the top five states with the most number of civil rights incident reports in 2004, the study said.
Given such trends, defending their civil rights has become a top priority for Muslims, making it important for them to be more vocal in their communities, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy and civil rights group.
"I think in the post-9/11 era, American Muslims have realized it's essential to become involved at all levels of society, whether it's political involvement or social involvement - everything from taking part in Habitat for Humanity to feeding the homeless to helping political candidates," Hooper said. "Whenever people know Muslims or know more about Islam, prejudice goes down."